With talk of Earth Overshoot Day each year, it’s worth looking at the ecological footprint of each country.
An ecological footprint is a number that expresses the number of Earths (in terms of planetary resources used and consumption rate of natural resources) each country uses throughout the year based on how the population lives.
It’s a number that does have some flaws and limitations with how it is calculated and how it can be used, but it gives a general guide as to which countries are using/consuming more natural resources in their own country compared to others.
An ecological footprint might serve a similar purpose as other sustainability related measurements, such as Earth carrying capacity and planetary boundaries.
Summary – Ecological Footprint
What Is An Ecological Footprint?
The ecological footprint of a country is a general indication of ‘how many Earths’ it would take to sustain how that country’s population lives
This is assessed by looking at the consumption rate of a country vs the productivity of that country from specific natural resources
These resources are usually listed as agricultural land, fishing grounds, built up land, forest area and carbon demand on land
Some measurements also take into account the ability to absorb and handle waste from consumption – such as carbon emissions
How An Ecological Footprint Is Calculated & Expressed
An ecological footprint is calculated for countries most commonly, but can also be calculated for a city or specific region
Once consumption rates per capita and productivity rates from resources have been obtained, results can be expressed in global hectares, or ‘the number of Earth’s’ used per country
Risk Profiles For Each Country
Because each country consumers at different rates per capita, and has different quantities of resources available to them, each country also has it’s own ecological risk profile to consider
Some variables that can impact a risk profile can include how a country uses it’s resources, and also whether they source resources internally or whether they have to import resources from other countries
Using An Ecological Footprint Alongside Other Environmental & Sustainability Measurements, & Forecasting Potential Future Environmental Concerns
In a very general way – an ecological footprint can be used alongside planetary boundary estimations to forecast potential ecological and sustainability risks in the future
A specific environmental concern for the future when looking at ecological foot printing and environmental boundaries might be that the global cropping footprint might exceed the planetary boundary for land clearing
Limitations With Using An Ecological Footprint Calculation
It should be noted that an Ecological footprint is a general calculation, and can’t be considered definitive by itself
It has some clear limitations in terms of how it is calculated, and what it can be used for.
Insufficient data, omission of some factors, uncertainty over the sustainability impact of some practices, and other things can make the ecological footprint an imperfect ecological measurement or expression
Earth Overshoot Day
Earth Overshoot day is the day in the year where the world or one specific country has used up one Earth’s worth of natural resources – the earlier in the year it happens – the more unsustainably a country might be using it’s resources
A general trend is that some developed countries are using far more resources per capita than some underdeveloped countries
Since the 1970’s especially, the average for Overshoot day has been coming earlier in the year, but, the last few years and even the last decade have slowed considerably
What Is An Ecological Footprint?
There might be two main components to an ecological footprint:
1. The ecological assets required to produce the natural resources a population or country consumes. There’s the production of resources, and also the consumption of resources by a population to consider here.
2. The ability of a population or country to absorb the waste it creates
Ecological foot printing can be one tool used to measure the impact humans have on sustainability and also the environment and it’s systems.
Explanation Of Ecological Footprinting
“Ecological footprinting” is where researchers look at how much land, sea and other natural resources are used to produce what people consume … [and] It’s a way of [measuring the impact of humans on the planet]
[Answers are expressed in] global hectare[s], [which are] defined as a biologically productive hectare with world-average bioproductivity.
Measuring Demand On Nature, & Supply Of Nature
Ecological Footprint accounting measures the demand on [nature, and also the] supply of nature.
On the demand side, [it] measures the ecological assets that a given population requires to produce the natural resources it consumes (including plant-based food and fiber products, livestock and fish products, timber and other forest products, space for urban infrastructure) [and also] to absorb its waste, especially carbon emissions.
On the supply side, a city, state or nation’s biocapacity represents the productivity of its ecological assets (including cropland, grazing land, forest land, fishing grounds, and built-up land).
Resource Production Categories That Are Tracked
The Ecological Footprint tracks the use of six categories of productive surface areas: cropland, grazing land, fishing grounds, built-up land, forest area, and carbon demand on land.
These areas, especially if left unharvested, can also absorb much of the waste we generate, especially our carbon emissions.
Measuring Resources Required (Land & Sea) To Absorb The Carbon Emissions We Emit From Production & Consumption
Aside from measuring production from natural resources, the amount of natural resources needed, such as sea and land, to absorb the carbon emissions we produce can also be measured.
It takes account of carbon emissions, [so calculations factor in] how much extra land and sea we would need to absorb [these emissions]
[With the US], two-thirds of [their footprint] is made up of carbon emissions.
This means that for the four Earths we would need if everyone consumed like an American, more than two-and-a-half of those would be needed just to absorb carbon dioxide.
