About Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity

Humanity is faced with many challenges that threaten natural resource availability, stable climate systems, and the conservation of biodiversity. To understand and manage these challenges, we require information about global pressures on nature demanded by humans and their economies.

Humans depend on the use of resources from nature as a source of materials and energy, as a means of absorbing wastes, and for places to live and build infrastructure. This dependence can be sustained if humans use renewable natural resources at a rate that can be regenerated and emit pollution at a rate that can be absorbed by the environment. These conditions necessitate an accounting of the planet’s regenerative capacity, defined as Biocapacity, and human demand on that regenerative capacity, defined as Ecological Footprint.

Measuring Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity

The Ecological Footprint measures the total area of the planet required to provide the resources demanded by humans, including food and fibres, forest products, lands for settlements and infrastructure, and the absorption of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Ecological Footprint components

Breakdown of the Ecological Footprint components, Extracted from Lin (2018)

Biocapacity measures the biologically productive area of lands and waters that are available to sustain the components of the Ecological Footprint. Biocapacity components include cropland, grazing land, forest land, fishing grounds, and built-up land.

Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity are each quantified in a standardized unit known as a Global Hectare (gha), which allows them to be summed and compared to an Ecological Footprint calculated anywhere on the planet. Comparing Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity can inform measures of human pressures on local and global landscapes, and this comparison can also inform indicators of sustainability.

Ecological Footprint of Consumption

One of the great virtues of the Ecological Footprint is that it can be represented on a consumption basis, in addition to Footprint on a production basis. The Ecological Footprint of consumption measures the area of the planet that is needed to supply the consumption and use of natural resources by humans. The Ecological Footprint of consumption for a given country is calculated as the sum of a country’s primary production, plus net trade (imports minus exports). If a product is exported to another country and subsequently consumed, that product is counted in the importing country’s Ecological Footprint. Likewise, if a product is imported and consumed domestically, it is calculated in the domestic Ecological Footprint, despite having originated abroad.

Extracted from Lin (2018)

Carbon Footprint

The Carbon Footprint is measured as the forest area required to absorb annual anthropogenic carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels that are not absorbed by the world’s oceans. Thus, forest land has a dual function whereby it provides forest products when harvested and absorbs carbon emissions when left unharvested. The Carbon Footprint also accounts for embodied carbon in trade items and electricity, as well as emissions associated with global international transport goods. The Carbon Footprint is an important indicator of climate change mitigation as it identifies the total land area required to offset the use of fossil fuels.

Global Hectares and Conversion Factors

A Global Hectare is a Hectare of land that provides a global-average amount of biological productivity each year. Global Hectares can be converted to, or from, a Hectare of any land type by applying several conversion factors. The purpose of using Global Hectares is to account for the fact that not all land types have the same level of productivity. The Global Hectare standardizes the biological productivity of a hectare of land so that a country’s Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity can be compared across countries and land types. Thus, you are comparing land types not by the physical space they expend, but rather by the amount of productivity they yield. Global Hectares are derived using conversion factors. The two key conversion factors used in the calculation of Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity are the Yield Factor and the Equivalence Factor. The Yield Factor accounts for differences in biological productivity across geographic regions for a given land type. The Equivalence Factor, on the other hand, is used as a scaling factor to convert any hectare of land into a standardized unit of average biological productivity (Global Hectares), and allows for Biocapacity comparisons across land types, anywhere in on the planet.

Calculating Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity

The Ecological Footprint is equal to the Footprint of primary production, plus the net Footprint of trade (Footprint of Imports minus the Footprint of Exports) for each Footprint component. Flows of production are divided by world yields for the corresponding land type and multiplied by the Equivalence Factor to get the Ecological Footprint of each component in Global Hectares. The total Ecological Footprint is then equal to the sum of the Footprint components: Cropland Footprint, Grazing Land Footprint, Fishing Grounds Footprint, Forest Products Footprint, Built-up Land Footprint, and Carbon Footprint. Biocapacity is equal to the biologically productive area of a given land type multiplied by the corresponding Yield Factor and Equivalence Factor for that land type, resulting in Biocapacity measured in Global Hectares. The total Biocapacity is then equal to the sum of its components: Cropland, Grazing Land, Forest Land, Fishing Grounds, and Built-up Land.

National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts

Solving the global challenge of conserving biodiversity and living within the Earth’s regenerative capacity requires accounting for this capacity and its use by humans. The National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts are a metric used to quantify the amount of the planet’s regenerative capacity required to sustain human demand on nature, calculated at national scales. The resulting accounts are a unique and comprehensive measure of the relationships between humans, economies, and ecosystems, which generates added information based on existing global economic, social, and environmental statistics. Many scholars and organizations use the data from these accounts to inform their assessment of sustainability.

The Ecological Footprint Initiative at York University is producing the National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts for over 200 countries across the globe, with data derived from 1961 to the present. The accounts are developed through the acquisition and analysis of global statistical datasets from the United Nations, the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the International Monetary Foundation, among others. The accounts are being produced for the Footprint Data Foundation to inform individuals, communities and government leaders on how to manage limited resources efficiently, reduce economic risk and improve well-being.

Additional Scales and Applications

Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity can be measured at various scales of space and time, and for multiple purposes. Although most measured at the national level, Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity are also calculated at provincial, municipal, institutional, organizational, household, and individual scales.

Province & City: An Ecological Footprint calculated at the provincial and city level is derived from national data that is scaled based on consumption behaviours. Data is gathered from various economic and environmental sources, such as household expenditure, prices for goods and services, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), multi-regional input-output analysis, and carbon emissions inventories. This process looks closely at the linkages between the footprint components and the consumption of goods and services.

Institutions & Companies: The Ecological Footprint can be adapted to the needs of companies and institutions for sustainability assessment and reporting purposes. The Ecological Footprint is a useful tool to help organizations and institutions address multilayered challenges in a single number, making sustainability campaigns more transparent to stakeholders and partners in the planning process.

Individuals & Households: An Ecological Footprint can be used to measure individual or household demands on nature. For example, the Global Footprint Network’s Footprint Calculator is an online survey that estimates an individual’s footprint as determined by their consumptive choices. The personal footprint calculator is a useful tool offering users direct and tangible feedback on the impact of their lifestyle on the planet and can encourage pro-environmental behaviour.

More on the Ecological Footprint Initiative

The Ecological Footprint Initiative is an international research collaboration with York University and Global Footprint Network, bringing scholars, students, and professionals together to advance the National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts. The accounts assist countries in meeting their United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are a set of 17 objectives to address the need for improved action on sustainability pertaining to global environmental, social, and economic conditions (sustainabledevelopment.un.org). The National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts directly address opportunities for countries to meet SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production, as well as SDGs 14 and 15, which address the need to protect and promote sustainable use of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

We are currently completing production on the 2020 Edition of the National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts for all nations on the planet. To accurately account for each nation’s demand on- and supply of- available biocapacity, we use computational hardware and software to process and analyze the most precise and complete statistical data available at the international level. Our data undergo thorough quality assurance processes, which involves data scoring the rigorous maintenance of data integrity. The production of the accounts occurs annually, beginning in May-June and is finalized the following year in April. The entire process from conception to publication takes approximately one year.