What’s your Ecological Footprint? By Ines Wynn

Climate change is happening now. Global temperatures are already on the rise, impacting us all, especially the world’s most vulnerable people. In less than two centuries of industrial revolution, we have managed to deteriorate our habitat, planet Earth, a wondrous though fragile result of millions of years of evolution. Today, our planet is running out of steam because it no longer has its own natural means to compensate for mankind’s willful destruction. 

Natural balances are more fragile than we think. The erosion of biodiversity has reached a worrisome level unique in earth’s history. Destructions of forests are so enormous that, every single year, more than twelve million hectares disappear, the equivalent of four times the total surface of Belgium. No one can ignore this implacable fact: our planet has reached an unprecedented point of vulnerability and the damage is visible to the naked eye.

Scientists have determined that since the 1970s, humanity has been in a pattern of ecological overconsumption – they call it overshoot – with annual demand on resources exceeding what Earth can regenerate each year. It now takes the earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. We maintain this overshoot by liquidating our earth’s resources. Overshoot is a vastly underestimated threat to human well-being and the health of the planet, and one that is not adequately addressed. Man’s footprint is in danger of crushing the viability of the planet.

Carbon Footprint versus Ecological Footprint. We hear a lot about carbon footprint, defined as the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by an organization, event, product or individual. Simply stated it is a measure of the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) methane (CH4), nitrous oxide NO), ozone (O3) and simple water vapor emissions that are released in the atmosphere and cause climate change. Greenhouse gases can be emitted through transport, land clearance, and the production and consumption of food, fuels, manufactured goods, materials, wood, roads, buildings, and services.

Carbon dioxide makes up the majority of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. It is produced by the gasoline we put in our vehicles, the gas stoves we use in our kitchens, the electricity we use from plants using coal, natural gas or oil. These are the direct sources of our personal carbon footprint. However, you must also add the carbon footprint emissions from indirect sources, i.e. fuel burned to produce goods by manufacturers away from the final consumer.

The term ecological footprint was developed by scientists in the 1990s and is much broader than the carbon footprint because it measures the impact of all human activities on the environment. Your ecological footprint includes your carbon footprint – in fact it can make up about half of your ecological footprint – as well as your water footprint and land footprint. An ecological footprint is measured as the number of hectares of land and sea needed to support a particular lifestyle; the area needed to provide us with resources (e.g. crops, water, wood, fish, stone, minerals, energy) and to absorb the total amount of waste that we generate. That waste includes the carbon dioxide that we produce.

Stated simply, the ecological footprint is a measure of human demand on the earth’s ecosystems. It measures the supply and demand of goods and services consumed by a specific lifestyle. The estimate begins with the calculation of the land, water/sea needed to support the particular needs of a person in a particular region for food, shelter, transportation, and sundry goods and services. This estimation changes with the area where a person lives. This is due to the fact that ecosystems vary in biocapacity, their ability to produce useful biological materials and to absorb carbon dioxide. The results are given as the number of global hectares it would take to support your lifestyle.

An ecological footprint can be calculated for an individual, a nation or for all of humanity and is either expressed in the number of hectares or planets required to support us. To illustrate this: The carbon footprint of U.S. households is about 5 times greater than the global average; If everyone lived the lifestyle of the average American we would need 5 earth planets.

Footprint Basics – Human activities consume resources and produce waste. The ecological footprint seeks to measure human demand on nature. It addresses whether the planet is large enough to keep up with the demands of humanity. The footprint represents two sides of a balance sheet. On the asset side, biocapacity represents the planet’s biologically productive land areas including our forests, pastures, cropland and fisheries. Biocapacity can then be compared with humanity’s demand on nature which establishes our ecological footprint.

A common type of footprint calculator estimates the amount (in hectares) of biologically productive land and sea area necessary to supply the resources a human population consumes, and to assimilate the waste that population produces. At a global scale, this has been used by some ecological analysts to estimate how rapidly we are depleting limited resources, vs. using renewable resources. The Global Footprint Network, for instance, calculates a global ecological footprint from UN and other data, and publishes the result. They estimate that as of 2007, the planet has been using up major ecological resources 1.5 times as fast as they are being renewed.

Ecological footprint analysis is now widely used as an indicator of environmental sustainability. It is a means of comparing consumption and lifestyles, and checking this against nature’s ability to provide for this consumption. It examines to what extent we use more (or less) than is available within our area. Ecological footprints are used to argue that many current lifestyles are not sustainable. In 2007, the average biologically productive area per person worldwide was approximately 1.8 global hectares (gha) per capita. The U.S. footprint per capita was 9.0 gha, and that of Switzerland was 5.6 gha, while China’s was 1.8 gha.  The WWF claims that the human footprint has exceeded the biocapacity of the planet by 20%.

