Ecological Footprints

COP21 Paris Logo“There is no planet B”. This slogan has become widely mentioned recently in relation to COP21, the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris. The slogan highlights that the debate about climate change relates to much more than simply a changing climate. The underlying processes have a lot to do with our lifestyles and the related patterns of consumption and waste which cause severe damages to the environment (including the global climate). Carbon emissions are therefore one major trigger of climate change, but are also an effect of our unsustainable ways of life. The ecological footprint shown in the following map is a measure that looks at the impact that humanity has on our planet:

The Ecological Footprint Map of the World: A gridded cartogram projection
(click for larger version)

Humanity’s demand for goods and services created from our planet’s resources have for a long time exceeded what Earth’s ecosystems are capable of renewing. It is estimated that we exceeded this limit in 1970. According to calculations from the Global Footprint Network, it is now in the first half of August that we go into ecological debt, on a day known as Earth Overshoot Day.
The ecological footprint calculates the amount of land required to sustain a country’s consumption patterns, including “the land required to provide the renewable resources people use (most importantly food and wood products), the area occupied by infrastructure, and the area required to absorb CO2 emissions” (quoted from the Happy Planet Index Report). The measure also takes imports into account, so that the negative environmental impact of products is considered where these are consumed rather than where they are produced. The ecological footprint is expressed in global hectares which represent a hectare of land with average productive biocapacity.
There are various approaches to calculating this measure and to come to conclusions about the impact and implications of this concept. The Global Footprint Network estimates that taking the current global population into account, each person can sustainably use 1.8 global hectares for a one-planet living, while the humanity currently extracts resources much faster than they can be regenerated. At the current levels of consumption (and waste), humankind would need more then 1.5 Earth-like planets to sustain this standard of living.
While not being without criticism, the Ecological Footprint is one of the most comprehensive assessments of the global environmental impact that can be estimated on a global scale for all nations. This gridded cartogram visualises data published in the most recent Happy Planet Index which uses the Ecological Footprint as one of its indicators. The map combines each country’s average per capita ecological footprint with the global population distribution on a gridded basis. Each grid cell therefore is resized according to the total amount of land used by the population in that space according to their demand on nature. An area twice as large as another uses up twice as much global hectares. In addition, a traffic-light colour scheme shows the overall environmental impact of each country turned into numbers of planets that were needed if the world as a whole was to live such a lifestyle.

The considerable differences between the nations become strikingly visible in this image. While much of the wealthy world especially in Europe and North America lives rather unsustainable lives, the still growing populations on the African continent but also in the world’s second largest country of India still live within Earth’s environmental means. What example is the rich world providing these future generations for the future of our planet?

Post scriptum: Checking my very own ecological footprint via WWF’s Online Footprint Calculator I have to plead guilty to contributing my part to this map. Sustainable futures are as much a challenge for society as a whole as they are for each individual populating this fragile planet.
Ecological Footprint

A modified version of this story was published in the October 2015 issue of Geographical Magazine. The content on this page has been created by Benjamin Hennig. Please contact me for further details on the terms of use.

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