Indicator Specification

Ecological footprint of European countries

Indicator Specification
  Indicator codes: SEBI 023
Published 21 May 2010 Last modified 17 Jul 2019
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The ecological footprint for Europe is a measure of how much biologically productive land and water area Europe requires to produce all the biological resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates, using prevailing technology and management. This area could be located anywhere in the world. This can be compared with the biocapacity of the planet or that available within a given region. Both biocapacity and the ecological footprint are measured in global hectares.

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)
  • No published assessments


Justification for indicator selection


Established methodology: this indicator is already developed and produced by the Global Footprint Network and has matured significantly over its 20 years of existence, both with regards to data sources and methodology.

It is of high policy relevance because it indicates the overall resource demand of European societies compared to resource availability in Europe and in the rest of the world.

Geographical and temporal coverage: the indicator has a worldwide coverage and data is available over a long time scale (1961-2010 and annually updated). The core data is national and allows for aggregations at different physical scales. The indicator can be disaggregated to provide information on specific resources or ecosystems.

The ecological footprint is a powerful tool for reaching and communicating with a wide range of audiences to promote an understanding of how people's activities have an impact on the environment, and to support people in making choices to reduce this impact.

Scientific references

Indicator definition

The ecological footprint for Europe is a measure of how much biologically productive land and water area Europe requires to produce all the biological resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates, using prevailing technology and management. This area could be located anywhere in the world. This can be compared with the biocapacity of the planet or that available within a given region. Both biocapacity and the ecological footprint are measured in global hectares.


Global hectares per person (gha).


Policy context and targets

Context description

This indicator provides a quantitative assessment of global and local overshoot; the extent to which humanity's footprint, or demand for ecosystem resources, exceeds biocapacity and the planet's ability to regenerate these resources. This overshoot means ecosystem stocks are being liquidated, and untreated wastes are accumulating in the biosphere. While it is not known precisely how long various ecosystems can tolerate this growing ecological debt, this growing pressure will eventually contribute to ecosystem degradation or failure.

The regional or national ecological footprint is the area of productive biosphere required to provide all of the biological resources that the population of a region or nation consumes and to absorb the wastes it generates, using prevailing technologies and resource management.

National ecological footprint accounting provides a number of key indicators such as the footprint of consumption, the footprint of production, or the biocapacity of a nation. Hence, it can provide assessments of aspects such as: (1) Europe's demands on the land and sea area within its own borders; (2) Europe's demands on the land and sea area outside its borders; and (3) Europe's demand on specific ecosystem types. Although the aggregate consumption of material resources by European households is more than double the available biocapacity within Europe, Europe's domestic extraction of biological resources is still below Europe's total biocapacity and has stayed at about the same level in recent years.

Relation of the indicator to the focal area

The 'ecological footprint of European countries' (i.e., the consumption footprint) directly measures Europe's resource use compared to what is available globally. In other words, it shows to what extent the level of consumption is replicable on a global scale. It can also measure local extraction rates. This means the accounts can provide information about global and local sustainability.


2020 EU biodiversity targets: Target 6

Related policy documents

  • EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy
    in the Communication: Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 (COM(2011) 244) the European Commission has adopted a new strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. There are six main targets, and 20 actions to help Europe reach its goal. The six targets cover: - Full implementation of EU nature legislation to protect biodiversity - Better protection for ecosystems, and more use of green infrastructure - More sustainable agriculture and forestry - Better management of fish stocks - Tighter controls on invasive alien species - A bigger EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss

Key policy question

Are Europeans using more than their share of the world's resources?



Methodology for indicator calculation

The ecological footprint uses a common standardised measurement unit, global hectares (gha), to make results comparable globally and across scales. A global hectare is a biologically productive hectare of land and water 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 productivity potential for biomass. Because world bioproductivity varies slightly from year to year, the value of a global hectare may change slightly from year to year.

The ecological footprint represents all competing human demands for biologically productive space. National calculations, as generated with the National Footprint Accounts, are more limited because of existing data sets, particularly on the waste side, where emissions are limited to anthropogenic carbon. In the National Footprint Accounts, the footprint results for each country include the biological resources and carbon emissions 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. Aggregated human demand (Ecological Footprint) and nature’s supply (biocapacity) can be directly compared to each other.
  5. Area demand can exceed area supply.


A more detailed description of the methodology can be found in the method paper (Borucke et al., 2013) available at

The template of the National Footprint Accounts, 2014 edition is explained in the “Working Guidebook to the National Footprint Accounts 2014”, available at

The method continues to be further developed under the scientific guidance of the National Accounts Committee of Global Footprint Network.

Methodology for gap filling

Some minimal data cleaning excludes extreme outliers. Also, if data points are missing between reported years, the gaps are filled by extrapolating from adjacent years.

Methodology references


Data specifications

EEA data references

  • No datasets have been specified here.

External data references

Data sources in latest figures



Methodology uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sets uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Rationale uncertainty


Several important aspects of sustainable use/management are not being 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 it 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, only looking at the aggregate number 'under exploitation' in one area (e.g. forests) can hide over exploitation 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.



Humanity's ecological footprint was chosen as one of the Convention on Biological Diversity indicators.

The ecological footprint of European countries may show both aggregated figures of regional footprints as well as a breakdown by ecosystem type, or by specific material. It can also show the distribution of biocapacity.

Further work

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.

Work description

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT Improvements in the methodology for calculating the ecological footprint, in data collection and management, and in application and communication of the indicator at regional and national scales will increase the value of the metric as an indicator for monitoring progress towards the 2010 target. A full description of twenty-five research topics for ecological footprint accounts can be found in 'A Research Agenda for Improving National Ecological Footprint Accounts' (Kitzes et al.). Presented to the International Ecological Footprint Conference - Stepping up the Pace: New Developments in Ecological Footprint Methodology, Policy and Practice, 8-10 May 2007, Cardiff, and in preparation for publication.

Resource needs

No resource needs have been specified


Not started


2099/01/01 00:00:00 GMT+1

Work description

COSTS RELATED TO DEVELOPING, PRODUCING AND UPDATING THE INDICATOR (as available) To update all 27 countries of Europe based on the global data would take the equivalent of 3–4 person days so costs are very limited.

Resource needs

No resource needs have been specified


Not started


2099/01/01 00:00:00 GMT+1

General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Katarzyna Biala


Global Footprint Network
European Environment Agency (EEA)


Indicator code
SEBI 023
Version id: 1

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 2 years


DPSIR: Pressure
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)


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