environment sustainability

The four footprints

As the world’s population grows and the middle classes expand, there is mounting pressure on the world’s resources. That is pushing up prices, and resource stewardship is a growing priority for governments, businesses and individuals. In order to help us understand resource efficiency and reduce our ecological impact, Friends of the Earth Europe has been pioneering a ‘four footprints’ approach.

We’re familiar with the idea of carbon footprints, but they only measure our contribution to climate change. It’s important that we expand our definitions and consider our impact on natural resources too. Ecological footprinting includes everything, but has to be explained all the time, as a single indicator inevitable compresses a lot of complex information. It also takes some awkward conversions to turn things into a land footprint, such as expressing CO2 emissions as an area of forest. The four footprints sit between those two approaches and serve as a useful clarification.

Before we can manage our resource use, we need to be able to measure it, and this is a simple framework for keeping ecological accounts. They are already being used in various contexts, including some big corporations.

The four footprints are:

  • Carbon – the total about of greenhouse gases produced. Although it measures more than just CO2, this is usually expressed in CO2 equivalent to keep it simple.
  • Land – the real area of land used to produce something, wherever that land might be. For example, that could be the land used to grow the food for a meal, including the land for the feed crops fed to animals.
  • Water – the volume of water used or polluted by the activity or the making of a product. It includes rainwater, and fresh water from rivers or aquifers.
  • Materials – the tonnage of materials used, in two categories of materials: abiotic (mined resources, fossil fuels) and biotic (forestry and agriculture products).

The methodology and reasoning behind the four footprints is all explained here. For examples of the four footprints applied to business and policy, see the recent conference presentations here.



  1. For water the foot print includes: water used or polluted by the activity, is it assumed that we do not pollute land (landfills); for land there is no “or polluted”?

    1. Good question – I’m not sure that including landfill automatically is a good idea, as it presupposes that something will end up there. If it doesn’t, you’ve overestimated its footprint. That would be a point of discussion and I’m not sure how the four footprints approach deals with it. It’s not in the introductory papers I’ve read, although I’m sure it’s deeper in the methodology.

      There is some overlap here too, as something in landfill would contribute to the carbon footprint, and land pollution typically becomes water pollution too and would add to the water footprint. If you were doing full life-cycle accounting, you’d need to factor all these things in.

  2. The parameters need to be ‘soft’, a continuous ajustment and monitoring is due. It would be a big step forward, the expansion of the value system to a larger context. Now expressing these values in a single denomer, currency and there is a start to a science of economics as opposed to the religion of economics that rules today.


    Five big oil companies earn that amount.

    Yet. Exxon is pressuring the Obama administration to open more public land for drilling. Nearly 55% of all oil pumped domestically is exported and sold on the “world” market. If we were to restrict exports it is said our price would be $1.50 per gallon. We could use the $2.00 as a stimulus in our economy.

    Remember? We were promised that increased domestic production would lower our costs. Even after Obama agreed to open more federal land for drilling we are yet to see any of those benefits. Drill baby drill. They have but where has our economy profited?

    The oil companies have been given everything they asked for and we are still Paying about $3.50 per gallon at the pump.

    U.S. gas prices are still among the lowest in the world, And part of that is because we have the refining capacity to import crude oil and our ports

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