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Our Past & Our Future

The Footprint has grown from an initial research question to a common household phrase. Learn more about our past and where we will go next.
Where we come from

Everyone should be able to look forward to a bright future where we all thrive within the means of our one planet. However, our economies are currently running a fraudulent Ponzi (or pyramid) scheme with our planet. We are consuming natural resources faster than they can regenerate; we are using the Earth’s future resources to operate in the present; we are digging ourselves deeper and deeper into ecological debt.

Prosperity can only last if we embrace the limits of our planet. Accepting limits allows us to build an economy that works forever. Ignoring limits leads to a finite, time-limited economy which steadily since it erodes the planet it depends on.

A path to success – or to one-planet prosperity – requires robust metrics that relate our global context to local decisions. Measure what you treasure: To build a world where all can thrive, we need to know how much nature we have and how much we use.

The origin of the metric

The core of Global Footprint Network is the Ecological Footprint, a comprehensive sustainability metric. It was created by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees in the early 1990s as part of Wackernagel’s PhD research at the University of British Columbia. Over the years, the Ecological Footprint concept has grown to become a household phrase around the world. The term “footprint” has become synonymous with human behavior and its impact.

Global Footprint Network’s key strategy has been to make available robust Ecological Footprint data. The Ecological Footprint continues to be the only metric that comprehensively compares human demand on nature against nature’s capacity to regenerate. It is based on simple, straightforward accounting – not on arbitrary scoring. Since its inception, Global Footprint Network has calculated Footprints of countries for each year that UN data has been available. Currently this means 1961 to 2018. Together with our partners, we have made every annual edition more transparent and more accurate. This has included rigorous reviews by government institutes and advisory committees.

The Footprint’s growing success

Since our inception in 2003, the National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts have garnered widespread attention. Its results are included in countless reports by organizations like the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), UN Environment, and the European Environment Agency. We have engaged with more than 70 country governments on six continents and partnered with over 80 organizations. Over 15 national governments have applied our metric to their own policy initiatives.

We work with researchers around the world and are legally established as charitable organizations both in California, US as well as in Geneva, Switzerland.

To expand our reach, we launched the Ecological Footprint Explorer open data platform in 2017. This makes our Footprint and biocapacity data for more than 200 countries freely available. The Ecological Footprint Calculator, which was introduced online in 2007 and refreshed in 2017, currently draws almost 4 million users per year. There have been over 20 million visitors since it was launched. At the beginning of each school year, thousands of teachers around the world use the Ecological Footprint Calculator to introduce their students to sustainability.

In 2006, we started our annual Earth Overshoot Day campaign, which marks the date when humanity has used more from nature than our planet can renew in the entire year. In 2021, Earth Overshoot Day was on July 29. In 2020, it moved all they way to August 22 due to the COVID lockdown; though by disaster, not design. Yet it was still earlier than in 2000 when it fell on September 23. In 2021, Earth Overshoot Day received more than 7 billion media impressions in more than 100 countries (up from 3 billion in 2018). Most members of the public, in Europe and Latin America in particular, are familiar with Earth Overshoot Day. Now we also show how we can #MoveTheDate and push out the date of Earth Overshoot Day. If we move the date 6 days a year, humanity will be using less than one Earth before 2050. Yet, complying with IPCC’s most recent 2030 reduction targets would require 10 days per year. Recognizing this, #MoveTheDate has become a rallying cry for pioneering business leaders such as Schneider Electric, environmental organizations, forward-looking politicians, and sustainability enthusiasts alike.

Where we are going

Humanity has shattered its budgetary limit: data indicates that carbon emissions combined with all other human demands on the biosphere consume more than 175% of what the Earth replenishes—in effect, we now use nearly two planets. In the wake of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, it became obvious that governments and institutions move far more slowly than what is warranted. The IPCC 1.5°C special report (October 2018) confirms unequivocally that the only option is to transition to regenerative economies that live off, rather than liquidate, our natural capital. Natural resource production can be infinite if we maintain that capital. In contrast, business as usual is eroding our ability to thrive. Living within the means of our planet does not mean that people have to live with discomfort and without human dignity. Thriving is possible if we put our heads, hearts and hands to it. What’s holding us back? Can we drop our reluctance at last and open ourselves to the astounding challenges and opportunities that lie in designing a one-planet society and economy?

