Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Making an impression: ecological footprinting

Image above: A Worldmapper cartogram of ecological footprints around the world.

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The ecological footprint concept

A popular concept and application to the issue of resource use  and environmental impact is that of ecological footprinting. When looking at resource use it is a useful concept but by no means answers all the questions.
An ecological footprint measures the total amount of land and resources used, it includes your carbon footprint but goes further. Find out your ecological footprint by answering questions about your lifestyle. See how your choices affect the environment and whether you are living beyond the capacity of the planet.

Here are just some of the general footprint calculators on the Internet

The EPA in Victoria has customised the footprinting concept even further to help businesses, schools and events organisers to use the concept to calculate their footprints. Have a look at their calculators at

Some background and limitations

The Ecological Footprint Analysis (EFA) concept was developed by Mathis Wackernagel and William E. Rees in 1996 to represent the natural resource consumption associated with human activity (Wackernagel & Rees, 1996). The ecological footprint is defined as the total area of biologically productive land and water required by an entity to sustain its current consumption levels. The result is an area, usually given in hectares. Ecological Footprint analysis has been applied to countries, businesses, individuals, and educational institutions.

EFA helps generate awareness of the magnitude of consumption. For example, the average Canadian footprint is 7.8 ha per capita (Onisto, 1998). What is the average in Australia?  That is, the typical Canadian consumes about eight hectares of the world's resources (as if all of the world's resources were spread evenly over the earth--they are not) every year. As a citizen of this planet, each person has a "fair share" of about two hectares of earth (Onisto, 1998). Compare the two figures, and you'll see that if everyone in the world were to live as Canadians (and Australians) do, the resources of four planet earths would be required to sustain us.

The strength of the EFA is that it communicates degrees and patterns of consumption simply and clearly (Moffat, 2000). In addition to serving as an effective awareness tool, the EFA can also be a guide towards sustainability through a change of practice or policy. But the EFA has its limitations. It is a static measurement, representing the consumption of an entity at one particular point in time. More importantly, the only way to reduce the size of a footprint is to acquire more land, decrease the population, or more realistically and appropriately, reduce the amount of goods and services that each person consumes. Overall, the EFA is a conservative measure of resource consumption since any practice considered by its nature not sustainable (e.g., toxic waste production and assimilation) is not included in its calculations.

As with everything we study, we can map it across space. The mapping of ecological footprints across the world shows great disparity between developed and un/underdeveloped (LED/MED) countries. The following thematic map clearly shows that certain regions of the earth are consuming a disproportionate amount of the earths resources.

Some ideas to reduce your footprint
There is much advice on how we as individuals (and governments / businesses / schools) can reduce our footprint. Here are just a few:


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