Ecological Footprint

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THE EColoGICAL footprint is a metaphor for ecological impact, regardless of where that impact occurs. The ecological footprint is also an ecological accounting tool, a measure of the environmental impact of consumption and subsequent waste discharge. Consumption items are divided into food, shelter, transportation, and consumer goods and services. The consumption impact is measured by converting impact variables into the single unit of land, measured in hectares or acres. This includes land appropriated by fossil energy use, the built environment, gardens, cropland, pasture, managed forest, and land of limited availability, including untouched forests and non-productive areas, such as deserts and icecaps. The major strength of the ecological footprint as a way of measuring the sustainability of cities is that it enables a picture of the flow of materials into and out of the city.

Bill Rees and his students, particularly Mathis Wackernagel, developed the concept of Ecological Footprints (EFs) as a way of ascertaining sustainability at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Most analyses of sustainability, whether radical or mainstream, recognize that major concen trations of human consumption generate impacts far beyond a nation or a city's formal boundaries. Prior to the invention of the concept of EFs, very few policy, lobby group, or academic analyses successfully moved beyond highlighting these external impacts as issues that needed to be addressed. Ecological footprint analysis managed to put forward a way of both measuring and vividly demonstrating how ecological impacts extend far beyond the official area of cities or countries.

The EF approach is similar to the idea of "ghost acres" developed by the Swedish academic Georg Borgstrom in 1965. The focus of Borgstrom's work was adequate nutrition for a growing population. The ghost acres were comprised of fish acreage and trade acreage. Jim MacNeill and colleagues extended the concept in the lead-up to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The metaphor of ghost acres for food production was extended to include other consumption concerns, and repackaged as "shadow ecologies." More recently, William Catton discussed the idea of "phantom land." This concept refers to how humans currently use the ecological productivity of ecosystems that no longer exist. For example, nature cannot replace fossil fuels such as coal and oil at the rate that humans are diminishing the stock of nonrenewable resources. The goal of ecological footprints is to document "overshoot," which refers to the excess global demand over global supply, of nature's resources for human use.

Since the original EF methodology was developed, a number of different approaches have emerged. At the Footprints Forum in Siena, Italy, in June 2006, an international standard for foot-printing was introduced to ensure consistency. This standard was divided into application standards and communication standards. Standard number 15 attempts to clarify the relationship between EFs and sustainability; that ecological footprinting is a necessary criterion for sustainability, but it is not an absolute indicator of sustainability. This point is crucial because the EF is a tool that may be used to inform choices and policy development, but it is not a predictive tool, nor can it be a surrogate for environmental policy.

Although the national scale is used as a benchmark in the 2006 Footprint Standards, the EF approach can be used at a variety of scales that have been labeled sub-national. These include cities, regions, states, counties, and organizations. In the case of a city, the approach can be used to calculate the equivalent amount of land consumed for a city to function. This equivalent amount of land is influenced by changes in both population and per capita material consumption.

Critiques have been made about the ecological footprint concept. These include questioning the desirability of converting everything into a single unit, called land. Although the goal may be deciding how best to limit the footprint. However, reducing the size of the ecological footprint does not equate to reducing environmental impacts if the uniqueness of nature, the cultural values associated with particular sites, and so on, are lost in this quantification process.

There is also the problem of boundary definition for comparing ecological footprint scores. It is easy to achieve a smaller EF where the boundary around a city is drawn wide enough to include agricultural land. There have been studies of many cities around the world using similar methodologies, which make it possible to compare the results and arrive at some logical, but erroneous, conclusions. Areas with a high population and with little or no agricultural land within their borders will inevitably generate a higher EF, unless there is a huge difference in the material consumption between areas.

The high ecological footprint for many places is primarily due to the use of "energy land." This land is calculated as the amount of land and water required as carbon sinks to sequester the greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activities, including energy production, agriculture, and transport. This carbon component now comprises about half the total EF. It has increased approximately nine fold since 1961 because of reliance on fossil fuels.

Critics of the ecological footprint methodology question the assumption that land is used only for single functions, or that land uses only meet one particular ecological service. While footprint advocates claim that the ecological footprint tends to underestimate humanity's demands on the available resources of the planet, critics claim that one implication of ignoring the potential of land to be used for multiple purposes simultaneously is to bias the ecological footprint upwards.

The concept of the ecological footprint as a way of measuring sustainability and as a catalyst for positive changes has become increasingly popular in environmental policy and environmental planning work. While it can be applied at a variety of scales, the concept has been very important in encouraging urban planners and environmental managers to look beyond the traditional scales of planning and environmental management to consider the regional and international environmental impacts of urban activities.

SEE ALSO: Carbon Sinks; Energy Efficiency; Food Production; Resources; Sustainability; Technology; Transportation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. Georg Borgstrom, The Hungry Planet: The Modern World at the Edge of Famine (Macmillan, 1972); William Catton Jr., Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (University of Illinois Press, 1980); Global Footprint Network Standards Committees, Ecological Footprint Standards 2006 (Global Footprint Network, 2006); Jim MacNeill, Pieter Winsemius, and Taizo Yakushiji, Beyond Interdependence: The Meshing of the World's Economy and the Earth's Ecology (Oxford University Press, 1991); Phil McManus and Graham Haughton, "Planning with Ecological Footprints: A Sympathetic Critique of Theory and Practice," Environment and Urbanization (v.18/1, 2006); Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth (New Society Publishers, 1996).

Phil McManus University of Sydney

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