Faced with the need to make our way of life one-planet compatible, Global Footprint Network stepped up the game. It is recognizing that as long as achieving sustainability is seen as noble rather than necessary, action will be inadequate. The reality is that we all have skin in the game, whether we recognize it or not. Proactive adoption of sustainability is becoming central to our own success.

Co-founder and President Mathis Wackernagel reflected on our strategies and failures in communicating about resource constraints and biological regeneration. We published a series of blog posts in which he shares his reflections on what we’ve learned from our communications over the years. This communication exploration and an in-depth report were made possible thanks to generous funding from the MAVA Foundation for Nature.

Global Footprint Network’s focus now is to make obvious to decision-makers and its influencers that our own success is at stake. In other words, inaction is becoming self-destructive. We help our audiences recognize that enhancing their own resource security makes them stronger—that it is an imperative, not a nice-to-have. This shift in conviction will ultimately #MoveTheDate.

Our data-driven work drives the transformation to significantly and consistently #MoveTheDate in two ways:

  1. We are creating demand for sustainability through large-scale engagement. Global Footprint Network is shifting the narrative by strengthening visceral demand, not just hope, for sustainability. By showing people and institutions everywhere that sustainability is our best success strategy, we create what is currently missing: desire and demand. This is essential for all of us to #MoveTheDate. Our engagements reach from:
    ● global campaigns like Earth Overshoot Day that focus the conversation on resource security, to
    ● our Footprint Calculator that feeds into
    ● the #MoveTheDate platform that invites people to declare publicly the solutions they admire, to
    direct engagements with companies, cities and countries turning Footprint results into powerful decision-tools.
    Our ambition is to make these engagements psychologically effective and astute, so the experiences we create on these platforms leave people passionate about building the future they want. Direct engagements with partners and clients include customized calculators, detailed Footprint data, support for sustainability campaigns, or applied sustainability assessments, from products, to cities, regions or countries. For example, projects may focus on particular aspects such as food systems, countries’ competitiveness, or tourism. Learn more about what we offer here.
  2. We are establishing independent Footprint accounts. Global Footprint Network is turning the National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts into an autonomous entity. To bring them to the next level of influence, they need to be independently produced and governed, so they become more trusted and neutral. Transparency and robustness are key to making the accounts’ acceptable. It is also helpful that they are based on basic accounting principles (adding up competing demands for biocapacity) and calculated exclusively with official data from the UN. This new organization is FoDaFo – the Footprint Data Foundation which has been established by Global Footprint Network and York University in Toronto in 2019. It now owns and produces through York University transparent and robust National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts to inform public and private decision-making. While Global Footprint Network is still supporting the development of FoDaFo, FoDaFo is governed by an international board, advised by a scientific review committee. The plan is to amplify this effort through a powerful academic research network. This setup will allow far more researchers to participate and apply their innovative contributions, while maintaining stability and consistency of the Accounts through careful governance and scientific review. While ultimately carried by a group of forward-looking countries (the envisioned One-Planet Alliance), the initiative strives to boost the reach, utility, and adoption of the Ecological Footprint among all stakeholders.
What we’re committed to

Transforming humanity’s trajectory is more pressing than ever. A sustainable path is the only viable way forward. We must stop stealing our future resources to fuel our economy’s obsession with unsustainable growth.

Global Footprint Network’s ambition is clear. We want to end Earth Overshoot Day. By design, and not by disaster. We are determined to accelerate humanity’s shared desire to #MoveTheDate of overshoot and exit the erosive ecological Ponzi (or pyramid) scheme that our economies are running with the planet. Together, we have the foresight and the capacity to innovate towards one-planet prosperity. With you we can make it happen.

Join us in creating a world where people,
planet, and economies thrive.