The ecological footprint is a metric that measures human demand on natural capital or the quantity of nature it takes to support a given population or economy. The ecological footprint is the demand on and the supply of nature. Promoted by the Global Footprint Network, the ecological footprint can help individuals understand their consumption and impact on the planet; countries improve sustainability and well-being, and local leaders optimize investments for public projects.
The ecological footprint has a demand side and a supply side.
The demand side measures the ecological assets a population needs to produce the natural resources it consumes and to absorb its carbon emissions and other waste. These natural resources include livestock and fish products, timber, plant-based food, and fiber products.
The supply side of the ecological footprint, a given population’s biocapacity represents the productivity of its ecological assets. Biocapacity is the capacity of a given biologically productive area to generate a supply of renewable resources and to absorb its wastes.
The ecological footprint and biocapacity are expressed in global hectares. Global hectares are comparable and standardized with world average productivity.
If a given population’s ecological footprint exceeds its biocapacity, that population has an ecological deficit. This means that the population’s demand for natural resources exceeds its supply, which can lead to depletion and high emissions of carbon dioxide into the air. If a given population’s biocapacity exceeds its ecological footprint, it has an ecological reserve.
Having a footprint smaller than biocapacity is a necessary condition for the sustainability of humanity.
The world-average ecological footprint was 2.75 global hectares per person (22.6 billion total) and the average biocapacity was 1.63 global hectares. This means there is a global deficit of 1.1 global hectares per person.
Ecological footprints and biocapacities vary greatly between countries. A country’s footprint and biocapacity depend on several factors including its geography, population size, and environmental policies. Some of the most eco-friendly countries are Denmark, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.
Information provided on the countries in this article is based on data from 1961 to 2013 from the Global Footprint Network’s National Footprint Accounts published in 2016.
China has an ecological footprint of 3.71 hectares per capita and a biocapacity of 0.92 per capita. China’s total ecological deficit is -3,435.62, the largest in the world. As China’s economy continues to rapidly expand, people’s incomes are rising, and, as a result, so is their consumption. With the largest population of any country in the world at about 1.4 billion combined with inefficient resource use, China is depleting its resources quickly.
The U.S. has an ecological deficit of -1,416.05. Its ecological footprint per capita is 8.04 hectares and its biocapacity per capita is 3.45 hectares. The average US ecological footprint is about 50% larger than the average person in most European countries. The U.S. has more suburban sprawl, less public transportation, and uses more energy and water per person than other comparable, developed countries. Additionally, California has the same ecological footprint as France.
India’s ecological footprint per capita is 1.19 and its biocapacity per capita is 0.43 hectares. India’s total ecological deficit is -878.05 hectares. India represents about 6% of the world’s ecological footprint. India, like China, has a population of over 1 billion people. While India’s ecological footprint is relatively low, its biocapacity is much lower, leading to its large deficit.
Japan’s ecological footprint is 4.65 hectares per capita and its biocapacity is 0.59 hectares per capita. Japan’s ecological deficit is -547.18 hectares, the fourth-highest in the world. A majority of Japan’s ecological footprint is made up of Japan’s carbon footprint. If everyone lived based on the Japanese standard of living, we would require the equivalent of 2.3 Earths to support the world population.
The U.K. has the fifth-largest ecological deficit in the world of -483.83. The U.K.’s ecological footprint per capita is 4.20 hectares and its biocapacity per capita is 1.08 hectares. Between 2014 and 2016, the United Kingdom’s carbon footprint dropped 11.7% driving the country’s total ecological footprint down by 8.8%. Although the U.K.’s ecological deficit is the fifth-highest in the world, the country seems to be moving in the right direction.