Footprinting takes into account the (bio)productive capacity of land and sea – one really fertile or mineral-rich acre might be worth two barren acres elsewhere. With a "politically feasible" 12% of the planet set aside for biodiversity (hard to believe sometimes when saving a few allotments is not politically feasible, but I’ll withhold judgement on that one), the remainder of the land is divided by the planet's population. This leaves us 1.87 hectares each; so our ideal footprint, the amount of land we need for all the resources we use is – 1.87 hectares.
However, on average in the UK we are currently using 6.9 hectares each. In the US the average is 12 hectares. In Pakistan it's half a hectare each. This can also be expressed in terms of how many planets would be needed if everyone lived the way we do.
If we use the analogy of monetary capital, each generation is entitled to interest but needs to leave the capital intact for the next generations. We are currently spending our capital with impunity, making a mockery of global economic policy. The brutal fact is that the Western “standard of living” (in reality a standard of consumption) can never be enjoyed by everyone. There just aren't enough Earths to go round. As Mark Twain said, “the trouble with land is, they stopped making it some time ago.”
By way of example, having a vegan diet obviously produces a much smaller ecological footprint, because if you eat vegetables, then the area needed is just (a) the area on which the food is grown; (b) the area to produce energy for transporting the food; and (c) the area for assimilation of carbon dioxide produced by food transport.
In contrast, if you eat meat and/or animal products you will need (a) the area on which the animal are raised; (b) the area to produce energy for transporting the food; (c) the area for assimilation of carbon dioxide produced by food transport; plus (d) the area needed to grow the animals' feed; (e) the area needed for energy production to transport the animal feed to the same country where the animals are reared; and (f) the area needed for assimilation of carbon dioxide produced by animal feed transport.
A Laptop computer consumes 9% of our ideal footprint for the year. The average car use takes 70% of our ideal footprint, although only 22% of the average UK footprint.
You may think that there is little point in these calculations, given that we already know that we are using far too much of the Earth’s resources. However, what the regional and national decision makers are short of is exactly ways to measure genuine economic success and “sustainable” development. Footprinting is a very effective way of doing this. But as the measurements become easier (and similarly with measurements of economic wellbeing rather than simply gross national incomes) it becomes more difficult for governments and companies to divorce this from policy.
Footprinting could have further applications, for example, in calculating the viability of technological solutions to environmental problems. Incorporating the less obvious resource implications of a new technology could produce a larger ecological footprint than that of the resource-use problem the techno-fix was supposed to solve.
WWF and partners have been awarded a grant to carry out an “ecological budget” of the UK. The project will ensure that an analysis of material and energy flows of each Regional Development Agency is undertaken, producing ecological footprints for all the English Regions to highlight the impact of such flows. This should influence future activities and strategies to reduce the footprint in the long term. Birmingham City Council are a partner in this venture, and it will be interesting to find out how they intend to use it.
More information on footprinting
For technical info visit www.massbalance.org. For a more general overview try www.wwf.org.uk or www.ecologicalfootprint.org (which includes a link to a quiz you can take to discover your own ecological footprint). Interestingly, measurements of happiness started to go down at around the same time (the 1970s) that we began to exceed the carrying capacity of the planet (we have now exceeded it by 30%). Some very interesting lectures on this subject can be found at the Centre for Economic Performance website http://cep.lse.ac.uk.