The ecological footprint measures human demand on nature, i.e., the quantity of nature it takes to support people or an economy. It tracks this demand through an ecological accounting system. The accounts contrast the biologically productive area people use for their consumption to the biologically productive area available within a region or the world (biocapacity - the productive area that can regenerate what people demand from nature). In short, it is a measure of human impact on Earth's ecosystem and reveals the dependence of the human economy on natural capital.
The ecological footprint is defined as the biologically productive area needed to provide for everything people use: fruits and vegetables, fish, wood, fibers, absorption of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use, and space for buildings and roads.
Footprint and biocapacity can be compared at the individual, regional, national or global scale. Both footprint and biocapacity change every year with number of people, per person consumption, efficiency of production, and productivity of ecosystems. At a global scale, footprint assessments show how big humanity's demand is compared to what planet Earth can renew. Global Footprint Network calculates the ecological footprint from UN and other data for the world as a whole and for over 200 nations. They estimate that as of 2013, humanity has been using natural capital 1.6 times as fast as nature can renew it.
Ecological footprint analysis is widely used around the Earth in support of sustainability assessments. It can be used to measure and manage the use of resources throughout the economy and explore the sustainability of individual lifestyles, goods and services, organizations, industry sectors, neighborhoods, cities, regions and nations. Since 2006, a first set of ecological footprint standards exist that detail both communication and calculation procedures. The latest version are the updated standards from 2009
In 2013, the Global Footprint Network estimated the global ecological footprint as 1.6 planet Earths. This means that, according to their calculations, the planet's ecological services were being used 1.6 times faster than they were being renewed.
Ecological footprints can be calculated at any scale: for an activity, a person, a community, a city, a town, a region, a nation, or humanity as a whole. Cities, due to population concentration, have large ecological footprints and have become ground zero for footprint reduction.
Global Footprints: Currently there is no fixed way to measure global footprints, and any attempts to describe the capacity of an ecosystem in a single number is a massive simplification of thousands of key renewable resources, which are not used or replenished at the same rate. However, there has been some convergence of metrics and standards since 2006.
City Ecological Footprints: are being measured. There are two types of measurements in use. The first measures ecosystem displacement which is defined as city area minus remaining green spaces. This is an area measurement that does not include human or other biological activity. The Second attempts to quantify surviving ecosystem health. Specifically, it attempts to quantify both area and biological health of ecosystems surviving inside city areas such as nature reserves, parks, other green spaces. City footprints are being calculated and ranked with city ecological indexes.
The first academic publication about ecological footprints was by William Rees in 1992. The ecological footprint concept and calculation method was developed as the PhD dissertation of Mathis Wackernagel, under Rees' supervision at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, from 1990–1994. Originally, Wackernagel and Rees called the concept "appropriated carrying capacity". To make the idea more accessible, Rees came up with the term "ecological footprint", inspired by a computer technician who praised his new computer's "small footprint on the desk". In early 1996, Wackernagel and Rees published the book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth with illustrations by Phil Testemale.
Footprint values at the end of a survey are categorized for Carbon, Food, Housing, and Goods and Services as well as the total footprint number of Earths needed to sustain the world's population at that level of consumption. This approach can also be applied to an activity such as the manufacturing of a product or driving of a car. This resource accounting is similar to life-cycle analysis wherein the consumption of energy, biomass (food, fiber), building material, water and other resources are converted into a normalized measure of land area called global hectares (gha).
Per capita ecological footprint (EF), or ecological footprint analysis (EFA), is a means of comparing consumption and lifestyles, and checking this against nature's ability to provide for this consumption. The tool can inform policy by examining to what extent a nation uses more (or less) than is available within its territory, or to what extent the nation's lifestyle would be replicable worldwide. The footprint can also be a useful tool to educate people about carrying capacity and overconsumption, with the aim of altering personal behavior. Ecological footprints may be used to argue that many current lifestyles are not sustainable. Such a global comparison also clearly shows the inequalities of resource use on this planet at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
In 2007, the average biologically productive area per person worldwide was approximately 1.8 global hectares (gha) per capita. The U.S. footprint per capita was 9.0 gha, and that of Switzerland was 5.6 gha, while China's was 1.8 gha. The WWF claims that the human footprint has exceeded the biocapacity (the available supply of natural resources) of the planet by 20%. Wackernagel and Rees originally estimated that the available biological capacity for the 6 billion people on Earth at that time was about 1.3 hectares per person, which is smaller than the 1.8 global hectares published for 2006, because the initial studies neither used global hectares nor included bioproductive marine areas.
A number of NGOs offer ecological footprint calculators (seeFootprint Calculator, below).
