What is your environmental impact?

It sounds like a simple question, but as I learned when developing an environmental impact calculator for EVO.com, it is a very, very complex task, for many reasons (you can see my attempt below)...

First is the importance of defining a universal unit. The "carbon footprint" has now become the de facto method used to define environmental impact for companies (and even consumers). But as important as CO2 is, it is only one of many types of impacts.

According to the Global Footprint Network (GFN) which just released the latest and greatest standards document (PDF) this week for public review there are actually 7 "footprints" all of which can be measured in terms of units of land area -- CO2 energy, non-CO2 energy (like nuclear), built-up land, forests (for pulp and timber), crop land, grazing land, and fisheries.

An energy impact is therefore not quantified in terms of 'tons of CO2' which is abstract and in some ways quite meaningless to the general population, but rather the area of land required to absorb the CO2 emitted from power generation.

In the Ecological Footprint method, suddenly impacts become quite tangible. For me, this was a revelation because it took "environmental impact" out of the realm of airy fairy and planted it firmly in the realm of hard (and sobering) science.We only have one planet, so when you measure all of our land use and find that we are consuming MORE than one planet's worth of resources, you know you're in trouble. 

Well, not surprisingly, this is exactly what the Ecological Footprint found. In the 2003 report (PDF), it was determined that to support all human life on the planet (with a little, tiny reserve for non-human species), each person can consume about 5 acres worth of resources. Guess how much a typical American consumes -- 25 acres! So essentially the average American uses about five planets worth of resources each year:

In 2007, the Global Footprint Network with E.D. Mathis Wackernagel and Susan Burns at the helm, received a Skoll Foundation grant to update their data and further refine the framework for use in nations around the world.

The new 2009 set of standards tackles some other challenging questions on the road to a universal standard related to defining boundaries.

HOW do you define boundaries -- between nation and "sub-nation" (i.e. state or county or city), between company and product, between individual and government. And how are units used differently for a product versus and organization.

This is tricky stuff and could be argued in a number of ways. So the people at GFN assembled a panel of some of the world's experts on environmental science, building and energy industries, and government representatives to agree on one set of definitions. The result is the 2009 Standards document which is now available for public comment. And excerpt:

...the Ecological Footprint is a measure of consumption which is correctly understood as an amount of biological service consumed per unit time. As an analogy, a productive land base can be thought of as a capital stock (i.e., a bank account) biocapacity measures the revenue stream produced by that capital (i.e., interest received per month) and the Ecological Footprint represents continuous use of the revenue stream and/or capital stock (i.e., payments per month)

Once commenting is complete (which goes for 30 days) GFN will publish the final standards document, resulting in a document that the world has needed for a very long time -- a single framework for reporting and documenting environmental impact.

For reference, here is the breakdown I created for EVO which shows how much environmental impact is attributed to all the stuff in our lives:

Related Posts:


Moving beyond the 'carbon footprint'
2009 Ecological Footprint Standards offer a way to define REAL environmental impacts.