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Written by Dario Ruggiero (February 2013)
Humans absorb resources and produce waste. By doing this, Humans make a sort of pressure on the planet. The Ecological Footprint is the metric that allows us to calculate such human pressure on the planet. When the Global Footprint Network says that humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the sources we use and absorb our waste, it means that we are absorging more sources that Earth can annually regenerate. This measure (1.5) derives from a ratio between the Ecological Footprint (how much hectares each individual consumes), that is 2.7 global hectares (gha), and Earth’s Biocapacity (the capacity of the Earth to regenerate resources, measured also in hectares), that is 1.8 gha. The real problems rise from the fact that, first, the Ecological Footprint is following a rising trend and, second, that it varies abnormally from country to country.


Interview with Mathis Wackernagel - ("Global Footprint Network," President)
“We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal. We are
using 50 per cent more resources than the Earth can provide, and
unless we change course that number will grow very fast – by 2030,
even two planets will not be enough.”
(Jim Leape - General Manager - WWF International)
How the Ecological Footprint measure Humans’ impact on Earth?

The first systematic attempt to calculate the Ecological Footprint and biocapacity of nations began in 1997 (Wackernagel et al. 1997). Building on these assessments, Global Footprint Network initiated its National Footprint Accounts (NFA) program in 2003, with the most recent Edition issued in 2011. NFAs constitute an accounting framework quantifying the annual supply of, and demand for, key ecosystem services by means of two measures (Wackernagel et al., 2002):

  • Ecological Footprint: a measure of the demand populations and activities place on the biosphere in a given year, given the prevailing technology and resource management of that year.
  • Biocapacity: a measure of the amount of biologically productive land and sea area available to provide the ecosystem services that humanity consumes – our ecological budget or nature’s regenerative capacity.

Ecological Footprint and biocapacity values are expressed in mutually exclusive units of area necessary to annually provide (or regenerate) such ecosystem services. They include: cropland for the provision of plant-based food and fiber products; grazing land and cropland for animal products; fishing grounds (marine and inland) for fish products; forests for timber and other forest products; uptake land to neutralize waste emissions (currently only the areas for absorbing anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are considered); and built-up areas for shelter and other infrastructure.

The calculations in the NFA are based primarily on data sets from UN agencies or affiliated organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOSTAT), the UN Statistics Division (UN Commodity Trade Statistics International Energy Agency (IEA). Other data sources include studies in peer and thematic collections.

For a given nation, the Ecological Footprint of production, EFP, represents primary demand for biocapacity and is calculated as

where P is the amount of each primary product i that is harvested (or carbon dioxide emitted) in the nation; YN,i is the annual national average yield for the production of commodity i (or its carbon uptake capacity in cases where P is CO2); YFN,i is the country-specific yield factor for the production of each product i; YW,i is the average world yield for commodity i; and EQFi is the equivalence factor for the land use type producing products i.
The Ecological Footprint: world average and National footprint
According to the 2011 Edition of the National Footprint Accounts, in 1961 humanity’s Footprint was approximately half of what the biosphere could supply annually; humanity was living off the planet’s annual ecological interest, not drawing down its principal. Since then, humanity’s overall Footprint has more than doubled, first exceeding the planet’s biocapacity in the early 1970s. This situation, known as overshoot, has continued to increase, reaching 52% in 2008. In 2008, humanity’s Ecological Footprint consisted of 22% cropland, 8% grazing land, 10% forest land, 4% fishing ground, 54% carbon uptake land, and 2% built-up land. As these annual “biocapacity deficits” accrue into an ever larger ecological debt, ecological reserves are depleting, and wastes such as CO2 are accumulating in the biosphere and atmosphere.
Graph 1 – World Ecological Footprint since 1960
(In terms of number of earths demand)
Source: Global Footprint Network
In 2008 High Income countries’ Ecological Footprint was 6.09 gha (per capita) with a -3.03 gha defi cit compared with local biocapacity. As for Middle Income countries Ecological Footprint was lower (1.96 gha) and the deficit was -0.24 gha. Low Income Countries registered a 1.19 gha Ecological Footprint and, considering their biocapacity (1.08), the deficit was -0.11 gha. Among the continents, Africa was the one with the lowest Ecological Footprint (1.41 gha), followed by Asia (1.78 gha) ad Latin American and Carabbean (2.58 gha). Nrth America registered the highest Ecological Footprint (7.9 gha) and the highest deficit (-2.97 gha). With regards sigle countries, United Arab Emirates is the one with the Highest Ecological Footprint (10.7 gha; the deficit of biocapacity was -9.8 gha); Qatar was the second highest country in terms of Ecological Footprint (10.5 gha); In the first five positions we find also Denmark, Belgium and United States with an Ecological Footprint of about 8 gha. As we can observe in the annex, African and Asian countries are those that contribute less to the Global Ecological Footprint.

