The ecological footprint is a measure to calculate our impact on the environment and on Earth’s ecosystems. It calculates how much of the Earth’s surface is needed to provide the energy, water and other natural resources used to support our lifestyle.
Ecological footprints vary depending on the country and the context. Comparing lifestyles, the European footprint is approximately 6.3 hectares, the equivalent of 3.4 planets and the USA footprint estimation is 12.23 hectares, the equivalent of 6.6 planets. This means that the human species cannot afford to live according to these standards and needs to find more sustainable ways of living.
From a global perspective, the human ecological footprint is approximately 2,96 hectares per person, the equivalent of 1.6 planets. To calculate human impact, one must consider all the use, modifications and extraction of natural resources not only from the land, but also from the air and the oceans.
This measure has evolved and has created different concepts like the Earth Overshoot Day. This date is calculated by different organizations such as the Global Footprint Network aiming to set the moment when humanity´s demand on nature in a year exceeds the limit to which the Earth can regenerate within that same year (biocapacity). This date is not fixed and the main issue is that is becoming sooner in the last years. From 2000 until 2016, the Earth overshoot day has move from late September to August the 8th. This means that we are incurring in an ecological debt that, far from tending to decrease, it has been growing each year.
For an easier understanding of the meaning and the consequences of this phenomenon, think about it as a bank account. Imagine you receive your entire salary the 1st of January. For the first seven months and eight days in 2016 you have live on your salary and after this day you do not have more money to spend. After the 8th of August, you will need to use your credit card debt, ask for a loan, or use any other type of external funding to cover (at least) your basic needs.
Borrowed money must be returned. So, at the beginning of the following year you are not going to receive your entire salary; you will receive you’re the normal amount minus the money you have to give back to the bank. In this case, it is clear that if you do not change your lifestyle and consumption patterns your debt will continue to increase year after year. At some point down the road, people will stop lending you money. Apparently, the most convenient solution for this situation would be reducing levels of expenditure, or trying to find alternative sources of income.
From an ecological perspective, the debt is not as easy to identify as it is in a household. In this sense, ecological budgets depend on how far the Earth can regenerate in a year, and the debt or surplus depends on human behaviour and consumption. The ecological debt is calculated as the difference between biocapacity (income) and human footprint (spending). There is no doubt that every person contributes to the `environmental spending´. The question is how much of the budget actually corresponds to each person and how far we are able to create individual responsibility in relation to the ecological debt.
Balance is key
One of the clearest attempts to distribute the ecological budget is through the incorporation of country emission quotas. This mechanism might be useful under a more extended and detailed development of the concept . For the moment, it is mainly focused on gas emissions. For it to be effective, however, it is necessary to incorporate quotas and restrictions to all the different types of pollution; not only gas emissions. If we go back to the bank account example, what governments have been trying to do is, firstly, to reduce the spending. Secondly, through an indirect policy, they have been trying to promote the search for alternative sources of income. In this case, the changes are implemented from a top-down approach.
Governments are the ones who are making changes. However, individuals’ involvement (bottom-up approach) to reduce the ecological debt is key to obtaining an effective outcome. In this case, the different ‘household members’ can contribute to reducing their expenses by changing their consumption patterns into more sustainable ones. Conscious consumers are key to creating sustainable and environmentally friendly businesses and to reducing human footprint.
Biocapacity reduction affects the ability of the planet to support what we call Ecosystems services; things we rely on as necessary for supporting life; such as the climate, soil and water regulation. The Earth´s biocapacity is systematically decreasing, as the math is quite simple: The wealthier the people; the bigger the footprint. This is due to our current understanding of wealth and development and the behaviours and patterns adopted by ‘developed societies’. This conception combined with the increase in population makes our consumption unsustainable according to the Earth’s capacity. One thing is clear: the solution is neither the maintenance of levels of inequality nor the impoverishment of certain countries and societies; but the improvement and optimisation of natural resources and the promotion of environmentally friendly technologies and practices. Ecological overspending puts individuals and nations at risk. It exerts pressure on society, individuals, business and communities. Furthermore, it increases poverty levels and sharpens inequality.
If our option is to take a ‘business as usual scenario’, by 2050 we will be globally expending the equivalent of 27 Earths per year in natural resources to meet human demands. As Darwin stated ‘is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one who is most responsive to change’. There is no better time to act than now. The longer we wait, the less leverage we will get.