Health & Safety Glossary

Ecological Footprint

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What is Ecological Footprint?

The ecological footprint is a method that determines how dependent humans are on natural resources. It is a measure that indicates how much resources from the environment are required to support a specific way of life or business. 

In simpler words, the ecological footprint simply indicates the amount of pressure that humans put on the natural resources available to them in their surroundings. 

The ecological footprint is generally expressed in global hectares (gha), and allows professionals to determine the land area required by each human to sufficiently meet their needs. 

Think of it as the demand required by humans, and the supply offered by nature. The ecological footprint is used commonly to calculate sustainability of an entity, such as a region, an individual, or a business. 

It can also be expressed as the amount of resources consumed. First introduced in 1992 by William Rees, the idea of calculating ecological footprints is designed to evaluate the environmental impact of activities conducted by humans. 

It allows analysts to determine the rate at which humans consume resources and generate waste. 

 

The Importance of Ecological Footprint

The ecological footprint is an accounting measure that evaluates the demand and supply of nature. To determine demand, the footprint tallies all the productive elements for which populations usually compete. 

This includes all biological and ecological assets that a functioning population would require to produce natural resources for sustenance. 

This includes all natural resources such as:

  • Livestock and fish
  • Timber and other wood products
  • Plant-based food 
  • Space for building infrastructure 

The ecological footprint can be calculated for regions, countries, cities, individuals, businesses, and as a whole, of an entire planet. 

For calculating the supply, the ecological footprint aggregates the total biocapacity available, including any land and sea area, forest lands, crops, fishing regions, and any land on which construction has been completed. 

On a personal level, the ecological footprint determines how much you consume, and how sustainably these products are being manufactured. The ecological footprint plays a very important role in helping organizations and nations determine how much productive land is available to them. 

The biocapacity of each individual is calculated based on the productive area available (expressed in hectares), the productivity of each area, and the number of people who share it. However, if a population's ecological footprint is greater than the biocapacity to service it, that region risks running a biocapacity or ecological deficit. 

Simply put, the demand for goods and services exceeds the speeds at which the region's ecosystems are capable of regenerating. 

In this case, a region may consider servicing demand by importing goods, overconsuming its own ecological assets, or partaking in activities that harm the environment in one way or another. 

Without evaluating the ecological footprint, it can be difficult for governments and organizations to monitor the consumption of ecological resources and to take steps towards a sustainable future. 

 

Ecological Footprint Compared with Carbon Footprint

Even though both the ecological footprint and the carbon footprint are ways of measuring environmental impact, they are slightly different. The latter measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by an activity or an entity. It's measured in CO2e, also known as carbon dioxide equivalents. 

For instance, the carbon footprint of burning fossil fuels can help those in charge determine the adverse impact on the environment, making it easier for them to take measures to offset or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

 

How to Calculate Ecological Footprint

There are several variables that are taken into consideration when calculating the ecological footprint. An equation created by Tiezzi et al is often used for calculating the ecological footprint:

EF = ΣTi/Yw x EQFi

  • Ti is the annual consumption (in tons) of product i by a nation. 
  • Yw is the world-average yield for product i. 
  • EQFi is the equivalence factor for product i. 

It's important to note that there are several calculators available today for determining the ecological footprint. 

The Ecological Footprint standards, introduced in 2006, state that the ecological footprint calculates the amount of biologically productive area needed to produce resources that the human population would require, while also absorbing greenhouse gas emissions. 

For instance, to calculate the ecological footprint of an individual or a company, you would calculate all of their demands, such as their need for land to grow crops, or the need for forestland to use wood and absorb carbon emissions. Then, all materials and waste generated must be translated into a figure, expressed in global hectares (gha). 

Consequently, the ecological footprint of a nation, a group of people in a city, is just the sum of all ecological footprints of all the residents or members within the group.

 

Ecological Footprint as a Metric for Corporate Sustainability

It has become increasingly important for businesses to take steps to focus on sustainable development. Many businesses are now investing in processes and revamping their infrastructure to reduce their ecological footprint.

Understanding the organization's ecological footprint is the first step to taking steps to improve it. Moving towards a resource-efficient business model also helps build trust and makes organizations more transparent amongst stakeholders. And, more importantly, it ensures that the organization plays its role to improve the future. 

 

Use EcoOnline's Environmental Reporting Software to Track Your Ecological Footprint

Businesses can use EcoOnline's Environmental Reporting Software to track their ecological and carbon footprint. It's a fully customizable cloud-based platform that makes it easy for organizations to identify their material consumption and their ecological footprint, and take steps to reduce it.