Table – The Ecologicl Footprint, Biocapacity and the Ecological Deficit
(World areas, 2008; 2011 Edition)
  Ecological Footprint of Consumption Total Biocapacity Ecological (Deficit) or Reserve
World 2.70 1.78 -0.91
High Income Countries 6.09 3.06 -3.03
Middle Income Countries 1.96 1.71 -0.24
Low Income Countries 1.19 1.08 -0.11
Africa 1.41 1.48 0.07
Asia 1.78 0.82 -0.97
Europe 4.68 2.89 -1.79
Latin America and the Caribbean 2.58 5.47 2.89
United States and Canada 7.90 4.93 -2.97
Oceania 5.37 11.12 5.75
Source: Global Footprint Network
Table - The Worst and the Best countries for National Ecological Footprint
Country Ecological Footprint of Consumption Total Biocapacity Ecological (Deficit) or Reserve Country Ecological Footprint of Consumption Total Biocapacity Ecological (Deficit) or Reserve
United Arab Emirates 10.7 0.8 -9.8 Indonesia 1.2 1.4 0.1
Qatar 10.5 2.5 -8.0 Tanzania, United Republic of 1.2 1.0 -0.2
Denmark 8.3 4.9 -3.4 Kenya 1.1 0.6 -0.5
Belgium 8.0 1.3 -6.7 Ethiopia 1.1 0.7 -0.4
United States of America 8.0 3.9 -4.1 Senegal 1.1 1.2 0.1
Estonia 7.9 9.0 1.1 Lesotho 1.1 0.8 -0.3
Canada 7.0 14.9 7.9 Sierra Leone 1.1 1.2 0.1
Australia 6.8 14.7 7.9 Cameroon 1.0 1.9 0.8
Kuwait 6.3 0.4 -5.9 Cambodia 1.0 0.9 -0.1
Ireland 6.3 3.5 -2.8 Rwanda 1.0 0.6 -0.5
Netherlands 6.2 1.0 -5.2 Côte d'Ivoire 1.0 1.7 0.7
Finland 6.2 12.5 6.3 Angola 1.0 3.0 2.0
Sweden 5.9 9.7 3.9 Tajikistan 1.0 0.6 -0.4
Czech Republic 5.7 2.7 -3.1 Togo 1.0 0.6 -0.4
Macedonia TFYR 5.7 1.4 -4.2 Congo 1.0 13.3 12.3
Latvia 5.6 7.1 1.4 Guinea-Bissau 1.0 3.2 2.3
Norway 5.6 5.5 -0.1 Yemen 0.9 0.6 -0.3
Mongolia 5.5 15.1 9.6 India 0.9 0.5 -0.4
Spain 5.4 1.6 -3.8 Zambia 0.9 2.3 1.3
Greece 5.4 1.6 -3.8 Burundi 0.9 0.5 -0.4
Singapore 5.3 0.0 -5.3 Eritrea 0.9 1.6 0.7
Slovenia 5.3 2.6 -2.7 Mozambique 0.8 1.9 1.1
Austria 5.3 3.3 -2.0 Pakistan 0.8 0.4 -0.3
Saudi Arabia 5.1 0.8 -4.3 Congo, Democratic Republic of 0.8 2.8 2.0
Uruguay 5.1 9.9 4.8 Occupied Palestinian Territory 0.7 0.2 -0.6
Germany 5.1 1.9 -3.2 Malawi 0.7 0.7 0.0
Switzerland 5.0 1.2 -3.8 Haiti 0.7 0.3 -0.4
France 5.0 3.0 -2.0 Afghanistan 0.6 0.5 -0.1
Italy 5.0 1.1 -3.8 Bangladesh 0.6 0.4 -0.2
Oman 5.0 2.1 -2.8 Timor-Leste 0.4 1.2 0.8
Source: Global Footprint Network

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