The concept of a footprint in environmental management is a fairly common occurrence for example I wager that most of you reading this post will be aware of a carbon footprint and even possibly a water footprint (if you have been reading this blog you will have anyway!). For example, a water footprint is a determination of the amount of water used by an entity of some kind such as a product or a country. These types of footprint are however very specific in nature. I therefore thought it might be worth considering a more generic kind of footprint that considers numerous environmental issues rather than just one. Let me introduce you to the ecological footprint! I think it is always useful from a benchmarking point of view to have some kind of quantified approach to measuring environmental impact overall, and this is certainly one attempt to complete this.
Supply and demand
Now for the clever bit. There needs to be some kind of common unit to measure impact, like money is for cost benefit analysis (CBA) in this case it is area.
Firstly, let’s consider demand. The area in this case is the amount of land or marine resources that are needed to grow a resource or assimilate a pollutant. Generally, it is a measure of the area that is required to support a person, country or whatever entity is being measured so that might include land that is required to grow crops, timber and building/infrastructure and landfill sites. This is what is used by a society.
However, if we have ample resources the demand side does not mean we have a large ecological footprint. We must consider the amount of resources available (supply). This is often referred to as biocapacity – the ability/capacity of the entity to generate resources and assimilate wastes.
Let’s consider two example to get the point across
A country has a high amount of resources (high biocapacity) and has very little demand (a low population), this means that it would have a low ecological footprint. Supply is higher than the demand for resources. This is sometimes called a biocapacity reserve. A very good scenario!
Conversely, a country has limited resources (biocapacity) yet has a significant amount of demand. Then demand outstrips supply and there is a deficit. Demand for goods and services that the country can provide far exceeds what the country’s ecosystem can regenerate or the wastes it can assimilate. This is called a biocapacity deficit. As you are probably aware this is very stressful for the planet as it involves encouraging unsustainable practices such as overfishing or deforestation or importation (which might impact on other countries ecological footprint) and possibly more pollution.
What does all this mean?
If we want to lower the ecological footprint there are two things which can be done. We can try and increase biocapacity by looking after nature in a more effective way than we generally do at the moment, so that it is more productive, this increases supply. We can also look at using less resources or producing less waste products, this is a decrease in demand.
I do like the approach of an ecological footprint. However, it is not perfect as it does not tell us the level of development in an area. Unfortunately some of the world’s poorest countries are those that have the lowest ecological footprint. In most places if we have a low demand it often means that many people live in poverty (don’t use many resources and don’t create much waste), conversely if there is a high demand (use a lot of resources and create a lot of waste means) it means that people live in an area that is well developed.
A more realistic approach is to consider a measure of development against ecological footprint. As you can see from the graph HERE where the human development index has been compared to ecological footprint. Ideally we need to decouple and people should enjoy a high standard of living and have a low ecological footprint, although as things stand we are a long way from achieving this in most countries.
John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MIEMA
With over 19 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.