Introducing Ecological and Carbon Footprints

The ecological and carbon footprints place emphasis on the environmental dimension of sustainable development, rather than the economic or social dimensions. This reduces complexity and in doing so provides a useful tool for communicating sustainable development to a diverse audience with varying degrees of sustainability awareness. Once there is a fundamental realisation that personal lifestyle choices have an impact on the natural environment, the wider aspects of the concept can begin to be explained and the interdependence of the three dimensions explored.

Ecological Footprint

The ecological footprint is a calculation of the area of biologically productive land and water required for a given population to exist at a given consumption level. Web-based footprint calculators typically focus upon consumption patterns of the individual lifestyle.

Data is input in answer to a series of questions relating to individual lifestyle choices, focusing upon issues such as food procurement, transportation, energy use and waste production. The output is a figure, usually in hectares, that is the amount of land required to maintain that given lifestyle. To assess how the individual compares with his or her peers, the individual output value is frequently compared to one or more of the following:

  • The average footprint of the population of the given country to which the calculator is calibrated;

  • The global amount on average of biologically productive land and water available to each person on the planet; and

  • The number of planets required if everybody on earth chose to follow the lifestyle of the given individual.

The simplicity of the tool and the tangible outputs it produces make it highly effective at communicating sustainable development to a range of audiences with varying degrees of sustainability awareness.

By focusing on a number of elements of consumption in everyday life, the ecological footprint increases individual understanding of important environmental issues. It also enables people to recognise and translate the impact of their lifestyle choices to a global scale; a link that remains enigmatic and remote for many.

The ecological footprint is a participative education tool. It offers the opportunity of building upon students’ experiences in the real world and of stimulating debate about the issues, the measurements, and the solutions.

Carbon Footprint

Carbon footprints represent the effect of human activities on the climate in terms of the quantity of greenhouse gases generated through individual lifestyle choices.

Web based carbon footprint calculators typically focus questions upon energy and transportation related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The output is an overall figure for a given individual in units of carbon dioxide produced per year (usually kilograms) - their carbon footprint.

Such calculations provide an indication of the climatic impact of specific aspects of individual lifestyles and help to identify those areas where more sustainable choices could be made.