The ecological footprint accounting method at the national level is described in the l Footprint Atlas 2010 or in greater detail in the Calculation Methodology for the National Footprint Accounts. The National Accounts Review Committee has also published a research agenda on how the method will be improved.
In 2003, Jason Venetoulis, Carl Mas, Christopher Gaudet, Dahlia Chazan, and John Talberth developed Footprint 2., which offers a series of theoretical and methodological improvements to the standard footprint approach. The four primary improvements were that they included the entire surface of the Earth in biocapacity estimates, allocated space for other (i.e., non-human) species, updated the basis of equivalence factors from agricultural land to net primary productivity (NPP), and refined the carbon component of the footprint based on the latest global carbon models.
Studies in the United Kingdom
The UK's average ecological footprint is 5.45 global hectares per capita (gha) with variations between regions ranging from 4.80 gha (Wales) to 5.56 gha (East England).
Two recent studies have examined relatively low-impact small communities. BedZED, a 96-home mixed-income housing development in South London, was designed by Bill Dunster Architects and sustainability consultants BioRegional for the Peabody Trust. Despite being populated by relatively "mainstream" home-buyers, BedZED was found to have a footprint of 3.20 gha due to on-site renewable energy production, energy-efficient architecture, and an extensive green lifestyles program that included on-site London's first carsharing club. The report did not measure the added footprint of the 15,000 visitors who have toured BedZED since its completion in 2002. Findhorn Ecovillage, a rural intentional community in Moray, Scotland, had a total footprint of 2.56 gha, including both the many guests and visitors who travel to the community to undertake residential courses there and the nearby campus of Cluny Hill College. However, the residents alone have a footprint of 2.71 gha, a little over half the UK national average and one of the lowest ecological footprints of any community measured so far in the industrialized world. Keveral Farm, an organic farming community in Cornwall, was found to have a footprint of 2.4 gha, though with substantial differences in footprints among community members.
In a 2012 study of consumers acting "green" vs. "brown" (where green people are «expected to have significantly lower ecological impact than “brown” consumers»), the conclusion was "the research found no significant difference between the carbon footprints of green and brown consumers". A 2013 study concluded the same.
Reviews and critiques
Early criticism was published by van den Bergh and Verbruggen in 1999, which was updated in 2014. Another criticism was published in 2008. A more complete review commissioned by the Directorate-General for the Environment (European Commission) was published in June 2008. The review found Ecological Footprint "a useful indicator for assessing progress on the EU’s Resource Strategy" the authors noted that Ecological Footprint analysis was unique "in its ability to relate resource use to the concept of carrying capacity." The review noted that further improvements in data quality, methodologies and assumptions were needed.
A recent critique of the concept is due to Blomqvist et al., 2013a, with a reply from Rees and Wackernagel, 2013, and a rejoinder by Blomqvist et al., 2013b.
An additional strand of critique is due to Giampietro and Saltelli (2014a), with a reply from Goldfinger et al., 2014, a rejoinder by Giampietro and Saltelli (2014a), and additional comments from van den Bergh and Grazi (2015).
A number of countries have engaged in research collaborations to test the validity of the method. This includes Switzerland, Germany, United Arab Emirates, and Belgium.
Grazi et al. (2007) have performed a systematic comparison of the ecological footprint method with spatial welfare analysis that includes environmental externalities, agglomeration effects and trade advantages. They find that the two methods can lead to very distinct, and even opposite, rankings of different spatial patterns of economic activity. However this should not be surprising, since the two methods address different research questions.
Calculating the ecological footprint for densely populated areas, such as a city or small country with a comparatively large population — e.g. New York and Singapore respectively — may lead to the perception of these populations as "parasitic". This is because these communities have little intrinsic biocapacity, and instead must rely upon large hinterlands. Critics argue that this is a dubious characterization since mechanized rural farmers in developed nations may easily consume more resources than urban inhabitants, due to transportation requirements and the unavailability of economies of scale. Furthermore, such moral conclusions seem to be an argument for autarky. Some even take this train of thought a step further, claiming that the Footprint denies the benefits of trade. Therefore, the critics argue that the Footprint can only be applied globally.
The method seems to reward the replacement of original ecosystems with high-productivity agricultural monocultures by assigning a higher biocapacity to such regions. For example, replacing ancient woodlands or tropical forests with monoculture forests or plantations may improve the ecological footprint. Similarly, if organic farming yields were lower than those of conventional methods, this could result in the former being "penalized" with a larger ecological footprint. Of course, this insight, while valid, stems from the idea of using the footprint as one's only metric. If the use of ecological footprints are complemented with other indicators, such as one for biodiversity, the problem could maybe be solved. Indeed, WWF's Living Planet Report complements the biennial Footprint calculations with the Living Planet Index of biodiversity. Manfred Lenzen and Shauna Murray have created a modified Ecological Footprint that takes biodiversity into account for use in Australia.
