Footprint Analysis: A Measure of Lifestyle

According to a recent publication from the World Wildlife Federation, if a “business as usual” approach continues to dominate the mentality of prosperous nations, society as a whole may find it increasingly difficult to affect meaningful change other than responding to unanticipated environmental calamities brought about as a consequence. Even more alarming, experts believe by 2050 accumulated ecological damage may be irreversible unless we manage to alter our self-destructive course in time. [b]

So it is no wonder that today’s green lifestyles have developed beyond concept into doctrine, finding their way into our hearts and politics. Yet while concerns about environmental degradation, resource shortages, and human health impacts are promoting widespread acceptance of a sustainable lifestyle, more can be done to aid the day-to-day practitioner towards mitigating the enormous pressures on planetary ecosystems caused by human activities.
Towards these endeavours, the concept of a sustainable lifestyle, which ultimately aims to minimize natural resource consumption and impact on ecological systems, is presented in a familiar context. In particular, a Canadian ecological and detailed water footprint are put forth as examples of consumption patterns of first and third world nations in comparison to global averages.

Ecological Footprint

Originally developed by William Rees and Matthais Wackernagel in 1994 [c], the ecological footprint quantifies the area of biologically productive land and water used to supply human resource needs (crops, fish, meat, forest products, energy and built-up lands) and to absorb its wastes. An ecological footprint is expressed in global hectares (gha) or global acres (ga) and is broken into four consumption categories: carbon (home energy use and transportation), food, housing, and goods and services. The ecological footprint can also be broken down into four ecosystem types or biomes: cropland, pastureland, forestland, and marine fisheries. 

The carbon footprint is the area needed to absorb carbon emissions generated by home energy use and transportation. The food footprint includes the area needed to grow crops, fish, graze animals, and absorb carbon emissions from food processing and transport. The housing footprint includes the area occupied by your home and the area needed to supply resources used in construction and household maintenance. The goods and services footprint includes the area needed to supply consumer items and absorb carbon emissions from their manufacture, transport, and disposal.
Figure 1 below shows the global average per capita ecological footprint in hectares by consumption categories. Figure 2 shows the relative impact on respective biomes.
Figure 1image
Figure 2image
There are only 15.71 global hectares available per person on a renewable basis, however, present day society as a whole consumes 23.47 hectares which indicates we are overshooting the Earth's biological capacity by nearly 50%. In other words, to sustain present levels of consumption, we would need 1.5 earths. As we will examine, affluence and technology appear to be the leading indicators of a larger ecological footprint. How is it, for example, that the ecological footprint of North America is 1.8 times larger than our available bio-capacity while by comparison, South America’s footprint is only 50% of its bio-capacity.

My Ecological Footprint

As a Canadian, I’m reluctant to admit we use more energy per capita than any other nation in the world and although we have plenty of cheap, renewable electricity here in the province of Quebec, it’s wasteful, both in cost to the environment and the long term tradeoffs to society. As an environmental engineering undergrad and day to day practitioner of sustainable living it should be no surprise however, that our household’s ecological footprint averages roughly half the nations’. (see figure 3) Furthermore, there are several mitigating factors we employee to reduce our total footprint at home such as pet waste composting, vermicomposting, LED lighting, and low power electronics to name a few and which are likely unaccounted for in the quiz. As further examples; our goal is to divert 90% of household and pet waste from the curb by the end of 2010 and we regularly design and implement low voltage circuitry into our home and personal electronics, something not everyone is aware they can practice daily with composting at home or a little background knowledge of the technology at hand. [d]
Figure 3

Figure 4

Yet despite serious efforts to reduce our footprint to sustainable levels, our household still consumes more bio-capacity than the global average and nearly 4 times that of a Bolivian.

Bolivian Ecological Footprint

Bolivia is predominantly rural and is one of the least-developed countries in South America. Almost two-thirds of its people, many of whom are subsistence farmers, live in poverty. The typical diet is abundant in carbohydrates but deficient in other food categories including wheat which must be imported and meats which are reserved for ceremonial occasions. Silver mining and agriculture in the highlands have historically been the twin pillars of the economy with the nation traditionally producing and exporting raw materials while importing manufactured and processed goods. Demographic data for Bolivia from 2005 was used to complete the quiz. [e]

Figure 5 shows that based on a Bolivian peasant’s lifestyle, we would only require 0.38 earths. Clearly this is a sustainable lifestyle, but it comes at a price. Bolivians peasants have shorter life expectancy, higher infant mortality rates, and a harder way of life for example.

