Carrying capacity surveillance: Indicators and frameworks for equitable sustainability

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About the project

The scope, volume and availability of data to assess the Earth’s carrying capacity has increased significantly. However, there are a number of barriers to the use of such data and their linkage to public policy. Barriers include a focus on sector-specific considerations and localized case studies, the growing complexity of data provision and jurisdictional obstacles. These present significant challenges for understanding, modelling and using environmental, community, economic and health data—and linking public policy, decision-making and practitioner perspectives with such data. This creates a fundamental challenge for the frameworks and models that seek to better understand the impact of human action and consumption upon social, ecological, economic, institutional and health systems.

This study asked: How can the data within these frameworks be best measured, interpreted and used to both understand the “state” of carrying capacity data and measurement and also leverage policy performance as a response? Utilizing a scoping review method, this project inventoried and assessed 109 peer-reviewed and non-academic studies from Canada and across the globe. Of these, 46 are Canadian studies. The findings from this project broadly suggest that very little is known about carrying capacity and society in Canada or globally.

Key findings

Across the literature there is no comprehensive perspective on what exactly an integrated understanding of carrying capacity is and how it can be measured. There is no uniformity across the Canadian literature.

  • The Canadian literature is largely focused on niche, non-human ecosystems. The majority of human-focused research is centred on understanding the specific and less the holistic realities of the human-planet relationship.
  • Ecologically related themes and data are the most common.      
  • Across the global literature, 91 studies focus on ecology in some way. Only 40 include an economic aspect. Within the Canadian literature, 33 studies have an ecological focus and 31 have a socio-demographic focus. Twenty-three studies address issues of health and 16 issues of economics.
  • Ecologically related data are the most prevalent (used within 51 studies), while only 35 use socio-demographic data, 34 use health data and 25 use economic data. Data sets that integrate data across themes are not frequently utilized. 
  • The few projects that integrate ecological, economic, socio-demographic and health impacts of carrying capacity are largely community-based efforts that have not been peer-reviewed. 
  • Significant data gaps were identified, including missing data from rural and northern communities. 
  • Despite widespread conceptual support for integrated approaches to carrying capacity, few practical solutions exist. 
  • Only six Canadian studies were identified as having potential to measure the complex relationship between Canadian society and the environment in a holistic manner. Two of the six studies focus exclusively on environmental variables. 
  • Of the total 418 indicators identified within these studies, 179 measure aspects of the environment, 106 indicators measure issues related to community well-being and 94 indicators measure aspects of the economy. Only 28 indicators measure issues of health and 16 measure issues of policy.
  • Asset or positive indicators (191) are most commonly found in the community sector. Indicators focused on liability or negative measures (168) are found overwhelmingly in the environment sector.
  • 361 indicators use data collected annually. Only 22 indicators use data collected at a more granular level (hourly, daily or monthly). These indicators belong almost exclusively in the environment sector and primarily measure chemicals in the air and water.
  • 257 indicators use data drawn from national reports and surveys. Few indicators use local (59) or regional (26) data.
  • The majority (82.03%) of the indicators are single indicators, focused on collecting data on one specific thing, and are not aggregated indices. 

Policy implications

Key implications for policy change moving forward include:

  • Attention needs to be paid to how carrying capacity is conceptualized, the different understandings of carrying capacity and the application of carrying capacity at scale—from the micro and local to global population and planetary health. How carrying capacity is understood is important because it helps determine well-targeted policies and assumptions, which underlie government programs and research priorities.
  • Policy-makers must pay attention to explicit linkages and integrated measurements across sectors, including ecological, health, socio-demographic and economic factors. Despite repeated and ongoing calls for integrated approaches and measurements of carrying capacity, this is not happening within the research community. The importance of integration cannot merely be stated, but must also actively measure and compare data consistently across sectors, regions and population dynamics
  • Standardization of indicators, measurements and data collection is needed nationwide. Cross-sectional and longitudinal data must be identified, collected and measured across the country while recognizing the importance of local values and interpretability. National targets and indicators, which speak to local contexts and complement international goals, should be developed to promote consistency and comparability across jurisdictions.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Lars K. Hallstrom PhD – Professor of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge and Director of the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy;

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR and the Government of Canada

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