Ecological footprint is an index of environmental sustainability and learning framework used to calculate human consumption and its impact on the environment. The framework makes the sustainability concept more understandable, providing policy-makers with a sound standard for evaluating policies and projects. The ecological footprint model is also a practical tool that helps individuals estimate resource consumption and waste generation parameters of a certain population relevant to the corresponding useful land and water area.
The concept of ecological footprint was first introduced in the book “Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on Earth” by Rees & Wackernagel. The concept itself has evolved from the model of the carrying capacity, where the entity analyzed is a finite amount of land and its ability to support a specific human population. It is argued that the carrying capacity model was not satisfactorily equipped to account for all the environmental impacts of resource consumption beyond a defined land area.
Ecological footprint is based on the idea that for every item of material or energy consumption and waste assimilation, a definite amount of land is required. Ecological footprint analysis is thus an advanced model based on two assumptions:
- Most resources that a certain population consumes as well as waste it generates can be identified and calculated
- Resources and waste can be converted to land areas that are biotically productive
To determine total land area required to support a pattern of consumption for a given population, it is needed to estimate land-use implications of every important consumption category. Since it is not possible to assess all land requirements that supply, maintain and receive all consumer goods, the calculations are usually confined to five major categories with a few individual items in such categories: housing, food, consumer goods, transportation and services. For a deeper analysis, it is possible to subdivide each of the categories. For an each item consumed, an analysis includes all the energy and resources that account for the production, use and disposal of the item.
Estimating the ecological footprint of a person is a multilevel process. First, an average person’s yearly consumption of a particular item is estimated on local, regional or national level by dividing total consumption by the population size. The consumption pertains to energy, food and other relevant items. The accuracy of the ecological footprint analysis depends on the quality of statistical data available.
Advantages of The Ecological Footprint Concept
There are many concepts similar to the ecological footprint concept, including energy analysis examining systems, lifecycle assessments, lifestyle energy assessment, calculation of net primary productivity of the world’s ecosystems and others. What differentiates the ecological footprint from other assessment methods is the way it interprets throughput analysis of human activities. That is, it combines human impact in an ecologically relevant way. It further expresses these impacts in mutually restricted spaces. Ecological footprint has the ability to convey the link between humans and the ecosystems through the utilization of resources. The power of the concept is that it can translate very complex patterns into a numerical value.
The ecological footprint model also recognizes that humans are biological organisms and that their economy is a fully contained, developing and dependent sub-system of the ecosystem which is limited in size and cannot further expand. The concept thus links people with the land in addition to providing a framework for comparative accounting of different nations.
Disadvantages of The Ecological Footprint Concept
The concept is often blamed for being an implausible tool, made for the purpose of attracting media attention. A key critique of the model is that it was developed on an interpretation of strong sustainability, while that the concept developers espoused strong sustainability as the fundamental standard for ecological thought. A strong sustainability explanation indicates confidence that sustainability is a subject of status quo–being atmospheric levels of CO2 or stable quantities of stored energy. The concept maintains that the level of substitution between most natural capital and human-made capital is close to zero or can be linked with the hypothesis that nature has an inherent value that should be guarded. The concept furthermore argues that at least some critical, irreversible natural capital stock should not be declining over time, since substitution with human-made capital is not likely to be feasible. Critics also say that the strong sustainability method does not account for present and future technological improvements as well as human ingenuity that would overcome environmental problems including climate change. Hence, a substitution of the natural capital is probable. They further claim that the concept excludes economic and social indicators because humankind must be included in the calculation.
The opponents have further critiqued the concept for lack of comprehensiveness in translating different consumption categories into corresponding land areas. First, no account is taken of regional and local land types and its use. It is often pointed out that some categories (i.e. land appropriated by farming), receives similar significance regardless of different levels of environmental impact. The ecological footprint calculates hypothetical land area while failing to distinguish between sustainable and unsustainable land use. The opponents further argue that according to ecological footprint, land use has a single function only. But, in many cases land use provides many functions. The concept is also challenged by the fact that the measurement and aggregation procedures to address environmental impacts due to energy use (such as land used by fossil fuels) are imprecise. The correct for this fault the procedures, for instance, should include the land required to sequester CO2 (including forests).
Data for the calculation of ecological footprint has been widely generated and applied today, enabling individuals, scientists and policy makers to use it with improved precision and comprehensiveness. Due to the inbuilt flexibility, additional variables are being constantly introduced into the formula, thus enhancing its strength. The ecological footprint can be calculated for global, regional, national and local scales and be tailored to the needs of policy makers to focus on different geographical zones, climate zones and ecosystems.
It can be concluded that the ecological footprint idea, in spite of its disadvantages, is a promising sustainability indicator. Its application can facilitate a better appreciation of important sustainability-related issues such as resource consumption and waste generation. More importantly, given its flexible structure, this tool can be used to educate society about its contribution to environmental crises including loss of biodiversity, climate change and habitat destruction.
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