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Indicator Facts

CBD Strategic Goal: A: Address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society

Main Aichi Biodiversity Target: Target 4: By 2020, at the latest, Governments, business and stakeholders at all levels have taken steps to achieve or have implemented plans for sustainable production and consumption and have kept the impacts of use of natural resources well within safe ecological limits.

Secondary Aichi Biodiversity Targets: Sub-components of the Ecological Footprint over time (per unit output) could be used to monitor progresses in Target 7.

CBD AHTEG Headline Indicator: Trends in pressures from unsustainable agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture

CBD Operational Indicator: Labelled in Decision Annex as category C

Key Indicator Partner:

Other conventions or processes using the indicator: There are several countries that are using, for various purposes (from awareness creation to policy development), the Ecological Footprint. Details on existing processes can be found at: en/index.php/GFN/page/ten_in_ten_campaign

Development Status: Ready for global and national use.


Background: Ecological Footprint Accounting was first conceived in 1990, and has since been developed further. The Ecological Footprint has inspired the carbon Footprint and water Footprint. (the carbon Footprint is a component of the Ecological Footprint. The water Footprint uses a similar methodology, but due to the context specific nature of water impacts, it cannot easily been shown as a distinct piece of the Ecological Footprint).

Since 2003 Global Footprint Network has stewarded the Ecological Footprint while updating the Accounts and methodology on annually.

The Ecological Footprint has become one of the main overarching indicators in the sustainability domain, and is used widely by government agencies, NGOs and some businesses. Among the conservation organizations, WWF-International is the most prominent user, as one of its two meta-goals is to reduce humanity’s Footprint to one planet.

Link between biodiversity and the Ecological Footprint: Direct anthropogenic threats to biodiversity include habitat loss or damage, overexploitation, pollution, invasive species and climate change. These direct threats are the result of more distant, indirect drivers of biodiversity loss arising from consumption of resources and the generation of waste. The ultimate drivers of biodiversity threats are human demands for food, fibre and timber, water and energy and area on which to build infrastructure. As the human population and global economy grow, so do the pressures on biodiversity.

The Ecological Footprint measures the demands that our use of ecological assets places on the regenerative capacity of productive ecosystems. Understanding the linkages and interactions between biodiversity, the drivers of biodiversity loss and the Ecological Footprint are fundamental to slowing, halting and reversing the ongoing declines in natural ecosystems and populations of wild species.

Policy questions addressed by the indicator: Ecological Footprint Accounts address the question: How much of the planet’s regenerative capacity does a population demand to produce the ecological resources and services for their daily lives (Ecological Footprint), and how much regenerative capacity does the population have available within their region’s boundaries or on the planet (biocapacity)? Simply put, Ecological Footprint Accounts measure how much nature we use and how much we have. The Ecological Footprint is an accounting system for ecosystem services that compete for biologically productive space.

Ecological Footprint accounting gains its relevance from comparing its two indicators against each other:
•    Ecological Footprint (EF): the biologically productive land and sea area - the ecological assets - that a population requires to produce the renewable resources and ecological services it uses.
•    Biocapacity (BC): the ecological assets available in countries, regions or at the global level and those countries’ or regions’ capacity to produce renewable resources and ecological services.
Both are measured in the same unit: global hectares. Global hectares are biologically productive hectares with world average productivity.
Ecological Footprint accounting is fundamental for economic and environmental planning because it indicates to what extent human demands can be met without liquidating underlying ecological assets. The Accounts can document ecological deficits (EF>BC) which indicate that ecosystem services are demanded at a pace faster than they can be renewed. The Accounts can determine whether a region is in an overshoot situation (when demand on its local ecosystems exceeds the ecosystems’ capacity) or whether it is in a deficit situation (when demand avoids local overshoot by gaining extra capacity from elsewhere).

Ecological Footprints Accounts therefore provide insights into the level of pressure on the ecosystems and the biodiversity that inhabits them.

The main aim of Ecological Footprint methodology is thus to promote recognition of ecological limits. This recognition should help safeguard the ecosystems’ viability (such as healthy forests, clean waters, clean air, fertile soils and biodiversity) and life-supporting services. The health and abundance of these services is a precondition for providing people with all the materials they need.

