Ecological footprint of European countries

Indicator Specification
Indicator codes: SEBI 023
Created 11 Jun 2019 Published 15 Jul 2019 Last modified 18 Jul 2019
8 min read
The ecological footprint of Europe is a proxy measure of the amount of biologically productive land and water areas that Europe requires to produce all the biological resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates, using prevailing technology and management strategies. These areas could be located anywhere in the world. This can be compared with the biocapacity of the planet or the biocapacity available within a given region. Both biocapacity and the ecological footprint are measured in global hectares (gha).

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)

Rationale

Justification for indicator selection

Main advantages of the indicator

The methodology is well established: this indicator was developed and produced by the Global Footprint Network and has matured significantly over its 20 years of existence, with regard to both data sources and methodology.

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

Geographical and temporal coverage: the indicator has worldwide coverage and data are available over a long time-frame (1961-2014 and updated annually). The core data are national and allow for aggregations at various 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 that will reduce this impact.

Scientific references

Indicator definition

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

Units

Global hectares (gha) per person.

Policy context and targets

Context description

This indicator provides a quantitative assessment of global and local overshoots, i.e. the extent to which humanity's footprint, or demand for ecosystem resources, exceeds biocapacity and the planet's ability to regenerate these resources. The global overshoot means that 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 deficit, it is predicted that the increasing pressure will eventually contribute to ecosystem degradation or failure.

National ecological footprint accounting provides a number of key indicators such as the footprint of consumption, the footprint of production and the biocapacity of a nation. Hence, it can provide assessments of aspects such as (1) Europe's demands on land and sea areas within its own borders; (2) Europe's demands on the land and sea areas 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 remained at about the same level in recent years.

Relationship 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 with 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 be used to measure local extraction rates. This means that ecological footprint accounting can provide information on global and local sustainability.

Targets

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

Methodology for indicator calculation

National Footprint Accounts (NFAs) provide the core data required for all Ecological Footprint analyses. The accounts measure the ecological resource use and resource capacity of nations over time. Based on approximately 15,000 data points per country per year, the accounts calculate the Footprints of more than 200 countries, territories, and regions from 1961 to the present.

National Footprint Account calculations are based on United Nations or UN-affiliated datasets, including those published by the Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database, and the UN Statistics Division, as well as the International Energy Agency. Supplementary data sources include studies in peer-reviewed science journals and thematic collections (books).

For general data and methodology see https://www.footprintnetwork.org/resources/data 

A more detailed description of the methodology can be found in a paper by Borucke et al (2013).

The most recent description of the accounting methodology and results by Lin et al. (2018), based on the 2018 edition of the National Footprint Accounts, reviews the evolution of the National Footprint Accounts, describes and quantifies the effects of data and methodological improvements that have been implemented into the accounts since the 2012 edition, and reviews the latest global trends.

The template of the National Footprint Accounts, 2018 edition, is explained in the Working guidebook to the National Footprint Accounts 2018, available at https://www.footprintnetwork.org/content/uploads/2018/05/2018-National-Footprint-Accounts-Guidebook.pdf 

Methodology for gap filling

Some minimal data cleaning excludes extreme outliers. In addition, 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

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

The methodology of Ecological Footprint accounting is based on six assumptions:
1. Annual amounts of biological resources consumed and wastes generated by countries are tracked by national and international organisations.
2. 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.
3. By weighting each area in proportion to its inherent ability to regenerate biomass, the different areas can be expressed in terms of a standardised average productive hectare (a global hectare).
4. 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.
5. Aggregated human demand (Ecological Footprint) and nature's supply (biocapacity) can be directly compared to each other.
6. Area demand can exceed area supply.

The Ecological Footprint makes apparent the gap between human demand and regeneration. Likely, the accounts provide underestimates. On the demand side, UN data sets do not completely document all demands. On the biocapacity side, availability may be exaggerated since some overuses are not factored into the assessment due to lack of consistent data. Such aspects include soil erosion, groundwater depletion, and loss in forest productivity due to increased forest fires and pestilence.

Data sets uncertainty

Country assessments are based on UN statistics. They do not provide error margins.

Rationale uncertainty

Main limitations of the indicator

Several important aspects of sustainable use/management 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 it is not sufficient. For instance, the Ecological Footprint does not consider social well-being. In addition, on the resource side, even if the Ecological Footprint is within biocapacity, poor management can still lead to depletion. A footprint smaller than biocapacity is merely a necessary condition for making quality improvements replicable and scalable.
  • 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, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), dioxins, etc.), do not enter directly into footprint calculations. These are activities that need to be phased out independently of their quantity (there is no biocapacity budget for using them). 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 bioproductivity, then this loss is captured when measuring biocapacity in the future. Moreover, by looking at only the aggregate figure, '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.

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.

General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Katarzyna Biala

Ownership

Global Footprint Network
European Environment Agency (EEA)

Identification

Indicator code
SEBI 023
Specification
Version id: 2

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 2 years

Classification

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