Ecological footprint

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Economics (main)
Earth (Source: Stephen Slade Tien via Wikimedia Commons)

The Research Question

Ecological Footprint is defined as a resource accounting framework for measuring human demand on the biosphere.

The human economy is embedded in the biosphere and is entirely dependent on its ecological services. In consuming nature’s products and services, people have an impact on the Earth. But since nature has the ability to renew, it can cope with human demand as long as this demand stays within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere.

Ecological Footprint accounting documents the extent to which human economies stay within the regenerative capacity of the planet, and who uses which portion of this capacity. They answer the research question of how much of the regenerative capacity of the biosphere is occupied by a given human activity.

Such biophysical resource accounting is possible because resources and waste flows can be tracked, and most of these flows can be associated with the biologically productive areas required to maintain them. Hence, the Footprint of a population is the biologically productive land and water area that the population requires to produce the resources it consumes and absorb the waste it generates, using prevailing technology. Because people consume resources and ecological services from all over the world, their Footprint is the sum of these areas, wherever they are on the planet.


Results are expressed in global hectares, hectare of biologically productive space with world-average productivity. This measurement unit, or ‘ecological currency’ makes comparisons possible across the world. The human economy now exerts a larger Footprint than the planet has biocapacity. The Earth’s biologically productive area is approximately 11.2 billion hectares or 1.8 global hectares per person in 2002 (some of this capacity humanity may want to set aside for wild species). However, the global Ecological Footprint in 2002 was 13.7 global hectares or 2.2 global hectares per person. Thus, in 2002, humanity’s Ecological Footprint exceeded global biocapacity by 0.4 global hectares per person, or 23 percent. This finding implies that the human economy is in ecological overshoot: the planet’s natural resource capital stock is being depleted, thus eroding future supply of natural resources and operating at risk of environmental collapse. Results for 150 countries around the world are listed at the European Environmental Agency.

The Method

Created by William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel in Canada in the early 1990s, the method has developed considerably since. Now, development and standardization of this accounting method is coordinated by the Global Footprint Network, founded in 2003, and its 40 partner organizations.

This newest edition of the national Ecological Footprint accounts includes more detailed trade statistics and allows for the first time full national time trends reaching from 1961 to 2002. Standards are being developed so results from analyses following the standards can be compared against each other.


The Ecological Footprint can be applied at scales from single products to households, organizations, cities, regions, nations, and humanity as a whole. The Footprint is used by governments and organizations to measure and manage sustainability efforts. By measuring the overall supply of and human demand on the Earth’s regenerative capacity, the Ecological Footprint tool helps at tracking progress, setting targets, and driving policies for sustainability.

Further Reading


Wackernagel, M. (2013). Ecological footprint. Retrieved from