Figure 5

Figure 6

Why such a disparity between ecological footprints?
Various reasons exist for the disparity amongst nations such as affluence and technology and even from person to person within a nation (perhaps due to the level of awareness). Colder northern climates require more energy for heating, lighting, and cooking, whereas hot and humid climates require more energy for cooling and refrigeration. Statistically, however, there is a strong correlation between coldest temperature areas and energy consumption. Moreover, many of the industrialized nations are in northern climates, and therefore, it is no wonder Canadians simply require more energy. 

Substantial energy and material resources are expended on the construction and maintenance of conventional buildings. As of 2006, buildings consumed 40% of the total energy consumed in both the US and European Union. (Wikipedia) As Figure 7 shown in figure 7, buildings use 70% of the total electricity consumed, 12% of  the total amount of potable water consumption per day, and 40% of raw material usage. Furthermore, 39% of the total carbon dioxide and 30% of waste output can be attributed to buildings. (USGBC) Moreover, buildings often result in environmental degradation such as loss of amenity and biodiversity which are much more difficult to assess. [d] By the same token, carbon emissions are generally highest for households living in newer suburbs due to the increase energy requirements for public infrastructure, housing, and both personal and commercial transportation. In rural areas such as Bolivia, there is a greater self reliance on local food, energy, and water resources. Likewise, fewer short trips on congested roadways lead to lower energy requirements relative to sprawling suburbs.

Water Footprint

When compared to other natural resources such as land and energy, little research has been carried out in the area of water when it comes to the assessment of resource used in relation to consumption patterns. To close the gap, the water footprint concept was introduced by Hoekstra and Hung (2002) in order to have a consumption based indicator of the cumulative virtual water content of all goods and services consumed by one individual or by the individuals of one country. It has been estimated that the Global average water footprint is equal to 1243 m3/cap/yr or about 3000 L/cap/day. [f] Like the ecological footprint, the water footprint takes into account the three main factors of consumption; food production, domestic and industrial uses.

For food crops, the footprint includes; water used in growing the crop, water used in washing and processing and water used at the consumption stage (washing and cooking). The water footprint can be further divided into three components: Green water or rain water used at the point where it falls. Blue water or the net volume of water abstracted from rivers, lakes and groundwater (including mains water, reservoir storage and direct abstraction) used by the crop. Grey water or the volume of freshwater required for diluting return flows (drainage and runoff) to an agreed, acceptable quality standard.

Domestic fresh water consumed in households requires energy for both delivery and treatment. Household water use also takes water from other beneficial uses such as irrigation or in-stream flow for fish and wildlife. The water footprint of a product (commodity, good or service) is the volume of freshwater used to produce the product, measured at the place where the product is actually produced. It is very difficult to assess the water footprint of specific industrial products for the simple reason that the diversity of industrial products is immense and that production chains are complex and different between nations and companies. For example it is estimated that the global average water footprint of industrial products is 80 litres per US$. In the USA, industrial products take nearly 100 litres per US$. In Germany and the Netherlands, the average water footprint of industrial products is about 50 litres per US$. By comparison, industrial products from Japan, Australia and Canada take only 10-15 litres per US$. [g]

My Water Footprint

Our water consumption goes beyond food, washing and keeping our lawns green. In fact, water plays a role in everything we produce, use, and consume. Moreover, we tend to live in sterilized environments which often require copious amounts of water resources for dilution and waste removal. Consequently, we have higher industrial and domestic water requirements.  Figure 8However, as seen in figures 8 and 10, the major component of water usage is directed towards diet. In fact, the agricultural and ethnic richness of Canada has led to two distinctive characteristics of everyday food consumption. The first is its scale. Canadians are hearty people and we eat hearty portions, with meats being the dominant group. For example, pork can figure in each meal; Pork at breakfast may appear as bacon, or sausage. At lunch, pork may appear in a sandwich in the form of processed meats. For dinner, pork appears in large and more highly valued forms, such as roasts or hams, which often require more elaborate preparation and presentation in a way that highlights their value and size. By comparison, Bolivian peasants eat little to no pork.
Figure 9

The other main feature of Canadian food consumption is diversity (figure 9). The complex ethnic landscape of Canada and the tendency of ethnic groups to retain a dual cultural orientation have meant that Canadian cuisine is quite diverse in its content requiring items to be transported from far and abroad adding to the carbon footprint and water resources of other nations.

Bolivian Water Footprint

As are global water consumption patterns, food production remains the most important factor in Bolivia’s water footprint. Not surprising, is that most rural homes do not havFigure 10e running water or plumbing. Furthermore, while certain Third World nations are experiencing major industrial growth, others however, such as Bolivia are not.

