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Measuring sustainability: Why the ecological footprint is bad economics and bad environmental science

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  • Fiala, Nathan

Abstract

The ecological footprint is a measure of the resources necessary to produce the goods that an individual or population consumes. It is also used as a measure of sustainability, though evidence suggests that it falls short. The assumptions behind footprint calculations have been extensively criticized; I present here further evidence that it fails to satisfy simple economic principles because the basic assumptions are contradicted by both theory and historical data. Specifically, I argue that the footprint arbitrarily assumes both zero greenhouse gas emissions, which may not be ex ante optimal, and national boundaries, which makes extrapolating from the average ecological footprint problematic. The footprint also cannot take into account intensive production, and so comparisons to biocapacity are erroneous. Using only the assumptions of the footprint then, one could argue that the Earth can sustain greatly increased production, though there are important limitations that the footprint cannot address, such as land degradation. Finally, the lack of correlation between land degradation and the ecological footprint obscures the effects of a larger sustainability problem. Better measures of sustainability would address these issues directly.

Suggested Citation

  • Fiala, Nathan, 2008. "Measuring sustainability: Why the ecological footprint is bad economics and bad environmental science," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 67(4), pages 519-525, November.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:ecolec:v:67:y:2008:i:4:p:519-525
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    Keywords

    Ecological footprint Land degradation Greenhouse gases Technological change O13 Q17 Q27 Q53 Q56;

    JEL classification:

    • O13 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - Agriculture; Natural Resources; Environment; Other Primary Products
    • Q17 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Agriculture - - - Agriculture in International Trade
    • Q27 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Renewable Resources and Conservation - - - Issues in International Trade
    • Q53 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Air Pollution; Water Pollution; Noise; Hazardous Waste; Solid Waste; Recycling
    • Q56 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Environment and Development; Environment and Trade; Sustainability; Environmental Accounts and Accounting; Environmental Equity; Population Growth

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