Indicator Assessment

Ecological footprint of European countries

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-161-en
  Also known as: SEBI 023
Published 21 May 2010 Last modified 11 May 2021
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The Ecological Footprint for pan-Europe(1) has been increasing almost constantly since 1961, while Europe's biocapacity(2) has decreased. This results in an ever larger deficit, with negative consequences for the environment within and outside Europe.

(1) For this analysis, data from all European countries were used, except for nations that were excluded because of insufficient population (Cyprus, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Malta) and nations for which data are lacking (Andorra, Monaco, San Marino).
(2) The capacity of ecosystems to produce useful biological materials and to absorb waste materials generated by humans, using current management schemes and extraction technologies.

European Ecological Footprint and biocapacity, 1961-2005

Note: How to read the graph: from 1961 to 2003, Europe´s Ecological Footprint increased from 3 to 4 ha/person.

Data source:

Global Footprint Network, National Footprint Accounts 2008 Edition.

Ecological Footprint variation per region (2005)

Note: How to read the graph: the EU has 487 million citizens, and a biocapacity of two global hectares per person

Data source:

Global Footprint Network, National Footprint Accounts 2008.

Europe's ecological deficit is considerable. Overall iological resource use and waste emission is well above the biological capacity available within Europe, showing that the continent cannot sustainably meet its consumption demands from within its own borders.

The EU-27 on its own has a Footprint of 4.7 global hectares per person, twice the size of its biocapacity. For pan Europe - as shown in Figure 1 - the deficit per person is significantly smaller. While the Footprint does not measure biodiversity, it correlates with the main biodiversity threats.

A regional or national ecological deficit means that the region is either importing biocapacity through trade or liquidating regional ecological assets. Evidently, a global ecological deficit cannot be compensated through trade and therefore corresponds to liquidation of natural capital.

In a world that is already in ecological overshoot, Europe's ecological deficit contributes to the diminishing amount of renewable natural resources available in the future, adds to overall waste accumulation and puts regional and global ecosystems at greater risk of degradation. Further work should examine in more detail the linkages between the Ecological Footprint and biodiversity.

Figure 2 shows that Europe is not the only region where the Ecological Footprint (shown as per person Footprint times population size) exceeds the biocapacity (per person biocapacity shown as green dotted line). Europe beyond the EU actually has a biocapacity that is slightly larger than its Footprint.North America, the EU-25 and the remaining European nations have a per person Footprint that is significantly larger than that in any other continent.


Supporting information

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


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



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.

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: Pressure
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • SEBI 023
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled every 2 years
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage


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