Although the ecological footprint model prior to 2008 treated nuclear power in the same manner as coal power, the actual real world effects of the two are radically different. A life cycle analysis centered on the Swedish Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant estimated carbon dioxide emissions at 3.10 g/kWh and 5.05 g/kWh in 2002 for the Torness Nuclear Power Station. This compares to 11 g/kWh for hydroelectric power, 950 g/kWh for installed coal, 900 g/kWh for oil and 600 g/kWh for natural gas generation in the United States in 1999. Figures released by Mark Hertsgaard, however, show that because of the delays in building nuclear plants and the costs involved, investments in energy efficiency and renewable energies have seven times the return on investment of investments in nuclear energy.
The Swedish utility Vattenfall did a study of full life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of energy sources the utility uses to produce electricity, namely: Nuclear, Hydro, Coal, Gas, Solar Cell, Peat and Wind. The net result of the study was that nuclear power produced 3.3 grams of carbon dioxide per KW-Hr of produced power. This compares to 400 for natural gas and 700 for coal (according to this study). The study also concluded that nuclear power produced the smallest amount of CO2 of any of their electricity sources.
Claims exist that the problems of nuclear waste do not come anywhere close to approaching the problems of fossil fuel waste. A 2004 article from the BBC states: "The World Health Organization (WHO) says 3 million people are killed worldwide by outdoor air pollution annually from vehicles and industrial emissions, and 1.6 million indoors through using solid fuel." In the U.S. alone, fossil fuel waste kills 20,000 people each year. A coal power plant releases 100 times as much radiation as a nuclear power plant of the same wattage. It is estimated that during 1982, US coal burning released 155 times as much radioactivity into the atmosphere as the Three Mile Island incident. In addition, fossil fuel waste causes global warming, which leads to increased deaths from hurricanes, flooding, and other weather events. The World Nuclear Association provides a comparison of deaths due to accidents among different forms of energy production. In their comparison, deaths per TW-yr of electricity produced (in UK and USA) from 1970 to 1992 are quoted as 885 for hydropower, 342 for coal, 85 for natural gas, and 8 for nuclear.
The Western Australian government State of the Environment Report included an Ecological Footprint measure for the average Western Australian seven times the average footprint per person on the planet in 2007, a total of about 15 hectares.
Main article: List of countries by ecological footprint
The world-average ecological footprint in 2013 was 2.8 global hectares per person. The average per country ranges from over 10 to under 1 global hectares per person. There is also a high variation within countries, based on individual lifestyle and economic possibilities.
The GHG footprint or the more narrow carbon footprint are a component of the ecological footprint. Often, when only the carbon footprint is reported, it is expressed in weight of CO2 (or CO2e representing GHG warming potential (GGWP)), but it can also be expressed in land areas like ecological footprints. Both can be applied to products, people or whole societies.
. . . the average world citizen has an eco-footprint of about 2.7 global average hectares while there are only 2.1 global hectare of bioproductive land and water per capita on earth. This means that humanity has already overshot global biocapacity by 30% and now lives unsustainabily by depleting stocks of "natural capital"
Since the 1950s, a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene has been proposed to distinguish the period of major human impact.
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- ^van den Bergh, Jeroen C.J.M; Grazi, Fabio (2014). "Ecological Footprint Policy? Land Use as an Environmental Indicator". Journal of Industrial Ecology. 18 (1): 10–19. doi:10.1111/jiec.12045. ISSN 1088-1980. This paper and others were described and responded to by the Global Footprint Network on their website in June 2014: Common Criticisms
- ^Fiala, N. (2008). "Measuring sustainability: Why the ecological footprint is bad economics and bad environmental science". Ecological Economics. 67 (4): 519–525. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2008.07.023.
- ^Analysis of the potential of the Ecological Footprint and related assessment tools for use in the EU’s Thematic Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources is available at: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/natres/studies.htm
- ^Blomqvist, L.; Brook, B.W.; Ellis, E.C.; Kareiva, P.M.; Nordhaus, T.; Shellenberger, M. (2013). "Does the shoe fit? Real versus imagined ecological footprints". PLoS Biol. 11 (11): e1001700. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001700.
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What is an Ecological Footprint?