Your Personal Footprint. How much land area does it take to support your lifestyle? To find out your own ecological footprint, you can use one of the free online ecological footprint calculators. You will be asked more or less detailed questions about your location, your diet, transportation choices, home size, shopping and recreational activities, usage of electricity, heating, and heavy appliances such as dryers and refrigerators, and so on. The calculator then estimates your footprint based on your answers to these questions. This allows you to discover your biggest areas of resource consumption, learn what you can do to mitigate the damage you contribute to our planet and resolve to tread more lightly on the earth.

How does your ecological footprint compare? The ideal score is 2 hectare or less. If everyone lived like this, human existence would be both sustainable and fair as there is enough land on the Earth to support the whole population at this level of land use. At present, about two-thirds of the global population has an ecological footprint of less than 2 hectares. By comparison the average European scores between 4 to 6 hectare; the average American scores more than 8 hectare. How do you compare?

Your ecological footprint is dependent upon choices you make in your own life, such as how much you drive, recycle and purchase new products, and some of it is your share of your societies’ infrastructure. The first part can be influenced directly. The second part is equally critical to living within the means of one planet, but must be influenced through more indirect action such as political engagement, green technology and innovation, and other work toward large-scale social change.

Some practical considerations to get you started. What can you do now to reduce your eco footprint? Start with a serious analysis of your lifestyle and consumer habits; in particular look at the products used in your household like cleaning materials, garments and how you use renewable versus non-renewable energy; how do you dispose of your garbage; do you recycle? Your use of water and power. How many of your appliances and computers use stand-by mode? Any leaking taps around your house? Swimming pools are a major factor in the calculation of your eco footprint, not just the use of water and chemicals.

What mode of transportation do you choose and are all trips necessary or can errands be combined? Do you carpool? Do you walk when you can or is every short displacement bound to be motorized? Do you stay in hotels often? If so, do you insist on the necessity of fresh sheets and towels every day?

What about your eating habits? Meat is by far the biggest spoiler product. Reducing your intake or cutting it out entirely will make a significant difference. Not just the food you eat but also the packaging it comes in adds to your footprint. Think of those plastic bags and wrappers, the Styrofoam tray or any king of non-compostable packaging as calories to your footprint. Equally important is the distance your food comes from; locally produced is way better than imported. Long cooking times use energy. So do laundry practices. Is it really necessary to throw your clothes in the washer after just one wearing? Or wash partial loads? Airing out little worn clothes instead of washing can refresh them equally.

You can go a bit farther afield by seriously examining the traceability of your personal and household products, i.e. where do they come from (local or long distance?); how they are manufactured, using earth-friendly or despoiling manufacturing processes. Think of your garments and your jewelry and the way they are created. Do the manufacturing processes despoil the environment as is so often the case in developing countries? If it’s bad for the environment it can also be bad for you as toxins in rivers and groundwater can cause pollution and disease.

What it all boils down to is that the awareness of you as a polluter of Mother Earth is a first step to redemption.  The second step is to ask yourself some pointed questions and analyze your lifestyle and consumer habits as outlined above.  Run your ecological calculators. Only then can you decide in what way you can reduce, eliminate, replace or mitigate your polluting habits. Finally: act upon it and do something for Ibu Pertiwi, our mother earth. At this point in time, we only have one place to live. Let’s not contribute to despoiling it.

What about Carbon trading, Offsets, Credits and Carbon taxing? The practice of Carbon trading among nations sounds almost like horse trading and in many ways it is a form of green washing. The mechanism is complex and not always transparent to the lay person. On the plus side carbon credits can finance much needed projects in poorer nations. Carbon offsetting is the mitigation of a carbon footprint through the development of alternative projects, such as solar or wind energy, reforestation. It represents one way of reducing a carbon footprint.

Some policy makers maintain that the best way to cut the biggest pollution sources like carbon emissions is to put a price on them, They argue this would be a powerful incentive to diminish carbon use or switch to alternate, i.e. greener forms of energy and practicing a carbon-saving lifestyle like buying fuel efficient cars, form car pools or use public transportation more frequently, turn down thermostats. In the USA some states have already enacted a similar measure by increasing the price of gasoline by 25 cents. Canada has introduced a similar carbon tax. In both instances, a drop in the use of fossil fuels has been notable.

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