Every individual, every household, every business and, ultimately, every country consumes resources. The footprint measures the amount of resources we use compared with what is available in the world. This tells us what kind of mark we are leaving on the planet. In Scotland, our footprint is too big: we use and pollute more than our fair share.
The footprint can help us decide how to make our lives in Scotland more sustainable so other nations and future generations can also enjoy the wonders of our planet and wildlife can thrive.
What is the Footprint?
You may already have heard of a carbon footprint, which is measured in tonnes and gives the amount of carbon dioxide we emit from the fossil fuels we burn through everyday activities such as driving our car, cooking our food or heating our houses.
The Ecological Footprint (just referred to as “footprint” on this website) is instead measured in hectares, and represents the amount of land and sea that is needed to feed us and provide all the energy, water and materials we use in our everyday lives as well as the land that is required to absorb our waste – including our carbon dioxide emissions – which alone make up about 70% of our footprint. So it is a much more holistic measure of the everyday impact of our lives on the world.
With this information, we can judge how sustainable our lives are. For example, take the apparently benign pastime of enjoying a beer. Land is required not only to grow the barley, but also for processing and distributing operations, and for the pub which sells the end product. Additional forest land is needed to absorb the CO2 released from all the energy that’s used during harvesting, processing, and shipping the beer. And somewhere on the planet, land was mined to make the metal for the combine harvester and other machinery used in the production and distribution process, as well as to make beer cans.
The Ecological Footprint concept was created in the early 1990s and is now in use in many countries at national and local levels (for example, UK, Belgium, Mexico, US, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Spain, Australia and Wales).
The Footprint is an easy-to-understand indicator of our global resource use. It can be used to show trends and to compare among countries, regions, organisations and individuals (see table. Sources: Counting Consumption and Living Planet Report 2006).
If the Earth’s resources were shared equally among everyone, a ‘fair share’ would be just less than 2 global hectares per person. Scotland has a Footprint of 5.37 global hectares per person. This means that if all the world’s population consumed like us, we would need two more planets to sustain ourselves.
Why is it important?
With more than six billion people living on the planet – and the number is increasing by 215,000 a day (slightly more than the population of Aberdeen) – there is a growing need for everyone to understand how much of the Earth’s natural resources are available to share between us. Quite simply, if present trends go unchecked, humans will soon need the resources of three Earth-sized planets to sustain our consumption of energy, crops, meat, fish and wood. The Ecological Footprint is one way of measuring how our lifestyles’ impact on the planet and on other people.
According to WWF’s Living Planet Report, the Living Planet Index (a measure of overall trends of wildlife populations in the world) dropped by 29% in the last 30 years, while the Ecological Footprint has more than tripled since 1961. Humanity is consuming Earth’s resources at a rate that is 25% faster than it can replenish itself and we are already feeling the impact. Half the world’s rivers are seriously polluted. More than a quarter of sea fish stocks are depleted, and sea level is set to rise for decades even in the best – case climate change scenarios.
What does this mean to Scotland?
It is often somebody else, somewhere else that is paying the price of our consumption – whether it is the people who live in the rainforest in Brazil, the hippo in Uganda, or the savannah of South American. But Scotland too is feeling the pinch – cod stocks are dramatically low, waste could increase by some 50% in the next 20 years, and millions are being spent on flood defences.
We know now that policies in pursuit of relentless economic growth result in an increase in footprint, and do not necessarily improve quality of life. More does not mean better. The Ecological Footprint helps to guide governments, businesses and individuals towards economic, environmental and social progress – genuine well-being.
How do we use it?
How can schools, businesses, and governments be more efficient in their use of resources? What can individuals do to help? How and where should we start to reduce our impact on the planet? Is our footprint going up or down?
This website can provide some of the answers to these questions:
Individuals can calculate their own footprint using this online footprint calculator. It just takes five minutes to complete and if you sign up at the end you will reach your very own tailored web page where you can find top tips on reducing your footprint as well as online blogs and forums.
More and more businesses want to understand their full environmental impact – and take actions to reduce it. Using the footprint approach can help businesses identify the areas of biggest impact, in their own activities and up and down the supply chain. The Global Footprint Network can offer advice in this area, and there are some UK-based software tools on offer such as the Triple Bottom Line or Footprinter.
We worked with Business Utilities UK, a business energy broker on how they can help their business and their clients become more environmentally friendly.
Local Authorities can work towards reducing their footprint through the Local Footprints Project, which provides practical advice and support in using specially tailored software to help them plan and implement footprint-reducing strategies and projects.
Schools can access a training service being delivered in conjunction with Eco Schools Scotland through the Local Footprints Project. The service helps schools measure their footprint, devise measures to reduce footprint and use Schools’ Global Footprint across the curriculum.