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).