Environment, Development and Sustainability

, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 441–469 | Cite as

Refining the ecological footprint

  • Jason Venetoulis
  • John Talberth
Original paper


Ecological footprint measures how much of the biosphere’s annual regenerative capacity is required to renew the natural resources used by a defined population in a given year. Ecological footprint analysis (EFA) compares the footprint with biocapacity. When a population’s footprint is greater than biocapacity it is reported to be engaging in ecological overshoot. Recent estimates show that humanity’s footprint exceeds Earth’s biocapacity by 23%. Despite increasing popularity of EFA, definitional, theoretical, and methodological issues hinder more widespread scientific acceptance and use in policy settings. Of particular concern is how EFA is defined and what it actually measures, exclusion of open oceans and less productive lands from biocapacity accounts, failure to allocate space for other species, use of agricultural productivity potential as the basis for equivalence factors (EQF), how the global carbon budget is allocated, and failure to capture unsustainable use of aquatic or terrestrial ecosystems. This article clarifies the definition of EFA and proposes several methodological and theoretical refinements. Our new approach includes the entire surface of the Earth in biocapacity, allocates space for other species, changes the basis of EQF to net primary productivity (NPP), reallocates the carbon budget, and reports carbon sequestration biocapacity. We apply the new approach to footprint accounts for 138 countries and compare our results with output from the standard model. We find humanity’s global footprint and ecological overshoot to be substantially greater, and suggest the new approach is an important step toward making EFA a more accurate and meaningful sustainability assessment tool.


Ecological footprint Sustainability Net primary productivity Natural capital 



Ecological footprint


Ecological footprint analysis


Ecological footprint based on GAEZ suitability indices


Ecological footprint approach that employs net primary productivity


Equivalence factor


United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization


Global agricultural ecological zone


Gross domestic product


Global Footprint Network


Global hectare

Gt C

Gigatons of carbon




Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


Net primary productivity


Redefining Progress


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sustainability Indicators ProgramRedefining ProgressOaklandUSA

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