What Is The Significance Of An Ecological Footprint?
It can be a way of getting an idea of:
– The consumption rate of natural resources by a specific population
– When specific natural resources might be starting to reach a certain level of scarcity, or limited supply
– What level of consumption a specific population, or individuals within a population, can sustain. Overpopulation can play a part on one side of the equation, but, the consumption rate or consumption habits of that population matter, and that’s why some developed countries with less people than developing countries can consume more resources per capita
– How the environment is dealing with waste and other side effects of consumption like pollution or emissions
– When an environment will reach a certain level of degradation
[The key questions an ecological footprint is looking to answer are] how much planet is available per person and how much planet do we use per person
Which Countries Have The Highest Ecological Footprint, & What Is The Global Average?
The United States and Australia are two countries that currently rank near the top of two separate lists for the countries that ‘use the most Earths’ to sustain how their populations live.
In 2018, the following amount of Earths were needed if the population lived like the following countries:
United States – 5
Australia – 4.1
South Korea – 3.5
Russia – 3.3
Germany – 3
Switzerland – 2.9
UK – 2.9
France – 2.8
Japan – 2.8
Italy – 2.6
Spain – 2.3
China – 2.2
Brazil – 1.8
India – 0.7
The average American … uses seven global hectares, compared to a global average of 2.7
… this figure of seven global hectares [is used to calculate] that it would take four Earths – or to be precise, 3.9 Earths – to sustain a population of seven billion at American levels of consumption [seven billion is the number of people who currently live on Earth]
[The US is] ranked fifth among countries with a population of one million or more.
Kuwait comes top with 8.9 global hectares (5.1 Earths), followed by Australia (4.8 Earths), the United Arab Emirates (4.7 Earths) and Qatar (4.0 Earths).
The others in the top 10 are Canada, Sweden, Bahrain, Trinidad and Tobago, and Singapore. The UK is 32nd on the list (2.4 Earths).
Ecological Risk Profile Of Each Country
It’s also worth noting that each country has it’s own ecological risk profile to consider
Level of risk can depend on factors like how they use resources from their own country, or if they depend on resources from other countries.
There can also be other factors to consider that determine a risk profile of a country too.
What Ecological Foot-printing Might Indicate About Future Environmental Concerns
The footprint can be used to identify some potential future environmental concerns
One concern might be how the global cropping footprint might impinge on the planetary boundary for land clearing.
[Some research] compared future ecological footprints with research about planetary boundaries, [and] they found that our global cropping footprint is likely to exceed the planetary boundary for land clearing between 2025 and 2035.
“If you have what we’ve got slow incremental changes in things so the planetary boundary, that’s informed by that group of research, they were saying we can’t have more than a 15 per cent increase in cropping areas … of the global ice-free land surface …
“Generally, we don’t want more than 50 percent of land turned into crop land [but, …] The trend is going that way so that’s the concern.
“We haven’t reached it yet but it’s likely that it won’t be long before that is reached [so …] This is our opportunity to heed that warning and introduce policy … and that’s the point of the research.”
Potential Limitations Of Calculating & Using An Ecological Footprint As A Measurement
An ecological footprint:
– It doesn’t take into account certain factors
– The data used is lacking and insufficient in certain areas and for different countries
– There are unknowns to the sustainability of certain practices
– Some estimations may be inaccurate
It’s definitely not a perfect or comprehensive measure.
It might be used in conjunction with other measurements and indicators to get a more well rounded picture on how an environment is dealing with the needs and waste products of a particular population.
[The measurement takes into account land, sea and water, and also how many Earth’s worth of sea and land we would need to absorb the emissions we produce, but it doesn’t take into account every type of resource, or every type of waste pollution]
[Another note or potential drawback is that] there is insufficient data from many parts of the world to create meaningful ecological footprint estimates.
Researchers just don’t know how sustainable some agricultural practices are, and therefore to what extent resources are being overused.
[Some numbers may be underestimations, and other factors like soil erosion may not be taken into account. So, the figures are certainly not perfect]
Earth Overshoot Day, & Where Earth Overshoot Day Is Trending
What Earth Overshoot Day Is
Earth Overshoot Day is the day in the year where the world has consumed equal to Earth’s annual resource production.
The earlier it happens into the year, the more quickly the world is consuming the resources it is producing, and this is one measure of sustainability.
You can view the numbers for both the world, and different countries here (at overshootday.org)
The Trend On Earth Overshoot Day
We can see from the world graph that we have moved from 1 Earth in 1970, to 1.7 Earths and Earth Overshoot Day occurring on August 1st in 2018.
Since 2011 though, that number has been fairly steady.
Calculate Your Own Ecological Footprint Individually & Find Out More About The Footprint
You can find the calculator and other information in the footprintnetwork.org resource below