The ecological footprint is a way of measuring human impact on the environment.
It calculates the biologically productive land and sea area required to support (provide resources and absorb waste) a given population. The ecological footprint is expressed in “global hectares” (GHA) and can be measured at individual, national, or global levels.
The concept of ecological footprint goes hand in hand with that of biocapacity. They help us compare how much natural capital we are using and how much is being regenerated. So, they are important tools for measuring the sustainability of human activities.
EF also helps us understand the differences in resource consumption across and within different regions, which we will discuss later. First, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Ecological Footprint Definition
Wackernagel and Rees defined the ecological footprint as a tool that
“…measures the human impact on the biosphere by estimating the amount of biologically productive land and water area required to sustain the consumption of a population or economic system and to absorb the wastes generated by its production and consumption activity” (1996).
To put it simply, the ecological footprint is the amount of resources needed to produce goods and services that support an individual/group’s lifestyle.
William Rees introduced the concept of ecological footprints in 1992. Under Rees’ supervision, Mathis Wackernagel developed a method of calculating the same. They originally called it “appropriated carrying capacity” but later came up with the term “ecological footprint”.
It takes into account various factors such as food consumption, energy use, transportation, etc., and then calculates the area of land and water required to support these activities.
Examples of Ecological Footprint
Description: Transportation requires energy in the form of fossil fuels (which produce emissions) and large areas of land for roads. It also produces noise pollution that can harm humans and wildlife.
Examples of Activities: Driving to and from work, taking public transit, transport of food to your local supermarket, flying and catching trains.
How to Reduce this Footprint: On a personal level, we can reduce the ecological footprint of transportation by using public transport, sharing vehicles, and adopting active transportation (walking, cycling, etc.). On a larger scale, we can move towards alternative fuels, and governments can develop sustainable transportation.
2. Energy Consumption
Description: Energy consumption contributes to the ecological footprint in various ways. This includes the direct consumption of non-renewable resources like fossils and the indirect consumption associated with the production, transportation, and distribution of energy. The ecological footprint can be found by calculating the area of land & water required to produce the given energy; it also takes into account the emissions. We can lower our EF by reducing energy consumption and switching to renewable sources of energy.
Examples of Activities: Using your air conditioner, using computers, lighting, internet usage, kitchen appliances.
How to Reduce this Footprint: Use renewable energy sources such as solar panels, wind, and hydroelectric energy. Unplug unused devices around the house. Moderate your air conditioning usage.
3. Food production
Description: Food production has a significant ecological footprint. Agriculture requires a large amount of land, which can lead to deforestation and habitat destruction. Moreover, about 70% of global freshwater goes into agriculture. Food production creates a significant amount of waste, such as carbon dioxide from the use of fertilizers, methane from livestock digestion, etc.
Examples of Activities: The use of natural resources (land, water, and energy) for farming purposes, the production of wastes & emissions during farming, transportation of food to supermarkets and houses.
How to Reduce this Footprint: Eat local to reduce your food transport footprint, purchase waste-free foods, and grow your own food. Some people also eat vegetarian to reduce their ecological footprint from meat production.
4. Carbon Emissions
Description: Carbon footprint is the fastest growing part of the ecological footprint, and it accounts for 60% of humanity’s total ecological footprint (Lin et al., 2018).
Examples of Activities: Carbon emissions are produced when fossil fuels (coal, oil, etc.) are burned for energy. Other activities like transportation and agriculture also add to carbon emissions. This causes air pollution, ocean acidification, and global warming.
How to Reduce this Footprint: There is an urgent need to transition to renewable sources of energy and reduce carbon footprint.
5. Waste Generation
Description: Waste generation can occur at various stages (manufacturing, transportation, etc.), and it harms ecosystems and human health. The disposal of waste requires land, which can deplete resources and damage ecosystems; improper disposal can also lead to pollution. Waste disposal also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Examples of Activities: Every time you use the bin, you’re contributing to waste generation.
Waste reduction strategies, composting, and individual actions can reduce the ecological footprint of waste generation.
How to Reduce this Footprint: Purchase zero waste products, use reusable shopping bags, go digital.
6. Development and Construction
Description: Construction contributes to the ecological footprint by using natural resources and producing waste. The vast areas of land needed for destruction can destroy natural habitats. The production of building materials (cement, glass, etc.), the use of equipment, and transportation require a significant amount of energy. Finally, construction debris and air pollution from equipment add to pollution.
Examples of Activities: Growing suburban sprawl, deforestation for new agricultural, commercial and residential land.
How to Reduce this Footprint: The use of environment-friendly and recycled materials, incorporation of renewable energy sources, and demand reduction can help lower construction’s ecological footprint.
Description: The ecological footprint of visitors to a popular location is known as the tourist ecological footprint (Anderson, 2019). It depends on the behavior of the tourists and can be quite damaging in fragile ecosystems.
Examples of Activities: Tourist accommodation, transportation, and recreational activities require energy, water, and land while also producing waste.
How to Reduce this Footprint: Travel locally to reduce your transport footprint, use sustainable tourist services, embrace zero waste camping. By comparing tourism ecological footprints, we can find out about alternative tourist destinations to reduce the pressure from crowded ones.
