Researchers from the University of Seville have measured the ecological footprint of the Canary Islands and have concluded that it is above the world average. Over 50% of the environmental impact is due to energy expenditure, which is so high that it would take 3.84 planets to cover the intensity of this consumption.
The ecological footprint is an indicator of environmental pressure that measures the resource demand of the population in area units (hectares) and is calculated from trade flows and energy consumption of a population in a territory.
A group of researchers have addressed the socio-environmental pressure that the Canaries is suffering and its relationship to tourism, in a study published in the Boletín de la Asociación de Geógrafos Españoles (Journal of the Association of Spanish Geographers).
"Tourism increases the ecological footprint, especially when it is massive and does not adopt the best technologies and sustainable management practices. The Canaries is one of the major European tourist concentrations and if we add its peripheral location and population burden, the resulting intensification of its ecological footprint is logical", said to SINC Francisco M. Fernández-Latorre, co-author of the study and researcher at the University of Seville.
The vulnerability of the Canaries is inherently high due to the fragility due to its insular nature, its low biocapacity (the intrinsic capacity of the Canaries to generate resources), its heavy external dependency -as demonstrated by the marked ecological deficit- together with a small surface area and high population densities.
Researches found a "significant" correlation between the energy ecological footprint and the PresTur indicator -a "thermometer" to measure the tourist pressure in the territory and in the local population- especially in terms of the number of tourist hotels and non-hotel accommodations per kilometre squared.
"When the ecological footprint exceeds biocapacity, it causes a situation of ecological deficit. Compared to the world ecological footprint, it would take 3.84 planets to support the intensity of the Canaries' consumption", points out Fernández-Latorre.
Furthermore, the results highlight the importance of energy pressure in this deficit because "this consumption is over 50% of the environmental impact of the islands", adds the expert.
El Hierro and La Gomera, the most sustainable
The pressure varies from island to island and between municipalities. The western islands, especially El Hierro and La Gomera, show overall values that suggest that its tourism is sustainable.
"The environmental unsustainability of tourism also depends upon the degree of demographic and environmental pressure exerted in other sectors, such as transport or industry, consumption patterns and the local population itself", says the scientist.
The accelerated increase in tourist pressure, especially between 1995 and 2000, produced policy measures as a response aimed at containing and controlling the expansion of tourist beds. It also allowed for re-qualification of the most congested establishments and destinations in the Canaries, particularly in the capital islands (Tenerife and Gran Canaria) and the easternmost islands (Lanzarote and Fuerteventura).
"They warned of an unsustainable dynamic that was attempted to be controlled through setting limits and conditions on the growth of tourism, which is included in the Directrices de Ordenación General y de Ordenación del Turismo de Canarias (General Planning Guidelines on Tourism in the Canary Islands)", highlights the researcher.
According to the team, in order to reduce this ecological deficit of the islands, the major actions should be directed towards improving eco-efficiency of the facilities and services involved in the tourism production chain, from transport to accommodations and auxiliary and complementary services, especially in energy consumption.
"The promotion of renewable energies, taking advantage of trade winds, optimization and energy certification of hotels and apartments, shorter travel distances and longer stays are key issues", concludes Fernández-Latorre.
Obtention of the study data
The sources used to calculate the resource consumption of trade flows were obtained from thousands of data on trade exchanges of the Canaries from the Canary Islands Institute of Statistics (ISTAC)
The data on energy consumption was based on the Canaries' energy statistics for direct energy consumption. The indirect consumption of energy was calculated considering the energy required for each consumption item throughout its life cycle, from the manufacture to its elimination as residue.
The consumption categories used were agriculture, livestock, fisheries, forestry, fossil fuel consumption, the area of forest needed to absorb the CO2 emitted, and land consumed directly, built or severely deteriorated. In order to calculate the biocapacity, the land use/occupation map of the Canaries was taken into account and local productivities of each type of use.