Indicator relationship to Aichi Target 4: The relevance of Ecological Footprint accounting is most focused on Target 4: By 2020, at the latest, governments, businesses and stakeholders at all levels have taken steps to achieve or have implemented plans for sustainable production and consumption and have kept the impacts of use of natural resources well within safe ecological limits.

Data Information

Data available: Global time series (currently available for the period 1961-2008, updated data covering the period 1961-2009 will be soon released).

Regional/national time series currently available for all countries in the UN statistical system (for countries with populations under one million, data sets are sometimes not complete).

In other words, the accounts cover approximately 160 countries, for the period 1961-2008. Updated data covering the period 1961-2009 will be released soon. Results come typically with a three years delay. Now-casted estimates exist as well, but are only used for the financial industry.

Regional/national case studies: Various nations and regions have applied the Footprint. Internet search will reveal such studies. Some are also featured here.

Global indicator aggregated from: National and regional level data

Indicator can be disaggreated at: Regional and national levels; the indicator can also be disaggregated into 5 land types: cropland, grazing land, forests, fishing grounds, and built-up areas. Forests serve two competeing demands: provision of forest products and sequestration of CO2 waste.

Current status

The Ecological Footprint measures humanity’s demand on the biosphere in terms of the area of biologically productive land and water required to provide the resources we use and to absorb our carbon dioxide emissions. This area is reported in global hectares (gha) – hectares with world average productivity. The Footprint of a country includes all the cropland, grazing land, forest and fishing grounds required to produce the food, fibre and timber it consumes, to house its infrastructure and to absorb its waste. Current national calculations, limited by data availability, only include CO2 from fossil fuel burning on the waste side. Footprint accounts include areas that provide for consumption regardless of where these areas are located on the planet. National Footprint Accounts are derived from internally recognized sources, such as the UN-FAO, and go back to 1961.

To examine whether ecological limits are being exceeded, the Ecological Footprint can be compared with biocapacity, the amount of biologically productive area that is available to provide resources and absorb waste. In the 1970s, humanity’s global Footprint began to overshoot global biocapacity, and by 2008 this overuse was approximately 50 percent.

Global Footprint Network releases updated National Footprint Accounts each year. Results are published on its websites and in numerous publications including WWF-International’s biennial Living Planet Report. Descriptions of the methodology and additional data are available at

Last update: May 2012

Next update: August 2013

The Footprint methodology is continuously being improved and, every time a new edition of the results is released (calculated with the most recent methodology), Ecological Footprint and biocapacity values are back-calculated from the most recent year in order to ensure consistency across the historical time series.



Indicator scale

Levels at which the indicator is currently used: Global, national

Levels at which the indicator could be used: Regional, sub-global, sub-national/local

A comprehensive method paper indicating Ecological Footprint’s and biocapacity’s scale of applicability, methodology, input data as well as results at national and global level from the past few editions has been recently published in the journal Ecological Indicators. See Borucke et al., 2013. Accounting for demand and supply of the Biosphere’s regenerative capacity: the National Footprint Accounts’ underlying methodology and framework. Ecological Indicators, 24, 518-533. Copy of the article can be accessed at: 

The Indicator





FIGURE 1: Humanity’s Ecological Footprint by component, 1961-2008

Source: Global Footprint Network







FIGURE 2: Ecological Footprint vs. biocapacity for world countries, 1961 (top) and 2008 (bottom). Biocapacity reserve (green) is defined as a domestic Ecological Footprint of consumption less than domestic biocapacity; biocapacity deficit (red) as an Ecological Footprint of consumption greater than domestic biocapacity.

Source: Global Footprint Network




How to Interpret the Indicator

The Ecological Footprint tracks human demand on nature. It is an accounting system that compares how much people take from nature to how much nature there is. Demand is measured in terms of biologically productive areas a population uses for producing all the resources it consumes and absorbing all its waste – with prevailing technology and resource management of that year. This demand is compared to the availability of nature, called biocapacity. Biocapacity, measured in surface area, represents the regenerative capacity of nature.

