Ecological Footprint:
Managing Our Biocapacity Budget


What good is a plane without cockpit dials? Sure, it flies. But how high, how fast, and in which direction? What is its exact position? In rough weather or at night, flying without instruments becomes sketchy. Even in good weather. Particularly if basic instruments — like the fuel gauge — are missing. Without knowing how much fuel is left in the tanks, any flight becomes unsafe.

Operating an economy is similar. Like a plane, an economy is fueled. The difference is that an economy not only requires kerosene but also devours coal, food, timber, water, and many other materials our planet provides. How many resources does it take for each breakfast, vacation, or new apartment each person may enjoy? How much nature does a city, a power plant, a nation, or the entire human enterprise use? If we are so utterly dependent on all these resources, how come our economies do not have fuel gauges?

In our daily lives, we pretty much know the dollar value of everything. Why? Because our financial budgets are limited. We want to know what we can afford. Like our own financial budget, nature’s resource budget is limited too. And the mother of all resources, the most limiting resource, is, as we will see, the biological assets — our planet’s biocapacity. So how much nature can we afford? And if indeed nature’s budget is limited, why don’t we measure it?

One possible answer is that we did not have a reasonable instrument for measuring our demand on nature. Also, for a long time, no tool was needed, since nature appeared to be immense and endless. It is different today. Now nature’s limits have become obvious, whether it is groundwater depletion, climate change, or decline of the oceans’ fish stocks.

Good measurement instruments finally exist: with the Ecological Footprint, we can measure our use of nature. It offers a basic ecological accounting system. While for the economy, money is typically used as the accounting unit, the Footprint uses biologically productive surfaces of the Earth as its currency. These surfaces harbor the most significant resource on our planet: the capacity of Earth to renew itself. On surface areas, photosynthesis transforms sunlight, water, nutrients into plant matter, over and over again. Therefore, every demand of the economy on nature’s ability to produce and renew plant matter can be expressed as the corresponding surface area needed to meet this demand. Yield figures tell us how much cropland, a forest, or grazing land provides each year. This is the demand side of the story.

We can also measure with ever greater precision what nature supplies, thanks to modern technology. Satellites deliver us up-to- date images of our planet. They show where forests, cities, streets, deserts, lakes, pastures, or grasslands are located. Those satellite pictures can be verified by direct measures in the field. On-the- ground measures track, for instance, how many potatoes or how much wheat is actually grown. At the country level, United Nations statistics provide detailed numbers for most of these resource flows: land areas, yields of the various land types, amounts produced and traded, population size, energy use, and so on.

Financial accounts always look at two sides: income against expenditures, or assets against liabilities. Footprint accounting is tracking demand on nature against what nature renews. It is a basic, straightforward, science-based description: How much nature is available (income)? How much nature do people use (expenditure)? To manage the ecological capital of our planet merely on gut instincts does not make much sense. No one would bring their money to a bank that does no bookkeeping. A bank statement gives us an objective financial review — a status report. This is exactly what’s needed for the resource situation of the planet at this time. That’s the reason why the Footprint primarily aims at government and business decision-makers. But these accounts also need to be understood by the citizenry so they can hold their decision-makers accountable.

The Footprint reveals how much of our planet’s productive area is used for each human activity. Complex processes can be summed up in one single number, similarly as money gets reported in simple numbers like Return on Investment or Revenue versus Costs. This boils complex issues down to their essence and makes them accessible. It allows us to negotiate. The Footprint, therefore, is not only a communication tool that is intuitively understood by a broad public. It also serves as a transparent tracking tool to measure the performance of policies and the implications of decisions in public and private domains.

The parallels between economy and ecology goes beyond their names. In both domains, mismanagement is characterized by spending more than you earn. Physics and value creation have to go hand in hand: how can the value of real estate expand continuously, even if the actual real estate object does not change? How can we continuously accumulate a huge amount of debt and hope that somehow sometime it can be paid off? How can we continuously increase money supply without adding commensurate tangible value (even Google searches are “material,” and so are bitcoins, digital photographs, or iTunes).

How can we presume that expansion works forever? How can we expect an economy to forever deliver more, without expanding the natural capital needed to fuel the economy accordingly? How come we commonly forget that income generation depends on resource availability?

According to the latest Footprint calculations, humanity overused nature’s biological budget (the biocapacity of the planet) by 75% in 2019. In other words, humanity uses nature currently 75% faster than it renews. This overuse is called ecological overshoot. Most estimates predict that the global population will rise from about 7.7 billion today to 9 or 10 billion in 2050. And the residents of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) will continue to work hard to raise their standards of living. And so will many others, in spite of potential economic turmoil. All these forces turn resource security into the central challenge of the 21st century.

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