European ecological footprint per capita compared to available biocapacity (2.1)
Justification for indicator selection
The ecological footprint translates a few of the global pressures caused directly and indirectly by a country’s consumption into direct and virtual land use worldwide. This includes direct land use in the country for urban areas and roads, land used indirectly globally for the production of food, fibre, timber, energy consumed in the country, and finally ‘virtual’ land in the form of average forest that would be required to absorb CO2 emissions from the country’s use of fossil fuels thus avoiding accumulation in the atmosphere.
It has been methodologically criticised and is under a continuous process of improvement to strengthen some methodological weaknesses such as its limited scope, excluding key impacts such as toxicity, non‑renewable resource use, eutrophication and ecosystem degradation, and its lack of ability to allow for improvements in land productivity .
However, the value of the EF is that it is one of the only consumption-based indicators that can be benchmarked against sustainability thresholds (i.e. available biocapacity). A nation or a region’s footprint can be benchmarked against the area of land, or biocapacity available globally per person, giving a useful indication of the extent to which its consumption is environmentally sustainable. But caution should be taken and it should only be used as a measure of sustainability in association with other indicators.
- No rationale references available
The ecological footprint translates a few of the global pressures caused directly and indirectly by a country’s consumption into direct and virtual land use worldwide. This includes direct land use in the country for urban areas and roads, land used indirectly globally for the production of food, fibre, timber, energy consumed in the country, and finally ‘virtual’ land in the form of average forest that would be required to absorb CO2 emissions from the country’s use of fossil fuels thus avoiding accumulation in the atmosphere. A nation or a region’s footprint can be benchmarked against the area of land, or biocapacity available globally per person, giving a useful indication of the extent to which its consumption is environmentally sustainable. The biocapacity of a given piece of land is a function of its physical area, a factor that takes account of the type of land cover, and a yield factor varying according to local conditions.
Global hectares / capita
Policy context and targets
The question is directly linked to the SCP objectives within the Renewed EU Sustainable Development Strategy of 2006 of ‘addressing social and economic development within the carrying capacity of ecosystems and decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation.’ In this context, sustainability is interpreted as being whether environmental pressures and resource use lie within the carrying capacity of eco-systems. Further, it is also grounded in the notions of global equity in consumption as expressed, for example, in the UK SD Strategy: ‘current developed country patterns of consumption and production could not be replicated world-wide: some calculations suggest that this could require three planets’ worth of resources.’
The question is also grounded in the Resource Efficiency Flagship document which states: ‘intensive use of the world's resources puts pressure on our planet and threatens the security of supply. Continuing our current patterns of resource use is not an option.’ The Vision of the subsequent Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe includes the aim that ‘by 2050 the EU ‘s economy has grown in a way that respects resource constraints and planetary boundaries….’
The emphasis on consumption given in this question emerges from the SCP Action Plan’s recognition that ‘The impacts of consumption in the EU are felt globally, as the EU is dependent on the imports of energy and natural resources. Furthermore, an increasing proportion of products consumed in Europe are produced in other parts of the world’ and in the increasing recognition as expressed in the UK’s SD Strategy ‘there would be little value in reducing environmental impacts [domestically] if the result were merely to displace those impacts overseas, or close off benefits at home or abroad.’
The Vision of the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe includes the aim that ‘by 2050 the EU ‘s economy has grown in a way that respects resource constraints and planetary boundaries….’. Further, it also states that "By 2020, EU policies take into account their direct and indirect impact on land use in the EU and globally", and that "By 2020, incentives to healthier and more sustainable food production and consumption will be widespread and will have driven a 20% reduction in the food chain's
Related policy documents
A resource-efficient Europe
A resource-efficient Europe – Flagship initiative of the Europe 2020 Strategy The flagship initiative for a resource-efficient Europe under the Europe 2020 strategy supports the shift towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy to achieve sustainable growth. Natural resources underpin our economy and our quality of life. Continuing our current patterns of resource use is not an option. Increasing resource efficiency is key to securing growth and jobs for Europe. It will bring major economic opportunities, improve productivity, drive down costs and boost competitiveness. The flagship initiative for a resource-efficient Europe provides a long-term framework for actions in many policy areas, supporting policy agendas for climate change, energy, transport, industry, raw materials, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity and regional development. This is to increase certainty for investment and innovation and to ensure that all relevant policies factor in resource efficiency in a balanced manner.
