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Measuring and managing living within Earth’s carrying capacity at the city scale

Earth’s Carrying Capacity

In 2020, the Centre was awarded a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to explore how living within Earth’s carrying capacity (ECC) can be measured and managed at the city scale. The purpose was to understand how a handful of high-income cities around the world are achieving absolute reductions in energy and material throughput and how this might be translated into policy and action in Canadian cities.

What is Earth’s Carrying Capacity?

Most of the global population lives in cities and this urbanization is expected to increase. Meanwhile, high-income societies, like Canada’s, are responsible for year-over-year increases in global demand for energy and material resources. This demand exceeds ECC – defined as the total number of people that can live within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of nature. A handful of high-income cities are reporting absolute reductions in greenhouse gas emissions across their entire community, even with continued population growth. These cities represent a learning opportunity for understanding how we can live within ECC.


Planet Earth city lights globe set. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

Living within ECC is one of 16 new global future challenges identified through SSHRC’s Imagining Canada’s Future initiative. These complex issues were identified to reflect key challenges that Canada is likely to face in an evolving global context over the coming decades.

Knowledge synthesis project

Work was conducted in conjunction with co-applicant, Claudiane Ouellet-Plamondon of École de technologie supérieure at the Université du Québec. Other collaborators include:

  • William Rees, originator of the ecological footprint concept and Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia,
  • David Lin, Chief Science Officer of the Global Footprint Network, and
  • Alastair Moore, a registered professional planner with expertise in creating one-planet cities and Director of think-and-do-tank One Earth Initiative Society.

The synthesis project undertook a critical review of the conceptual frameworks, policy tools, and methods available to measure whether an average lifestyle in a given city or community – if adopted by everyone on Earth – would result in humanity living within ECC.

The project team identified the economic, political, and lifestyle changes needed to measure and manage living within ECC at the city scale and assess which policy and planning frameworks have been used effectively by local governments to achieve an overall reduction in demand for nature’s services.

The results of the research are available free until July 16th, 2023 from Science Direct.