Components of Ecological footprint

New Science: Time to Step Away from the Ecological Footprint?
January 15, 2016 – 11:30 am

Image credit: Mikael Leppä/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.How sustainably are we using Earth’s natural resources?

First: Can we even answer the question?

Not according to a new article in the journal PLoS Biology coauthored by Nature Conservancy Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva.

Kareiva and his coauthors argue that the most widely cited measure of global and national sustainability — the Ecological Footprint — has serious conceptual and scientific flaws that render it almost unusable for scientists, policymakers, resource managers and investors.

Instead, the article’s authors argue, science needs to develop new indicators for decision makers — ones that show the trends for critical natural resources such as soils, forests, fisheries and fresh water supplies.

“The Ecological Footprint had utility in its day, ” says Kareiva. “It alerted the world to the notion that humans have a huge impact on the planet, and that eventually there may be limits that feed back to undermine the global ecosystem.”

“But now policymakers and business leaders are demanding much more sophisticated information about the benefits we get from nature — information that can be used to inform smarter investments and decisions, ” he adds. “We need better metrics to support those demands.”

(Read the PLoS Biology article, the Global Footprint Network’s rebuttal, and the article authors’ counterrebuttal.)

‘Hard to Translate the Ecological Footprint into Concrete Policy’

Since its development by scientists Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees at the University of British Columbia in 1990, the Ecological Footprint (EF) has gained increasing popularity with environmentalists, national governments and even some corporations as a measure of planetary or national sustainability — or, rather, lack thereof.

You might have heard of “Earth Overshoot Day” — the day each year the planet’s demands on its renewable ecological resources exceed their annual supply (or “biocapacity”), according to EF calculations. (This year: August 20.) Indeed, according to the EF, many countries — from China to Montenegro to the United States — and the planet itself are in chronic and accelerating ecological overshoot.

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Popular Q&A
What is ecological footprint?

A ecological footprint compares human consumption of natural resources with planet Earth's ecological capacity to regenerate them.

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