We explain what the ecological footprint is, how it is calculated and its classification. Also, what are its characteristics and importance.

What is the ecological footprint?

The ecological footprint is  a measure of the environmental impact of the hand of man in the different ecosystems , in view of the Earth 's capacity to renew its resources .

It is a key ecological indicator to measure the sustainability of human activities , evaluating their impact on nature. Thus, the ecological footprint of a city , a region, a person , an industrial activity can be measured, depending on the scale on which it is applied.

In this way, the ecological footprint allows comparisons to be made between the impact, risk and benefit of certain human activities or certain forms of social organization , thus establishing a language to optimize their sustainability .

What does the ecological footprint refer to?

What does the ecological footprint refer to?

In principle, the ecological footprint represents the area of ecologically active natural resources (land, air, water) used by an activity, community or waste reabsorption process over a period of time.

This calculation can be really complex depending on the scale in which it is applied, for example, it is estimated that each human being on Earth would have 2.7 hectares of land to satisfy their entire needs for a year.

History of the ecological footprint

The concept of ecological footprint originated in 1996, the result of studies by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel , who were interested in finding their own ecological language that would allow measuring the sustainability of human life forms and their direct and indirect relationship with the natural capacities of renewal. They did this through a series of algorithms .

Since then , attempts have been made to implement global measurement methods , such as the Global Footprint Network, which evaluates the different regions of the globe to establish how large their ecological footprint is compared to the rest of the world.

How is the ecological footprint calculated?

How is the ecological footprint calculated?

The calculation of the ecological footprint is based on a matrix of needs stipulated for each individual , including land for sowing, for grazing, forest areas for CO 2 absorption , usable maritime area, land area for direct use (such as construction ) and a biodiversity reserve that is stipulated in 12% of each total territory.

These surface needs are contrasted with essential activities for humanity such as agriculture, livestock, fishing, consumer goods , energy consumption, etc.

From there, consumption can be measured in tons of matter or gigajoules of energy , dividing the total area by the productivity indices . In this way it can be calculated whether, so to speak, the ecological sacrifice is “worth it”.

Ecological footprint scale

The ecological footprint is measured on a scale from 0 to 11 , distributed among the different productive human activities, one of which is, mainly, the absorption of waste (such as the gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels).

Likewise, the footprint can be measured continental, regional, national, zonal, family or individually , since it is a comparative measurement model.

Ecological overdraft

Notions such as ecological overdraft are deduced from this measurement method , which is the excessive demand, much higher than the ecological capacity of a surface, of natural resources of an ecosystem.

In these terms , it is thought the same as the overdraft of a credit card : there is nowhere else to extract capacities, since the available ones are taken over and a kind of “debt” is generated that is canceled by other individuals or nations.

Types of ecological footprint

Types of ecological footprint

There are three types:

  • Direct ecological footprint. The one that contemplates direct action, without intermediaries, on the capacities of nature.
  • Indirect ecological footprint. That which does not directly affect the capacities of nature, but generates effects that indirectly do.
  • Collective ecological footprint. That which is the result of large communities and regions, in which both direct and indirect footprints are generated at the same time.

How is the ecological footprint measured?

How is the ecological footprint measured?

The regions with a footprint between 10 and 8 are the industrialized countries. 

Global ecological footprint measurements point to a very disparate reality in terms of production needs and, therefore, ecological responsibilities. Some territories and forms of life consume many more resources than the surface they occupy offers them, thus having to import from other regions or “export” their waste, that is, dispose of it far from their own surfaces.

The human ecological footprint map is divided into (2007):

  • High demand regions (footprint between 10 and 8). Highly industrialized territories with a high demand for raw materials and energy , such as the United States, Europe , Australia, Japan , Scandinavia, Uruguay and Russia.
  • Medium demand regions (footprint between 7 and 4). Developing territories, with societies not yet integrated into the industrial world and that survive from the sale of raw materials, but with abundant green regions and ecological refuges, such as South America (especially Brazil ), certain countries of Asia Major and Minor, as well as Like North African or Middle Eastern .
  • Low demand regions (footprint between 4 and 0). Poor regions, sparsely inhabited or unequally inhabited, with pre-industrial, underdeveloped societies, with a very low human development index. Sub-Saharan Africa, India , Pakistan, and Micronesia are in this category.

Ecological footprint by global activity

The activities that generate the largest ecological footprint worldwide are (2003):

  • Burning of fossil fuels. 47.5%
  • Intensive and extensive agriculture. 22.0%
  • Consumption of wood, pulp and paper.  7.6%
  • Fishing. 6.7%
  • Cattle raising. 6.3%
  • Controlled nuclear energy. 3.6%

Importance of the ecological footprint

Importance of the ecological footprint

The ecological footprint has the importance of having provided the ecological world with a useful theoretical tool to understand the distribution and type of ecological damage worldwide, allowing it to be thought of in an integrated manner to productive activities and from a more realistic perspective, which is not denied. to the vital processes of post-industrial society, but that is willing to assess the price to pay.

Conclusions on the ecological footprint

The application of this method of analysis has yielded worrying conclusions about the way we inhabit the planet , such as that it would take two additional planet Earths for each inhabitant of the planet to live as an average French citizen does. This has reinforced numerous studies on the sustainability of societies as a commandment for the construction of the world to come.

The above content published at Collaborative Research Group is for informational and educational purposes only and has been developed by referring reliable sources and recommendations from experts. We do not have any contact with official entities nor do we intend to replace the information that they emit.


MA student of the TransAtlantic Masters program at UNC-Chapel Hill. Political Science with a focus on European Studies. Expressed ideas are open to revision. He not only covers Technical articles but also has skills in the fields of SEO, graphics, web development and coding. .

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