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Questioning the Ecological Footprint

Photo credit: Gregor Sieböck, Flickr, Creative Commons License
Photo credit: Gregor Sieböck, Flickr, Creative Commons License

Opponents in an academic discussion on the relevance and the validity of the ‘Ecological Footprint approach’ have come together to write an article in which they challenge each other’s views. 

Via ten questions – half of these posed by the proponents of the Ecological Footprint and half by its opponents – the authors shed light on strengths and limitations of the approach from different perspectives. In this way, this article does something unusual: it documents researchers’ disagreements first-hand and so manages to go into a lot of depth with regards the methodology as well as the ideological underpinnings of the Ecological Footprint.

The Ecological Footprint is a method that aims to answer the question of how much of the regenerative capacity of the biosphere (its biocapacity) is occupied by human demand. Humanity’s Ecological Footprint then becomes the sum of all biologically productive surfaces of the planet for which all the human demands compete (measured in hectare-equivalent units). Several countries, as well as high-profile environmental NGOS, have taken on the Ecological Footprint accounting to represent human demand on natural systems.


Figure: Human activities considered in the Ecological Footprint approach


The article starts from the premise that all authors agree on one thing: ‘that it is fundamental for policy formulation and monitoring to have a quantitative approach capable of measuring human demand on nature against nature’s ability to provide ecological services.’ The group supporting the approach point out that its scope is clear: it is not intended as a measure of human impact, nor is it a predictive measure of the sustainability of specific management practices. What it does is function theoretically as an accounting system which compares human demand on Earth’s ecosystems to the extent to which these ecosystems are able to  renew themselves and the services they provide.

The two authors opposed to the widespread acceptance of the Ecological Footprint argue that it only measures actual yields of biomass per hectare that are due to human manipulation but does not take into account a range of important ecological and economic processes, and as such does not provide information which should be used to design policy. For example, according to the model, replacing natural ecosystems with more productive human-managed vegetation would increase the biocapacity of our planet. Other important aspects that are neglected include the need for sink capacity for pollutants and the supply capacity for fossil fuels or their replacement by e.g. biofuels. Taking this, and more, into account, it is argued that using the method to assess how much can be produced according to the planet’s ecological limits is misleading. Alternative methods such as the Planetary Boundaries concept could be used to provide a more complex assessment of the state of the environment and the carrying capacity of human activity.

The answers to the ten questions do not only give insight into the academic debate around the Ecological Footprint, but also provide a detailed introduction to its main premises.


In this perspective paper a critical discussion about the concept of the Ecological Footprint is documented based on 10 questions which are answered from critical and supporting points-of-view. These key questions are directed toward the underlying research objectives of the approach, a comparison with similar concepts, the quantification methodology and its accuracy, the characteristics of the observed flows, the role of scales and resolutions, the implementation of food security, the utility of the ecological footprint for society, the political relevance of the concept and the differences from other international indicator systems.



Galli, A., Giampietro, M., Goldfinger, S., Lazarus, E., Lin, D., Saltelli, A., Wackernagel, M. and Müller, F., 2016. Questioning the Ecological Footprint. Ecological Indicators, 69, pp.224-232.

To read the full paper, please look here (paywall).

We have summarised various reports and articles on the related Planetary Boundaries work see, for example, here and here and here

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