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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 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 into ecological debt.

Prosperity can only last if we embrace the limits of our planet. Accepting limits allows us to build an unlimited economy, one that works forever. Ignoring limits leads to a finite, time-limited economy 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 wildly successful. It is now a household phrase around the world. The term “footprint” has become synonymous with human 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 UN data is available. Currently this means 1961 to 2014. 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 Accounts have garnered widespread attention. Its results are included in countless reports by organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), UN Environment, and the European Environment Agency. We have engaged with more than 70 countries on six continents, and partnered with over 80 organizations. Over 15 national governments have applied the metric.

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, currently draws almost 3 million users per year. There have been 13 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. Earth Overshoot Day received more than 3 billion media impressions in more than 100 countries in 2018 alone. Most members of the public, in Europe and Latin America in particular, are familiar with Earth Overshoot Day. #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

In the wake of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, it became obvious that governments and institutions move far more slowly than the climate challenge warrants. The October 2018 IPCC report 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 so long as we maintain that capital. In contrast, business as usual is eroding our ability to thrive. Our data indicates that it now takes 1.7 Earths to renew what humanity demands. So, we ask: What’s holding us back? Can we drop our anxieties and prevarications 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, we stepped up the game. We decided to split into two entities to keep data description clearly separate from data interpretation. We are establishing a new entity to produce the accounts, and are refocusing the existing organization on applications that #MoveTheDate. We are doing this by:

  1. Establishing Independent Footprint Accounts. Global Footprint Network is turning the National Footprint Accounts into an independent entity. Embraced by an alliance of countries, and supported by a global academic network, this new entity will own and produce transparent and robust National Footprint Accounts to inform public and private decision-making. Governed by an international board, advised by a scientific review committee, and amplified by a powerful academic research network, the initiative strives to boost the reach, utility, and adoption of the Ecological Footprint. This new Ecological Footprint Initiative, which Global Footprint Network is developing jointly with York University in Toronto, will guarantee the the independence of the National Footprint Accounts. Also, it 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.
  2. Amplifying fearless and productive engagement. Global Footprint Network turns data into action. Together with our partners, we apply insights from the National Footprint Accounts and other resource assessments to our campaigns and projects. This includes amplifying Earth Overshoot Day, converting the Ecological Footprint Calculator into an engine to #MoveTheDate with millions of participants, and turning Footprint results into powerful decision-tools. For instance, we partner with clients to provide services such as customized calculators, detailed Footprint data, support for sustainability campaigns, or applied sustainability assessments, from products, to cities, regions or countries. This includes more focused approaches such as the assessment of food systems, countries’ competitiveness, or tourism. Learn more about what we offer here.
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 make Earth Overshoot Day history. We are determined to accelerate humanity’s shared desire to #MoveTheDate of overshoot and exit the erosive ecological 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.