This indicator tracks the ecological footprint of Europe as a proxy measure of the amount of biologically productive areas of land and water that Europe requires to produce all the biological resources it consumes and absorb all the emissions it generates.
National Footprint Accounts 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 present.
National Footprint Account calculations are based on United Nations (UN)-affiliated data sets, including those published by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Commodity Trade Statistics Database and the UN Statistics Division, as well as the International Energy Agency. Supplementary data sources include articles in peer-reviewed science journals and thematic collections (books).
For general data and methodology, see Global Footprint Network (2021).
A more detailed description of the methodology can be found in Borucke et al. (2013).
The most recent description of the accounting methodology and results, 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 in the accounts since the 2012 edition, and reviews the latest global trends.
The calculations of the 2019 edition of the National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts are explained in the Working guidebook to the National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts.
Methodology for gap filling
Some minimal data cleaning has been performed to exclude extreme outliers. In addition, if data points are missing between reported years, the gaps are filled by extrapolating from adjacent years.
The indicator contributes to monitoring progress towards EU biodiversity policy objectives, particularly target 6 of the EU biodiversity strategy to 2020, that is, to help stop the loss of biodiversity globally (EC, 2021b).
The indicator was developed and produced by the Global Footprint Network and has matured significantly over its 20-year existence with regard to both data sources and methodology. It has worldwide coverage and data are available over a long time frame (1961-2016, updated annually). The core data are national and allow for aggregations on various physical scales. The indicator can be disaggregated to provide information on specific resources or ecosystems.
The indicator is based on national footprint accounting, which 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 Europe's demands on (1) land and sea areas within its own borders; (2) land and sea areas outside its borders; and (3) 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, as a result of imports from other regions, and has remained at about the same level in recent years.
Reporting the ecological footprint is a powerful way of demonstrating — to a wide range of audiences — how people's activities have an impact on the environment, to help people make choices that will reduce this impact. It can be compared with biocapacity to determine ecological deficit, and 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. Therefore, the ecological footprint can provide information on global and local sustainability.
The 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.
The methodology for 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 bio-productive 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 with each other.
6. Area demand can exceed area supply.
The ecological footprint makes apparent the gap between human demand and regeneration. The accounts most likely provide underestimates. With regard to demand, UN data sets do not completely document all demands. With regard to biocapacity, availability may be exaggerated, since some overuses are not factored into the assessment because of a lack of consistent data. Such aspects include soil erosion, groundwater depletion and loss in forest productivity due to increased forest fires and pestilence.
Data set uncertainty
Ecological footprint accounts are created by aggregating UN statistics. They are aggregated based on the underlying research question, tracking competing demands on biologically productive areas. This basic accounting produces results that are as reliable as the underlying data set. Since the underlying data set does not declare confidence levels, confidence level cannot be determined for aggregated data either.
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, with regard to resources, even if the ecological footprint does not exceed 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) and dioxins), are not entered 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 bio-productivity. However, if degradation leads to reductions in bio-productivity, then this loss will be captured when measuring biocapacity in the future. Moreover, by looking at only the aggregate figure, ‘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.