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Ecological Footprint vs. Biocapacity – The Real Deal

Humans’ ecological footprint is one of the most important indicators of how well life is faring on the planet as well as how sustainable or unsustainable life is becoming.   

The balance between what nature can provide and what humans consume each year is essential to healthy and sustainable living. Aerial photo of fields in West Java, Indonesia. (Pexels photo by John Fisk)

Biocapacity goes hand-in-hand with humans’ ecological footprint and is perhaps the most important factor that determines current capabilities for and sustainability of life.

Simply stated, biocapacity is the amount of resources nature can provide.  Ecological footprint is a measure of how much of nature is being used by each person.  If more of nature is being used than it is capable of producing or renewing in a given area, that area is determined to have a biocapacity deficit.  If an area naturally provides more resources (its biocapacity) than what is being used (its ecological footprint), that area is determined to have a biocapacity reserve

How Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity are Measured

Ecological footprint is usually determined by how much space – generally measured in hectares (one hectare equals 2.47 acres) – is required by each person to provide the resources that are being used per person on average.  This includes resource consumption and waste generation.  Global hectares (gha) is used for this measurement because it references the world’s biological production for human use and waste generated. 

Biocapacity is simply the number of biologically productive hectares an area has that can produce the needed resources. This is also measured in global hectares (gha).

Normally, these numbers are measured by how much of Earth’s biocapacity is being used by a given country or region against how much biocapacity the country or region provides per year.  This is shown as global hectares per person (gha/person). 

Earth’s Biocapacity & Humans’ Ecological Footprint 

Each country or region on Earth has a specific biocapacity and a corresponding ecological footprint.  This is important because each country or region generally is responsible for sustaining and managing its own needs.  Collectively, this provides the total global biocapacity and corresponding ecological global footprint.

About 23% of Earth’s surface is biologically productive.  This includes land and water surfaces.  Humans take up roughly 60% of the world’s land surface, from densely populated areas to sparsely populated areas.  Yet, humans use resources from both land and water.

Considering that over 8.1 billion people currently populate Earth, following are Earth’s current Biocapacity and Ecological Footprint measurements:

  • Earth’s Global Biocapacity
    13,149,210,000 global hectares
    1.63 gha/person
  • Humans’ Global Ecological Footprint
    22,184,250,000 global hectares
    2.75 gha/person

Deficit or Reserve?

Earth’s human population currently operates at a biocapacity deficit of 1.12 gha/person.  This changes from year to year as Earth’s human population increases and as the population improves ways of increasing productive biocapacity.  Unfortunately, our biocapacity deficit continues to grow each year as biocapacity capability has not been able to meet the human demands placed upon it.

Approximately 72% of the world’s countries and regions function with a biocapacity deficit. These nations include Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, United States, China, Japan, France, Germany, Qatar and Mexico, among others.

About 28% of the world’s countries and regions function with a biocapacity reserve. These nations include Canada, Australia, Brazil, Finland, New Zealand, Argentina, Norway, Russia and Sweden, among others. 

Only one country, Sierra Leone, uses exactly as much of its resources as it produces (1.24 gha/person).

The Global Footprint Network (GFN) has determined that humans today use as much ecological resources as if we lived on 1.75 Earths.  GFN was founded in 2003 to capture and provide meaningful data, tools and actionable insights about natural resource consumption and capacity in real time.

How Can Humans Live with a Biocapacity Deficit?

The important thing to understand is that biocapacity and ecological footprint are mathematical indicators based on actual biological production and human consumption data collected from all around the world.  Nature’s ability to regenerate what people demand is constantly being monitored. 

Naturally, humans cannot expect to indefinitely sustain life as long as the population uses more than what nature can provide.  Just think about that reality, or just ask any scientist.  Trade between countries for goods and resources is one way that the human population is dealing with this supply vs. demand challenge with most countries and regions relying on imports from other countries and regions. 

Still, an important indication of human’s increasing unsustainable practices is seen in the global population’s increase of people with ever-present food security issues.  According to the World Health Organization, 29.3% of the global population face moderate to severe food insecurity.  This increased drastically as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic which still remains a concern today. 

How all of this works together is complicated because there are so many systems and industries at work trying to support the needs of a vastly growing human population.  Yet the premise is very simple: you can only use what is available to use, and everything that is living has needs that come from what our planet provides, that which we simply call nature.  — EP 

Did You Know…?

  • August 1 is the day in 2024 when human consumption outstrips the resources that Earth can naturally produce during the year.  Earth Overshoot Day is the date each year when humans’ demand for Earth’s natural resources and services exceeds what the planet is capable of generating in that year. A service of the Global Footprint Network, Earth Overshoot Day measurements date back to the year 1971 when demands on nature outpaced Earth’s biocapacity on December 25.  Prior to that, Earth was able to meet or exceed humans’ demands on its natural resources.
  • While the world’s human population growth is starting to decline, it is expected to peak at 11.2 billion people in the year 2100.  This is when virtual zero population growth is projected to be reached (when deaths and births are virtually equal to each other).  The health of the population at that time will directly depend on how sustainable society becomes by then.

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Author: Eric McLamb
Updated: June 6, 2024