With talk of Earth Overshoot Day each year, it’s worth looking at the ecological footprint of each country.
This is a number that expresses the number of Earths (in terms of planetary resources used and consumption rate) 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 good guide as to which countries are using/consuming more natural resources in their own country compared to others.
Summary – Ecological Footprint
- The ecological footprint of a country is the amount of specific natural resources (usually agricultural land, fishing grounds, built up land, forest area and carbon demand on land) used to produce what people consume in that country
- Some measurements also take into account the ability to absorb and handle waste from consumption – such as carbon emissions
- An ecological footprint can also be calculated for a city or specific region (other than a country)
- Results can be expressed in planets used per country, or even the consumption rate per capita of a country
- Each country has it’s own risk profile too – in terms of how it uses it’s resources, and whether they source resources internally or whether they haave to import resources from other countries
- 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
- In a very general way – an ecological footprint can be used and compared with planetary boundaries to forecast potential ecological and sustainability risks in the future – a specific risk for the future might be that the global cropping footprint might exceed the planetary boundary for land clearing
- It should be noted that an Ecological footprint is a very rough calculation – it has some clear limitations and shortcomings 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
- A complementary guide to this one might be this guide on environmental planetary boundaries
What Is An Ecological Footprint?
- It’s a way of [measuring the impact of humans on the planet]
- “Ecological footprinting” is where researchers look at how much land, sea and other natural resources are used to produce what people consume – how many potatoes they eat, how much milk they drink, the cotton that goes into the shirts they wear and so on.
- They do this by using published statistics on consumption and the amount of land or sea used to produce the quantity of goods consumed.
- The answers are expressed in an unusual unit – the global hectare, defined as a biologically productive hectare with world-average bioproductivity.
- Ecological Footprint accounting measures the demand on and supply of nature.
- On the demand side, the Ecological Footprint 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 to absorb its waste, especially carbon emissions.
- 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.
- 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). These areas, especially if left unharvested, can also absorb much of the waste we generate, especially our carbon emissions.
What Is The Significance Of An Ecological Footprint?
- [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
- [it can be a way of getting an idea of how long resources will last or what different impacts will be based on current resource consumption rate. It can also be a way of comparing countries against each other]
Ecological Footprint & Earth Overshoot Day
Earth Overshoot Day is the day in the year where the world, or a specific country has used up one Earth’s use of resources.
The earlier into the year it happens each year, the more unsustainable we are being with our resource usage.
You can view the numbers for both the world, and different countries here (overshootday.org)
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.
Which Countries Have The Highest Ecological Footprint, & What Is The Global Average?
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, says GFN, 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).
It’s also worth noting that each country has it’s own ecological risk profile to consider, depending on factors like how they use resources from their own country, or if they depend on resources from other countries.
Potential Future Concerns When Looking At The Ecological Footprint
The footprint can be used to look at some potential future environmental or other concerns.
One such example is:
- [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.
- … It could be less than 10 years away.
- “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.
- “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.
- “This is our opportunity to heed that warning and introduce policy … and that’s the point of the research.”
Notes On How The Ecological Footprint Is Calculated, & Potential Drawbacks To This Measurement Technique
- 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.
- [So, people need to know this measurement takes into account land, sea and water]
- [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]
- [the figures are certainly not perfect]
So, overall, the Ecological Footprint misses out certain factors, and the data used is lacking and insufficient in certain areas and for different countries. It’s definitely not a perfect measure.
Calculate Your Own Ecological Footprint Individually & Find Out More About The Footprint