8. Water Usage
Description: Excessive water use can deplete natural water resources and harm the environment. It can dry up rivers and lakes, lower groundwater levels, and destroy ecosystems relying on water. Industrial and agricultural activities also pollute water.
Examples of Activities: Damming of water for farming, farming of water intensive crops such as cotton.
How to Reduce this Footprint: To reduce the ecological footprint of water use, we can practice water conservation, adopt sustainable agricultural practices, and treat water before disposal.
9. Product Manufacturing
Description: The manufacturing of products depletes resources (minerals, woods, fossil fuels, etc.), consumes energy, and produces waste. The use of sustainable materials, such as recycled goods or sustainably harvested goods, can reduce the environmental impact. Incorporating sustainability in waste management, product design, and supply chain management can also lower the ecological footprint.
Examples of Activities: Planned obsolescence and fast fashion lead to shorter lifespans of consumer goods, causing increased landfill.
How to Reduce this Footprint: Reduce, reuse, and recycle your products.
10. Plastic Use
Description: Plastic use has become a major environmental issue due to the large amount of waste it generates and its persistence in the environment. Plastic pollution harms wildlife and ecosystems and can even enter the food chain, posing a threat to human health.
Examples of Activities: Single-use plastic items like straws, plastic bags, and packaging materials.
How to Reduce this Footprint: Reducing the use of single-use plastics, using reusable alternatives, and properly disposing of plastic waste through recycling or composting can help reduce the ecological footprint of plastic use. Additionally, supporting policies that reduce plastic production and promote circular economies can also help tackle this issue.
Measuring Sustainability through Ecological Footprint
By calculating the ecological footprint and comparing it with biocapacity, we can measure how sustainably a population is living.
The Global Footprint Network calculates the ecological footprint from UN data sources for the entire world and more than 200 individual nations. In 2019, the organization estimated that humanity’s ecological footprint was 1.75 planet Earths (Wackernagel, 1999).
This means that humanity’s usage was 1.75 times more than what the planet’s ecosystems renewed—we are using natural capital 75% faster than Earth can renew it. This overuse is known as an ecological overshoot.
Wackernagel argues that this will lead to ecological deterioration and perhaps a permanent decrease in Earth’s human carrying capacity. As per the National Footprint Accounts, humanity’s total ecological footprint has been increasing.
From 1961 to 2018, the ecological footprint has been growing by 2.1% per year (Lin et al., 2018). The global ecological footprint was 7 billion gha in 1961 and increased to 20.6 billion gha in 2014. This happened because of population increase and higher per capita resource use.
Resource Consumption Across Countries
By comparing the ecological footprints of different regions, we can understand the unequal consumption of resources across the globe.
More than 85% of the world’s population lives in countries having an ecological deficit (Footprint network, 2017). Different countries have ecological deficits due to different reasons.
In some cases, the country’s per capita resource use is greater than the area of bioproductive land available on average globally (estimated at <1.7 hectares per person in 2019). France, Germany, and Saudi Arabia fall under this category.
In other cases, the per capita resource use is less than the global available average, but their population is so high that they still use more bioproductive land than they have. To put it simply, even if individuals are using less, their total number is so large that, collectively, they are still using a lot. Examples include India, China, and the Philippines.
Finally, many countries have both large populations and high per capita resource use. These include Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Fact File: What is Biocapacity?
Biocapacity measures the ability of an ecosystem to produce natural resources while maintaining its ability to sustain itself over time.
The concepts of ecological footprint and biocapacity go hand in hand. The former measures the amount of biologically productive land and water needed to support a given population’s lifestyle; the latter calculates the ability of the ecosystem to provide resources and sustain itself.
In other words, the two concepts help us understand how much natural capital we are using vs how much is being regenerated. Comparing the two allows us to see whether we are living sustainably or unsustainably.
At the moment, the world’s average biocapacity is 1.63 global hectares (gha) per person. (Meaning each one of us should only be able to use 1.63 hectares of productive land, on average, per year). However, we’re using on average 2.75 global hectares per person. In other words, we’re all using 1.1 global hectares per year more than is sustainable!
Here is a list of the worst performing as measured by global hectares per person:
|Country||Global Hectares Per Person (Max. Target: 1.63)|
|Trinidad and Tobago||7.92|
Ecological footprint measures the impact of human activity on the environment.
It is calculated by taking into account various factors such as energy consumption, land use, waste generation, etc. These are then expressed in terms of the area of land and water, which would be sufficient to support these activities.
The ecological footprint can be compared against biocapacity to understand how our consumption contrasts with the earth’s renewal capacity. So, the ecological footprint is a tool to measure sustainability and study how different regions use resources differently.
Anderson, D. (2019). Environmental Economics and Natural Resource Management (5 ed.). London: Routledge.
Lin, D., Hanscom, L., Murthy, A., Galli, A., Evans, M., Neill, E., … & Wackernagel, M. (2018). Ecological footprint accounting for countries: updates and results of the National Footprint Accounts, 2012–2018. Resources, 7(3), 58. doi: https://doi.org/10.3390/resources7030058
Wackernagel, M. and W. Rees. (1996). Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. New York: New Society Publishers.
Wackernagel, M., Beyers, B., & Rout, K. (2019). Ecological footprint: managing our biocapacity budget. Los Angeles: New Society Publishers.