Two pioneering UBC researchers who developed the “ecological footprint” concept have won the prestigious Blue Planet Award for Sustainability, valued at nearly $645,000 CDN, at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil.
The award, one of the world’s premier environmental prizes, recognizes William Rees, a professor emeritus at the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP), and Rees’s former doctoral student Mathis Wackernagel, for advancing the global conversation around human carrying capacity, ecological economics and environmental policy.
Developed by Rees and Wackernagel in the early 1990s, the ecological footprint builds on Rees’ earlier research on the Earth’s carrying capacity. It is an accounting system for estimating national, regional or individual demand on the biosphere and can document human consumption relative to the biosphere’s regenerative capacity.
Using the ecological footprint as a measure, Rees and Wackernagel suggest that humanity already exists in a state of severe “ecological overshoot.” They estimate that if every person uses as many resources as the average North American, more than four Earths would be required to sustain the total rate of consumption, depletion and waste assimilation.
“It is deeply gratifying on a personal level to be so acknowledged by one’s peers,” said Rees, who will attend the Rio+20 conference. “We are honoured to have been included among the august group of scientists who constitute Blue Planet laureates.”
“I think for both of us this prize is a huge recognition of something that started quite modestly, but which by now has become one of the prime metrics in the sustainability field,” added Wackernagel. He and Rees cautioned, however, that, in the current economic climate, the ecological footprint has some way to go before governments perceive it to carry the same weight as GDP as a measure of national well-being.
Established in 1992 by Japan’s Asahi Glass Foundation, the Blue Planet Award recognizes research achievements that have helped provide solutions to global environmental problems. This year, 98 nominees from 24 countries were nominated, and three – Rees, Wackernagel and U.S. ecologist Thomas Lovejoy – have received the distinction.
Past recipients include the UN’s Special Envoy on Climate Change and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, and Canadian entrepreneur and activist Maurice Strong.
William Rees, who was born in Brandon, Manitoba and grew up in Montreal and Toronto, obtained his PhD in Population Ecology from the University of Toronto, and has instructed and conducted research at UBC since 1969. He is the founder of SCARP’s Environment and Resource Planning concentration, and served as director of the school from 1994 to 1999. Rees was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2006, received the Trudeau Fellowship Prize in 2007, and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate by Laval University.
Mathis Wackernagel is a Swiss national and former doctoral student at SCARP, who now heads the Global Footprint Network, a sustainability think tank with offices in Oakland, California; Brussels, Belgium; and Zurich, Switzerland. Wackernagel received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bern in 2007, and a World Wide Fund for Nature Award for Conservation Merit in 2006.