Project: An Ecological Footprint of the UK B14

Reference: STP 14/5/10

Last update: 17/12/2007 11:59:56


The objective is to provide a detailed ecological footprint of the United Kingdom under the policy relevant components of waste, housing, resource consumption, transport, energy and food supply. The ecological footprint will be presented in per capita figures for comparitive analysis of UK performance with UK local autjorities or regions. A manual will also be produced for local authorities explaining how they can conduct an ecological footprint that will be directly comparable with the national footprint analysis.


The ecological footprint has received much attention as a potential indicator for sustainable development over the past years. The project offers the further development and the practical application of this novel methodology to understand the relative sustainability of the UK. The method is transferable between local authorities and directly feeds into the Government's headline indicators.

Past studies of the ecological footprint of UK cities have demonstrated that the methodology is useful and applicable to local authorities. As the ecological footprint can be calculated on a per capita basis, each local authority can be compared with the national average, identifying good practice across local authorities. In conclusion, the project offers a methodology that has a track record of providing relevant, transferable information that has relevance to the Department.


University of York
Stockholm Environment Institute-York, Biology Department, University of York, York, YO10 5YW

Contract details

Cost to the Department: £49,212.49

Actual start date: 13 May 2002

Actual completion date: 28 May 2003


An Ecological Footprint of the UK
Author: Dr John Barrett and Craig Simmons
Publication date: 27/05/2003
Source: Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)

Summary of results

  1. At present, no government agency operates a systematic accounting system to assess what extent human use of nature fits within the capacity of the existing ecosystems (Wackernagel and Silverstein, 2000). The ecological footprint is one of the few tools that attempt such an integrated resource accounting. The project set out to investigate the use of the ecological footprint as an indicator of sustainability for use by local authorities. At the same time the project has calculated the ecological footprint of the UK providing a benchmarking facility for measuring local authority performance. Finally, the project has tested the software tool that has been developed with a number of pilot local authorities.

    - The deliverables set out in the project proposal were:

    - To provide an ecological footprint of the United Kingdom, under the policy relevant components of waste, housing, resource consumption, transport, energy and food supply.

    - To present the ecological footprint in per capita figures for comparative analysis of UK performance with UK local authorities or regions.

    - To produce a step-by-step manual for local authorities to conduct an ecological footprint with CD-ROM computer software.

    - To undertake an analysis of local authority and UK ecological footprints.

    Additional attention has been given to ensure standardisation and compatibility of the calculations with other ecological footprint projects. The software tool has been designed primarily to undertake benchmarking and performance monitoring for local authorities.

    EF essentially accounts for the use of the planet's renewable resources. Non-renewable resources are accounted for only by their impact on, or use of, renewable, bioproductive capacity. The footprint is a 'snapshot' estimate of biocapacity demand and supply usually based on data from a single year. Both available biocapacity and the eco-efficiency of the economy can change over time which is why it is not possible to forecast or 'backcast' footprints from current data although it is possible to make assumptions about future consumption and thus create informative scenarios.

    The components that the EF has been divided into are logical disaggregations of the compound ecological footprint presented in the most recent Living Planet Report (WWF et al., 2002). These components are based around the key policy areas of food production and supply (nourishment), housing and domestic energy use (shelter), personal transport (mobility), goods and services (where consumption is closely linked to waste). For each of these sections, to demonstrate the application of the ecological footprint, an issue has been explored that goes beyond presenting the results. For example, under nourishment an investigation into the embodied energy of food with a particular focus on intensive farming has been undertaken. For goods and services the issue of packaging has been investigated. These five top-level components are further sub-divided in 29 sub-components reflecting consumer choices and/or the scale of consumption within each of the categories. For example, 'Mobility' is sub-divided into different transport modes (car travel, rail, bus/coach etc.).

    The total ecological footprint of the UK is 321,621,000 global hectares. This represents a per capita footprint of 5.45 hectares. Eighty-six percent of the world population has an ecological footprint smaller than 5.45 hectares. This eighty-six per cent has a total share of 52 percent of humanity's footprint, while the remaining 14 percent, within which the UK lies, occupy 48 percent of humanity's footprint. This means that the residents of the UK are within the top 14 percent of the World's population in terms of the size of their impact on the global environment.

    The main design of the software tool is for local authorities to understand how they are different from the national average. At the same time it was necessary to ensure that the software tool would be "user-friendly" but technical enough to provide concrete answers. Where the software does deal with a more technical or complex issue an explanation is provided in the manual to support the software. A number of local authorities were asked their opinion of the software tool. This provided the opportunity to understand how the software could be used by local authorities. Council representatives from the areas of transport, housing, waste and Local Agenda 21 were consulted.

    All the LA representatives acknowledged the fact that their current set of indicators were not entirely adequate and highlighted many of the problems they have in measuring sustainability. After being given a small document on the ecological footprint and a presentation the LA representatives generally agreed that they would use an indicator such as the ecological footprint. A lot of emphasis was placed on the educational value of the ecological footprint. The list of uses that the LA representatives highlighted was used to form the basis of the final chapter in the ecological footprint manual.

    Questions were also asked on the policy application of the ecological footprint. For waste, the LA representatives believed it could help support the claim for more waste minimisation campaigns and not just recycling. For most LA representatives they believed they could provide valuable information to the councillors and other stakeholders that would help them interpret the information on potential options more clearly.

    At a national level the ecological footprint acts as a reminder of the UK's impact within a global context. The future advancement of the ecological footprint will help to refine the methodology providing an increasingly accurate measure of ecological sustainability.

    One of the main findings of the research is an insight into what local authorities would like to help them assess the environmental impact of policy decisions and internally within the council. At present, there are very few examples of an integrated approach within local authorities. There is also little consensus over how the effectiveness of policies are measured and monitored over time. Therefore, the ecological footprint has proven to be attractive to local authorities. However, as the Audit Commission and IDeA has highlighted, there is not a culture of performance assessment within local authorities. While the ecological footprint cannot solve these larger problems of institutional change, it does provide a simple, transparent indicator that can help with this process of change.