Wackernagel and Rees describe the Ecological Footprint as “an accounting tool that enables us to estimate the resource consumption and waste assimilation requirements of a defined human population or economy in terms of a corresponding productive land area” (Wackernagel and Rees 1996). In more basic terms, the Ecological Footprint takes into account all of the resources (fuel, electricity, etc) used by people in the city and represents this in the amount of land necessary to create all of these resources (Calcott and Bull 2007). This includes not only the things that we consume but also the things that we throw away and send to landfills (Holden 2004). The Ecological Footprint is commonly measured in global hectares per city and for the sake of equal comparison between London and Limerick, I will be taking the per capita measure of each cities Footprint. The image below depicts the Ecological Footprint as an actual footprint. This highlights the different sectors of consumer use and what goes into a city’s or country’s Ecological Footprint.
Image 1: (http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/footprint_basics_overview/)
London’s Ecological Footprint:
Starting off, London has an Ecological Footprint of 5.48 global hectares per capita (Calcott and Bull 2007). This means that each person living in London would need 5.48 hectares to sustain the energy demands they use now.
Limerick’s Ecological Footprint:
Limerick’s Ecological Footprint is 6.34 global hectares per capita (Walsh 2006). Which means that each person living in London would need 6.34 hectares to sustain the energy demands they use now. Limerick’s Footprint is 16% larger than that of London’s. This would not have been my initial thought. However, there are many factors that could cause this result and I will discuss a few below.
Why does Limerick have a bigger Footprint?
The difference between the Ecological Footprints of London and Limerick may come as a shock, but there are many factors that play into this common theme of larger cities having smaller Footprints per capita than smaller cities. The main factors that play into this being population density and accessible public transportation (Owen 2015; Holden 2004).
Image 2: (U.S. Energy Information Agency)
Population density plays a key role in limiting the Ecological Footprint of a city. By living in close proximities, within a city, energy consumption and water use are lowered (Owen 2015). This is due to the fact that people are living in smaller sized apartments in large apartment complexes than they would if they lived in a more sprawling urban area. Holden discusses how “people living in single-family houses have a significantly higher energy consumption as well as material housing consumption . . . the houses are generally larger in sparsely populated areas, which again influences consumption patterns significantly”(Holden 2004). As can be seen in the infographic above, from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, apartments that have more than five units, which would be commonly found in a densely populated urban environment, use a lot less energy than single-family houses, which would be found in sprawling urban environs. According to the Greater London Authority, flats consist of over half the living accommodations in London (Housing in London 2015). Whereas in Limerick, “95.2 percent of households lived in houses or bungalows while a further 4.4 percent lived in apartments” (Area Profile for County Limerick 2011). By living in flats, London is able to save large amounts of energy, thus this is one reason why they may have a smaller per capita Footprint.
Transportation is another area in which larger and more densely populated cities are able to excel. In Limerick, the census data shows that 69.3% of journeys to work were taken by car instead of public transportation in 2011 (Area Profile for County Limerick 2011) . Since the urban area is sprawling and less public transport is available, it makes sense that people would be more likely to own and drive cars. With each individual person driving and owning cars, there is a lot more fuel being used. Whereas, in areas as densely populated as London, owning and driving a car around would make a lot less sense, so more people would take public transit as the main means of transportation. This is why in London when commuting to work between boroughs only 22.6% of people drive or ride in cars, while others use forms of public transportation or walking, lowering the cities Economic Footprint (Commuting in London 2014).
Sustainable Urbanism and The Future:
Even though London has a smaller Ecological Footprint than that of Limerick, both of these cities are still almost double the global average of 2.6 global hectares per capita (Living Planet Report 2014). Given this, steps need to be taken in the future to limit Ecological Footprints of urban areas and things need to be done to develop new areas in more efficient and environmentally friendly ways. Rees discusses how the ideal sustainable urban includes “dense and concentrated housing design”, “relatively high degree of density in residential areas”, and “shortest possible distance to the town centre” (Rees 2001). By having what is thought of as a “compact city” there is the elimination of long commuting times and more energy efficient housing. Now, something like this is not possible to implement right away in already structured areas. But, while we continue to grow and expand as a population sustainable urbanism and our Ecological Footprints should be taken into account.
Map Your Own Ecological Footprint:
I also encourage you to look at your own Ecological Footprint and think of ways in which you can decrease your Footprint by doing simple things like Meatless Mondays or taking the train to work. You can take a short quiz at http://footprint.wwf.org.uk/ that will help determine your Footprint by asking you questions about what you eat, how you commute, where you live, and how you consume! Small changes at a large scale can make a big difference.
Area Profile For County Limerick (2011). 1st ed. Limerick: Central Statistics Office. Web. 20. Nov. 2016.
Campaign for Free Public Transportation (2010). Image. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. http://www.freepublictransport.org.uk/
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