Encyclopaedia of the Earth (EoE) – Ecological Footprint explained

The open source Encyclopaedia of Earth is a remarkably comprehensive teaching/learning resource. It is a wide-ranging on-line collection of summaries  of many concepts relating to Spaceship Earth. The edited extract below on the idea of the ‘Ecological Footprint’ offers an example of the EoE’s rich material. The language level makes the encyclopaedia more appropriate for higher education staff and students and perhaps upper secondary pupils. The conclusion that humans now require 1.5 earths (global bio-capacity) places us in what is termed ‘global overshoot’. OUR PLANET IS FULL! This startling conclusion is reinforced by the video presentations of Jonathan Foley (no.13) and Paul Gilding (no.15) here.

What is the Ecological Footprint?

Ecological Footprint is a way of measuring human demand on the biosphere in relation to the resources of the planet (Spaceship Earth).

The human economy is entirely dependent on the biosphere and  on its ecological services that humans consume.  Nature can renew the biosphere and cope with human demand as long as this demand does not grow faster than the rate of renewal of forests, water supplies, soils, etc.

Ecological Footprint measures the extent to which human economies stay within the capacity of the planet to renew the supplies from the biosphere. It shows who uses which portion of this supply capacity. Also which type of human activity uses what proportion of renewable resources .

Resources and waste flows can be tracked, and linked to the biologically productive required to maintain them. So, the Ecological Footprint of a population is how much biologically productive land and water area that the population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates, using today’s technology. Because people consume resources and ecological services from all over the world, their Footprint is the sum of these areas, wherever they are on the planet.

How is it expressed?

The EF is measured in global hectares – how many ‘biologically productive’ hectares are needed per person to sustain their average consumption and waste production. The figures are based on world-averages for production, consumption and waste. This measurement unit, or ‘ecological currency’ makes comparisons possible across the world. The human global economy now has a Footprint that is bigger than the planet’s bio-capacity (ecological services) to support it. The Earth’s biologically productive area was approximately 11.2 billion hectares or 1.8 global hectares per person in 2002 (some of this capacity humanity may want to set aside for wild species). However, the global Ecological Footprint in 2002 was 13.7 billion global hectares or 2.2 global hectares per person. Thus, in 2002, humanity’s Ecological Footprint exceeded global bio-capacity by 0.4 global hectares per person, or 23 per cent. Thus the human economy is in ecological overshoot: the planet’s natural resources are being depleted, eroding future supply of natural resources and risking environmental collapse. Results for 150 countries around the world are listed at the  European Environmental Agency

Who manages this measure?

Created by William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel in Canada in the early 1990s, the method has developed considerably since and is now coordinated by the Global Footprint Network, founded in 2003, and its 40 partner organizations.

How is it used?

The Ecological Footprint can be applied at many levels from single products, to households, organizations, cities, regions, nations, and humanity as a whole. The Footprint is used by governments and organizations to measure and manage sustainability efforts. By measuring the overall supply of and human demand on the Earth’s biosphere’s ability to renew itself, the Ecological Footprint helps to track progress, set targets, and drive policies for sustainability.

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