The Fundamentals of Ecological Footprint
Ecological Footprint (EF) is a simple and, therefore, popular measure of evaluating environmental performance in our quest to understand and address critical issues such as Global Warming and Climate Change. Its simplicity is an asset when explaining environmental issues to laymen, but somewhat of a liability when trying to comprehend ecological challenges in their entirety. Precisely why other measures have evolved. Since the dawn of the industrial age, humans have taken their liberties with nature to unprecedented levels. So much so that today, the very existence of humans on this planet is endangered. Environment supplies us with all the resources we need to survive and thrive. It also absorbs all our wastes, but very slowly.
The more resources we consume, the more wastes we create. It is precisely the imbalance between the galloping rate of resource extraction and waste generation on one side with the lumbering pace of waste assimilation and resource regeneration on the other that is at the root of the evil of pollution. If we have to leave a better planet for future generations, we have to adopt sustainable development. The sooner the better, for “there are no rewards and punishments in nature, only consequences’” as aptly summed by William Ralph Inge.
Keywords: ecological footprint, global warming, climate change, sustainable development, carrying capacity, pros and cons of ecological footprint, environmental performance index, environmental conservation, industrial revolution, pollution, natural resource degradation.
The Fundamentals of Ecological Footprint
Emergence of Sustainable Development
Any debate on present day environmental issues has to begin with the Industrial Revolution. The process ushered in the era of machines, which skyrocketed production quantities even as greater exploitation of resources became the norm. Consumption expanded alongside and created more wastes. Unless we seriously re-examine our lifestyles, an irreversible environmental disaster of biblical proportions is just round the corner.
Seeking to strike a balance between economic development and environment, there emerged the concept of sustainable development. The term as such was coined at the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development or the Brundtland Commission and was defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (International Institute of Sustainable Development [IISD], n.d.)
Environment is simply the sum total of all planetary resources, biotic and abiotic (National Council for Education Research and Training [NCERT], 2007). An ecosystem consists of all living and non living elements of a particular area that are bound in a complex web of relationships with each other and with their surroundings. Environment is, therefore, the sum total of all ecosystems on the planet that serves three important functions:
- provision of resources
- assimilation of wastes
- maintenance of biodiversity and life on earth
It is the environment supplies us with all resources, including those used for economic production. The processes for their conversion to finished goods and subsequent consumption generates wastes, which the environment can absorb and reconvert to resources, but only at a snail’s pace.
When the rate of resource extraction and of waste generation respectively exceeds the rate of resource regeneration and of waste assimilation, pollution results and hampers the ability of the environment to maintain biodiversity (NCERT, 2007). Such imbalance has gathered pace since the advent of the industrial age.
Biodiversity includes all life on the planet and it is the interrelationships between living creatures and their reciprocal connections with the environment that sustains life on earth. If we are to continue with an unsustainable development trajectory, life on earth would disappear sooner or later. Now, that is a haunting prospect requiring a prompt remedy lest we all perish.
Ecological Footprint as a Measure of Sustainability
Among the earliest measures of sustainability is the Ecological Footprint (EF) that was developed in the early 1990s by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel (Bunker, n.d.) in Canada. EF is defined as ‘the land area needed exclusively to produce the natural resources that population consumes and to assimilate wastes that it generates indefinitely’. It is measured in hectares per person.
EF is based on the concept of ‘carrying capacity’ of a given region i.e. the maximum rate of resource extraction and waste discharge that the region can sustain indefinitely without negatively affecting the functioning of its relevant ecosystems. EF links the first two functions of the environment and its third function that is essential for sustainability.
Available capacity is that area of biologically productive land available for a person to obtain his resources from and absorb his wastes. On the global scale, only 2.1 hectares of land is available for every person on an average (Pulsipher, 2012). EF is calculated by dividing the total production of a country by the land area needed to support this production and absorb the wastes that the use of this produce will generate. The global average EF was 2.7 ha per person in 2010 (Pulsipher, 2012).
Comparing the available capacity and EF (required land areas), we are overshooting the use of our land area by 33 percent. What is more alarming, we have not even considered the area required for other species. If we were to leave half of this planet for animals, which we as a greedy species will certainly not, the available capacity becomes 1.05 ha person and our usage is 157 percent of the available. From where are we going to bring another one and a half planet?
Simplicity is the foremost merit of the EF concept. Even laymen can easily grasp this concept in terms of the land area needed. And because it is simple, it motivates people to lower their EF. It is based on the scientific principle of lifecycle of resources and the wastes that they generate.
Reflection of its simplicity is also found in its methods of calculations because it clubs together different categories of consumables as well as environmental consequences into a single entity. Such bundling enables general comparison based on the near total consumption, not isolated comparison based on usage of specific goods.
By focusing on consumption, EF brings out the importance of a low demand lifestyle. The lesser you consume, the less wastes you generate and the better you are from the environmental point of view. And since the world is divided into wealthy nations and people consuming more and poor nations and people using fewer resources, EF maintains the emphasis on equity and global justice (Holden, 2004).
A major fallout of EF’s simplicity is its rather limited approach, for it includes only those consumption and emission types that are extracted from land and absorbed into land while ignoring conventional pollution of air and water (Acrewoods, n.d.). Then again, it is completely silent on the quality of life of the people (Acrewoods, n.d.).
Some of the techniques employed for the calculation of EF are questionable. For example it does not measure water usage against water availability but takes into consideration the amount of power / energy needed to provide water. Moreover, the methodology employed for measurement of land required to neutralize the emitted carbon dioxide is not foolproof.
Environmental Performance Index (EPI)
Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is probably the best measure of sustainability. EPI was developed in 2008 and has evolved from the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI). The EPI ranks countries based on how close they have performed on the environmental public health and the ecosystem vitality fronts in relation to declared policy goals in this regard (Environmental Performance Index, 2012).
The EPI score is based on the difference between the quantified policy goal and actual performance of a country on 25 environmental performance indicators that are placed under six defined policy categories. For e.g. if the stated goal is to make drinking water available to 1 million people but was made available to 0.5 million only, the difference will reflect as a low score on this indicator. All the scores are added and the final value is arrived at.
Most statistical techniques and measures cannot be said to be completely irrelevant. Their utility is usually contextual. Possibly as an acknowledgement of its simplicity that imparts mass appeal to it, the Global Footprint Network is trying to make EF relevant to policy makers and businesses by standardization of the calculation techniques used.
Acrewoods. (n.d.). Ecological footprinting – Methods and limitations. Retrieved from http://www.acrewoods.net/environment/ecological-footprinting
Bunker, G. (n.d.). Ecological footprint analysis: Background and rationale. Retrieved from http://geog.utm.utoronto.ca/ecofootprint/efbackground.html
Environmental Performance Index. (2012). Retrieved from http://epi.yale.edu/
Holden, E. (2004). Ecological footprints and sustainable urban form. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, 19(1), 91-109. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41107246?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD). (n.d.). Sustainable development. Retrieved from http://www.iisd.org/topic/sustainable-development
Issacdaavid. (2018). World map of countries by ecological deficit (2013). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:World_map_of_countries_by_ecological_deficit_(2013).svg
National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT). (2007). Environment and sustainable development. In Indian Economic Development (pp. 162-178). NCERT.
Pulsipher, J.L. (2012). What is an Ecological Footprint? Retrieved from https://carbonfund.org/2012/09/07/what-is-an-ecological-footprint/
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