The Ecological Footprint is the only metric that measures how much nature we have and how much nature we use. The Footprint helps:
improve sustainability and well-being
optimize public project investments
understand their impact on the planet
How the Footprint Works
Ecological Footprint accounting measures the demand on and supply of nature.
On the demand side, the Ecological Footprint adds up all the productive areas for which a population, a person or a product competes. It measures the ecological assets that a given population or product requires to produce the natural resources it consumes (including plant-based food and fiber products, livestock and fish products, timber and other forest products, space for urban infrastructure) and to absorb its waste, especially carbon emissions.
The Ecological Footprint tracks the use of productive surface areas. Typically these areas are: cropland, grazing land, fishing grounds, built-up land, forest area, and carbon demand on land.
On the supply side, a city, state or nation’s biocapacity represents the productivity of its ecological assets (including cropland, grazing land, forest land, fishing grounds, and built-up land). These areas, especially if left unharvested, can also serve to absorb the waste we generate, especially our carbon emissions from burning fossil fuel.
Both the Ecological Footprint and biocapacity are expressed in global hectares—globally comparable, standardized hectares with world average productivity.
Each city, state or nation’s Ecological Footprint can be compared to its biocapacity.
If a population’s Ecological Footprint exceeds the region’s biocapacity, that region runs a biocapacity deficit. Its demand for the goods and services that its land and seas can provide—fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, wood, cotton for clothing, and carbon dioxide absorption—exceeds what the region’s ecosystems can regenerate. In more popular communications, we also call this “an ecological deficit.” A region in ecological deficit meets demand by importing, liquidating its own ecological assets (such as overfishing), and/or emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If a region’s biocapacity exceeds its Ecological Footprint, it has a biocapacity reserve.
Together with York University, Toronto, Global Footprint Network is building a coalition of countries, supported by a rigorous global academic network, around The National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts. This new initiative will independently own and produce the Accounts with highest reliability, so they can inform public and private decision-making in an unbiased way.
Today, more than 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that are running ecological deficits, using more resources than what their ecosystems can regenerate. How does your country compare? Visit our Ecological Footprint Explorer open data platform to find the answer.
The world’s ecological deficit is referred to as global ecological overshoot. Since the 1970s, humanity has been in ecological overshoot, with annual demand on resources exceeding Earth’s biocapacity. Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and eight months to regenerate what we use in a year. We use more ecological resources and services than nature can regenerate through overfishing, overharvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than forests can sequester.
Every year Global Footprint Network raises awareness about global ecological overshoot with our Earth Overshoot Day campaign, which attracts media attention around the world. Earth Overshoot Day is marks the date we (all of humanity) have used more from nature than our planet can regenerate in the entire year. Earth Overshoot Day has moved from late September in 2000 to July 29 in 2021.
We must begin to make ecological limits central to our decision-making and use human ingenuity to find new ways to live well, within the Earth’s bounds. This means investing in technology and infrastructure that will allow us to operate in a resource-constrained world. It means taking individual action, and creating the public demand for businesses and policy makers to participate.
Each country has its own ecological risk profile: The majority of countries are running ecological deficits, demanding more from nature than their ecosystems can regenerate. Others depend heavily on resources from elsewhere, which are under increasing pressure. The Ecological Footprint is a resource accounting tool that helps countries manage their ecological resources and secure their future.