The ecological footprint measures the consumption of natural resources by the number of global hectares (gha) that would be required to regenerate these resources. To calculate a population’s ecological footprint, the quantity of natural resources consumed by that population are compared to the amount of natural regeneration capacity required to compensate for this consumption. This highly aggregated information (in absolute numbers) is available for regions and countries, as well as the total world population.
Almost three planets Earth would be needed if everyone lived like the Swiss population
The imbalance between Switzerland’s ecological footprint and the world’s biocapacity has been existing for several decades. This lifestyle is only possible through the import of natural resources and the exploitation of global goods (such as the atmosphere). However, this lifestyle is not sustainable, because Switzerland consumes 2.8 times the amount of natural resources that are available per capita worldwide (1.6 global hectares, gha). We are therefore living at the expense of future generations and of other regions of the world.
Some regions of the world are living at the expense of others
In 2018, the world’s per capita ecological footprint was 1.2 gha higher than the world’s available per capita biocapacity. However, this average conceals considerable differences in the consumption of resources: most industrial countries consume more than two planet Earths, while countries in the Indian subcontinent, in South-east Asia and Africa consume less than one. Switzerland’s per capita ecological footprint matches the average of western European countries. Qatar, Luxembourg, the Cook Islands, Bahrain, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Estonia, Kuwait, Belize, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Mongolia, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Latvia consumed more than 4 times the world’s available biocapacity.
The Swiss energy consumption largely determines its ecological footprint
The consumption of fossil fuels accounts for almost three quarters of the Swiss ecological footprint. Our use of arable land, forests and natural meadows accounts for 26% of the total ecological footprint.
The ecological footprint is a kind of “resource accounting”
The ecological footprint measures the extent to which humans reduce the Earth’s regenerative capacity (biocapacity). This method calculates our consumption of natural resources, caused by activities such as agriculture, wood consumption or carbon absorption, into the surface area which would be necessary in order to regenerate resources in a sustainable way and to absorb emissions. The ecological footprint is an eloquent way of showing how much productive land or water is needed for a region, a country, or the world population to cover its needs and neutralize its waste. It shows the extent to which consumption of natural resources exceeds nature’s regenerative capacity (biocapacity). If the ecological footprint of the world’s population exceeds the world’s biocapacity, this leads to an over-exploitation of nature and therefore unsustainability.
The ecological footprint does not measure everything
The ecological footprint only accounts for the environmental dimension of sustainability, disregarding the social and economic dimensions. Furthermore, it measures the dynamics, but not the state, of the existing natural resources. The ecological footprint does not take into account the destruction of ecosystems, the loss of biodiversity or renewable or non-renewable natural resources. Neither does it take account of fresh water consumption, pollution by heavy metals, or emissions from pollutants of low degradability. The ecological footprint is therefore not an accurate indicator for sustainability.
This method was developed by the Global Footprint Network, and was evaluated in a study published in 2006 by the Federal Offices of Statistics, Spatial Development and Environment, as well as the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The study compared data from the Global Footprint Network, which is based primarily on United Nations sources, to the official Swiss statistics for its ecological footprint. The study reveals that the datasets correspond to one another.
The method has been developed further, based on recommendations from this study and government reviews of other nations. The Global Footprint Network publishes updated and new results yearly, including Switzerland’s ecological footprint and biocapacity, as well as the results of 190 other countries.
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