An increase in a nation’s Ecological Footprint stands for an increase in humanity’s demand on ecological resources and services (or biocapacity), which in turn equates to increased pressure on biodiversity and a greater risk of biodiversity loss.

There are five main anthropogenic threats to biodiversity:

•    Habitat loss, fragmentation or change, especially due to agriculture, large-scale forestry, and human infrastructure.

•    Climate change shifting habitat to an extent that it is no longer suitable for the threatened species.

•    Overexploitation of species, especially due to fishing and hunting, but also overuse of ecosystem services that leadsto habitat loss.

•    Pollution that affects the health of species.

•    The spread of invasive species or genes outcompeting endogenous species or genes.

As measured by Ecological Footprint Accounts, all five of these threats stem ultimately from excessive human demands on the biosphere. They are consequences of 1) the extraction and harvest of natural resources that all people consume, including food, fibre, energy and materials, 2) the disposal of associated waste products and 3) the displacement of natural ecosystems by towns, cities and infrastructure. Further, the massive flows of goods and people around the world have become vectors for the spread of alien species and diseases.

When the Ecological Footprint exceeds biocapacity, stocks are being depleted, and/or emissions are accumulating in the biosphere (such as CO2 in the atmosphere and oceans). Thus a minimum condition for sustainable consumption is not being met. When this is the case, competition for ecological resources and reductions in area for biodiversity result in pressure on species populations and, ultimately, biodiversity loss.

The Ecological Footprint also captures indirect pressure on biodiversity. Because of trade, consumption in one country may have little demand on local ecosystems, but pressure ecosystems from where the product stems.

A reduction in the Ecological Footprint, and especially the elimination of overshoot, would indicate reduced pressure on the world’s ecological resources and a lower risk of biodiversity loss.

Without retooling economies in ways that reduces their overall resource demands, it is unlikely that these trends will become more biodiversity friendly.


Current Storyline

Human demand on ecological assets has increased constantly from 1961 to2008. Humans demanded almost 70% of the planet’s regenerative capacity in 1961, ahd now demand 150% of this capacity—the equivalent of 1.5 planets worth of ecological resources and services. While ecological resource and service demands have increased for all land types, demand for forest products and carbon sequestration has increased fastest. Differences in Ecological Footprint values can be also found at the regional level: per capita consumption values are highest in North America (8.7 gha/capita) and Europe (4.5 gha/cap), and lowest in Africa (1.4 gha/cap) and Asia-Pacific (1.5 gha/cap). A global hectare (gha) is a biologically productive hectare with world average productivity.

National Use

Ecological Footprint and biocapacity values have been published for more than 200 nations as part of the National Footprint Accounts produced by Global Footprint Network.

In 2005, Global Footprint Network launched its Ten-in-Ten campaign, with the aim to have ten national governments adopt the Ecological Footprint by 2015. Since then, more than 35 nations have engaged with the organization directly. 17 nations have completed reviews of the Footprint. 11 nations have officially applied it. The ultimate goal is for nations to use the Footprint framework to shift policies and investments. Two governments are currently using the Ecological Footprint as a policy and decision-making tool for accounting resource consumption and pressure generation: the United Arab Emirates is working on the development of a Footprint scenario tool to assist in the development of science-based policies, while Ecuador became the first country to set a specific Footprint reduction target into its National Development Plan, that its Footprint be within its biocapacity by 2013.  For more information on the ten-in-ten campaign click here.

Those interested in producing this indicator at the national or regional level can visit the online database or email Dr. Alessandro Galli, Director of Mediterranean Program (

Future development

Research by Global Footprint Network to improve the science and methodology of the indicator is focusing on:
  • Equivalence factors, which convert different land types into global hectares.
  • Demand on fisheries.
  • National Consumption Land Use Matrices, which disaggregate demand by final consumption category.
  •  Footprint intensities of traded commodities.

Additional publications

Further publications from the Global Footprint Network can be found at: 

Photo credits:
Storm over city ©Trey Ratcliff; Night time pollution scene ©Paul Falardeau; Big red tractor ©Andrew Stawarz

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