How Measuring Resource Use Can Lead to Policy Change

By Laetitia Mailhes

Laetitia Mailhes works on communications and outreach at Global Footprint Network, an international environmental research organization. She has more than 15 years of experience in journalism and advocacy work, including writing as the exclusive Silicon Valley correspondent for the French Financial Times and co-authoring two books about food systems.

Jun 28, 2018 | Governance, Resources | 0 comments

The city of Guimarães is the cradle of Portugal. Nestled in the North of the country, the ancient royal capital was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. It was also designated as the European Capital of Culture for 2012, among other distinctions. Just as importantly, it prides itself on its efforts to grow into a national role model for sustainable urban living.

Guimarães is among six cities that embarked last year on a three-year Footprinting program spurred by ZERO, a leading environmental NGO in Portugal, in partnership with Global Footprint Network and the University of Aveiro. In March this year, Guimarães was the first to unveil the findings of the Footprint assessment led by Sara Moreno Pires, Ph.D., and her team at the Department of Social, Political and Territorial Sciences at the University of Aveiro.

 

Initial  Findings

The researchers found that in 2013, biocapacity per capita in Guimarães was 2.5 times the national average biocapacity per capita in Portugal. At the same time, the average ecological footprint of a resident in Guimarães was 3 percent lower than that of the average Portuguese citizen, at 3.76 global hectare (gha) per capita. The city’s lower than average carbon footprint per capita, compared to that of Portugal, largely accounts for the difference. This is due to a lower demand for housing, electricity, gas and other fuels compared to the national average. Carbon emissions represent 56 percent of the city’s ecological footprint, followed by cropland (26 percent) and fishing grounds (8 percent).

A regional comparison, on the other hand, shows a higher ecological footprint in Guimarães than in the rest of the North of the country, due mainly to a higher demand for food, transportation, and goods. Researchers pointed out that Guimarães residents are, on average, wealthier than the residents of other cities within the Ave sub-region.

 

Impacts of Measuring the Ecological Footprint

“The Ecological Footprint is critical because it provides us with information on the consumption side, which is typically a lot trickier to access than information on the production side. As such, it provides decision makers with information that they haven’t had before,” says Sara Moreno Pires. “Using the Ecological Footprint is very important with regard to mapping and understanding environmental challenges at the local level, with a view to changing behavior and policies,” she adds.

The project has been designed so that the Footprint and biocapacity assessment informs and guides local development policies. “We find that the Ecological Footprint data is very important to help us devise and strengthen policies because it tells us which sectors we need to focus our efforts and investments on – such as food and mobility,” states Jorge Cristino, Deputy Mayor’s Aide, International Affairs, Public Relations, Environment for the City of Guimarães.

The Footprint assessment recommends indeed that the municipality prioritize green strategies in the food and transportation sectors. Its authors encourage policies promoting sustainable transportation, including favoring public transit over individual cars. They also recommend awareness campaigns aimed at encouraging changes in the dietary choices of Guimarães’ residents towards lower animal protein-intensive meals (increasing the share of cereals, vegetables, and fruits), lower trophic-level fishes, and calorie-adequate diets.

 

National Ambitions

Ultimately, transforming national policies is the goal of the program. “Our view is that we need to assess the Ecological Footprint and biocapacity of the different cities and regions around the country in order to develop a national system of governance that promotes equity and justice”, says Paulo Magalhães, City Footprinting Project Coordinator at ZERO.

Year three of the City Footprinting Project in Portugal is to be devoted to studying and proposing a change in the criteria for the distribution of government subsidies to municipalities. “By the end of the project, we intend to raise awareness at the Portuguese national government and Parliament, in order to change national legislation regarding how municipalities are funded so that their Ecological Footprint and biocapacity are included in the analysis,” explains Filipe Teles, Ph.D., Director for Regional Development and Urban Policies at the University of Aveiro.

Analysis and policy recommendations stemming from the City Footprinting Project will strive for territorial cohesion and equity. They will also aim at developing public policy instruments to preserve and improve the natural capital of each municipality and strengthen the sustainable management of the landscape and of natural resources.

In the meantime, Year two of the program is to focus on activating the public debate at the local level about sustainable living and sustainable development. Tools are to include online Footprint Calculators with city-specific data so that each resident can calculate her/his individual Footprint and become aware of the multiple human impacts on the environment. Workshops and roundtables are to be organized also with stakeholders from local governments, NGOs and civil society to discuss the implications of the Footprint assessment findings and evaluate options for moving forward.

 

Background

The sustainability journey of Guimarães started in 2014 when its mayor, Domingos Bragança, requested an environmental diagnostic of the city from the University of Minho after he heard a speech by Sri Lankan physicist, academic and economist Mohan Munasinghe. Invited to a conference on environmental issues hosted by the city, the former Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who shared the 2007 Peace Nobel Prize with Al Gore, had recommended that the city bring together a multi-stakeholder group to devise a plan for sustainable development.

Consequently, a Mission Structure was set up in 2015 with more than 200 individuals invited to participate with a clear mandate: to develop an effective strategy for the sustainable development of the municipality. Immediate impacts included mobilizing members of the public, deploying education programs on local environmental issues and sustainable living, as well as developing programs in soil restoration and green mobility.

Last year already, Guimarães was recognized as the most sustainable city in Portugal – a remarkable improvement from the 8th rank it earned in 2015.

The best is yet to come. After all, with the adoption of the Ecological Footprint analysis, Guimarães has taken the first step towards a globally consistent vision of sustainability. So have the cities of Almada, Bragança, Castelo Branco, Lagoa, and Vila Nova de Gaiahope. The hope is that the nation as a whole will follow suit.

Because “we cannot manage what we do not measure,” continued emphasis on monitoring pressures on the land as well as the impacts of consumption activities on land use, will need to be supported at the local and national levels to reinforce existing policies, introduce novel solutions, and evaluate their impacts through time.

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