Sustainable production and consumption action plan
Renewed EU strategy for Sustainable Development (2006)
full text of the Eu's renewaed strategy for sustainable development 10117/06
Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe
Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe. COM(2011) 571
The EU's Strategy for Sustainable Development
Commission of the European Communities CEC (2001b): A Sustainable Europe for a Better World: A European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development (Commission's proposal to the Gothenburg European Council), COM (2001)264 final, Brussels, 15.5.2001
Methodology for indicator calculation
The ecological footprint uses a common standardised measurement unit, global hectares, to make results comparable globally and across scales. A global hectare is a hectare of biologically productive area with the world average productivity for a given year. Hectares of productive area are converted into global hectares by weighting each area in proportion to its potential productivity of useful biomass (that is potential annual production of useful biological resources).
The ecological footprint calculated for each country includes the biological resources and wastes embodied within goods and services that are consumed by people living in that country. Resources consumed for the production of goods and services exported to another country are added to the country where the goods and services are consumed, and not to the country where they are produced.
The methodology of ecological footprint accounts builds on six assumptions:
- The annual amounts of biological resources consumed and wastes generated by countries are tracked by national and international organisations.
- The quantity of biological resources appropriated for human use is directly related to the amount of bioproductive land area necessary for their regeneration and for the assimilation of wastes.
- By weighting each area in proportion to its usable biomass productivity (that is, its potential annual production of usable biomass), the different areas can be expressed in terms of a standardised average productive hectare (a global hectare).
- The overall demand in global hectares can be aggregated by adding all mutually exclusive resource-providing and waste-assimilating areas required to support the demand.
- Aggregated human demand (ecological footprint) and nature's supply (biocapacity) can be directly compared to each other.
- Area demand can exceed area supply.
More detailed description of the methodology can be found in 'National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts 2005: The underlying calculation method' http://www.footprintnetwork.org/gfn_sub.php?content=datamethods.
Full methodology for the calculations can be found here:
Raw data delivered by the Global Footprint Network and graphic representation (The methodology is available at: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/methodology/ )
The method continues to be further developed, under the scientific guidance of the national accounts committee of Global Footprint Network. http://www.footprintnetwork.org/gfn_sub.php?content=standards_committees#nac.
Methodology for gap filling
No gap filling was necessary for producing this indicator from the Global Footprint Network database.
No methodology references available.
EEA data references
- No datasets have been specified here.
External data references
Data sources in latest figures
No uncertainty has been identified in the methodology used by the EEA to process the source data
Data sets uncertainty
Further information on the methodology used by the FootPrintNetwork to calculate the Ecological Footprint for 2010 can be found in this document:
The Ecological Footprint has been methodologically criticised and is under a continuous process of improvement to strengthen some methodological weaknesses such as its limited scope, excluding key impacts such as toxicity, non‑renewable resource use, eutrophication and ecosystem degradation, and its lack of ability to allow for improvements in land productivity.
This indicator provides an overview of the sustainability of european consumption for a limited set of parameters for sustainability.
Several important aspects of the sustainablility of consumption are not measured by the ecological footprint:
- Non-ecological aspects of sustainability. Having a Footprint smaller than the biosphere is a necessary minimum condition for a sustainable society, but is not sufficient. For instance, although social well-being also needs to be considered, the Footprint does not do this.
- Depletion of non-renewable resources. The Footprint does not track the amount of non-renewable resource stocks, such as oil, natural gas, coal or metal deposits. The Footprint associated with these materials is based on the regenerative capacity used or compromised by their extraction and, in the case of fossil fuels, the area required to assimilate the wastes they generate.
- Inherently unsustainable activities. Activities that are inherently unsustainable, such as the release of heavy metals, radioactive materials and persistent synthetic compounds (e.g. chlordane, PCBs, CFCs, PVCs, dioxins, etc.) do not enter directly into Footprint calculations. Where these substances cause a loss of biocapacity, however, their influence can be seen.
- Ecological degradation. The Footprint does not directly measure ecological degradation, such as increased soil salinity from irrigation, which could affect future bioproductivity. However, if degradation leads to reductions in biological productivity, then this loss is captured when measuring biocapacity in the future. Also, when only looking at the aggregate number, 'underexploitation' in one area (e.g. forests) can hide overexploitation in another area (e.g. fisheries).
- Resilience of ecosystems. Footprint accounts do not identify where and in what way the capacity of ecosystems are vulnerable or resilient. The Footprint is merely an outcome measure documenting how much of the biosphere is being used compared with how productive it is.
As such, it is not not provide a comprehensive answer to the queston of the environmental sustainability of European consumption.
Short term work
Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.
Long term work
Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.
Responsibility and ownership
EEA Contact InfoAlmut Reichel
Typology: Performance indicator (Type B - Does it matter?)
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
PDF generated on 28 May 2015, 12:28 PM