The typical Bolivian peasant diet is abundant in carbohydrates but deficient in other food categories (see figure11). In the highlands, the primary staple is the potato, followed by other Andean and European-introduced tubers and grains, maize, and legumes, especially the broad bean. Freeze-dried potatoes (chuño) and air-dried jerky (ch'arki) from cattle or camelids are common, although beef forms an insignificant part of the daily diet. [h]
Figure 11

Consequently, Bolivia has a considerably smaller water footprint than that associated with a First World nation such as Canada. However, closer inspection of the results indicates that Bolivian still uses 3 times more water per capita for food in relation to domestic consumption compared to Canada. The domestic consumption for the most part is due to available sanitation and technology missing in Bolivia. Furthermore, agricultural practices in First World countries tend to increase growing capacity and efficiency, thereby requiring less water. As a consequence, Bolivia’s higher food requirements are likely a reflection of inefficient farming practices.

The Role of Food

The water needed to produce a nutritionally acceptable diet for one person can be 60 times as large as the amount needed for domestic water supply as is the case for Bolivia. Likewise, global industrial water use is 720 cubic kilometres per year, which is only 10 % compared to the global water use for crop production. Globally, it has been estimated that up to 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions are associated with animal consumption, whereas a plant-based diet is significantly less land and energy intensive [i]. Furthermore, meat production drives deforestation and requires high inputs of energy for processing and transportation, driving up the carbon footprint price tag. As is the case for Canada, two important footprint variables are food miles (or miles to market) and the amount of processing and packaging. As a diverse and prosperous culture, Canadians’ have a palate for exotic foods and can afford out of season produce imported from across the world in highly process or packaged fashion, adding to the energy requirements for transportation, refrigeration, and disposal. By contrast, Bolivians buy fresh local foods from farmers markets or grow their own which help to reduce their footprint significantly and lend to the notion of a sustainable lifestyle, albeit less efficient and possible not meeting nutritional requirements.


The ecological footprint provides reliable estimate of sustainability. When a society's footprint tends to be larger than its available bio-productivity, it becomes unsustainable unless it appropriates bio-capacity from others, often leading to social and political, in addition to environmental injustices. In comparison, the water footprint highlights the importance of food in the bio-capacity equation of sustainability and reveals however, that poorer nations tend to require more water for this purpose when compared to industrialized counterparts. And while footprint methods are still evolving to include accounting of pollution and unsustainable resource management, it is likely that these measures underestimate our demands on nature. 

To help mitigate resource shortages, a growing number of organizations are beginning to sell carbon offsets with the money going towards projects that reduce carbon emissions such as renewable energy and forest protection to name a few. These are voluntary measures and it is more likely the Canadian provinces will follow Quebec’s lead of a carbon tax imposed on energy producers which came into effect in October 2007 and with revenue collected going towards energy-efficiency programs including public transit. 

Still, more can be done towards reducing our footprint and concomitant impact on nature and society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the disparity between Canada and Bolivia, both in demographic and environmental injustices caused by the divergent requirements between lifestyles. Like many poor cultures in the world, Bolivian peasants aren’t afforded the choices we Canadians enjoy and it is therefore our duty to provide leadership in sustainability while reducing our demand beyond the scope of our boundaries.


[a] Why Do Civilizations Fail, Feb. 2010,
[b]Business As usual – Demand Grows Faster Than Supply, WWF, Feb. 2010,
[c] Rees, W.E., and Wackernagel, M.: 1994, "Ecological footprints and appropriated carrying capacity: measuring the natural capital requirements of the human economy," In A. Jansson et al., Investing in Natural Capital: The Ecological Economics Approach to Sustainability, Washington, D.C., Island Press.
[d] Rush, David, EcoEngineering,
[e]Boliva Demographics,, Dec. 99,
[f]Canadian Water Footprint,, Feb. 2010,
[g]Industrial Water Footprint,, 2010,
[h]Boliva – Country and Culture,, 2010,
[i] Vital Signs: The Trends That Are Shaping Our Future,


  1. not a believer in the utility of carbon indulgences, but id we are to accept those, then we must add water and cropland diversion, selling indulgences to water stingy recycling industrial plants, and to food producers who decide not to "put up a parking lot" or other structures on croplands.

    Offsets are just that, not an immediate reduction, nor even a guarantee of future reductions. Thre are faster and surer open market carrots. Nobody loves the sticks. We should keep the spectre ever near and looming!

    sincerely, asocial libertarian

  2. not a believer in the utility of carbon indulgences, but id we are to accept those, then we must add water and cropland diversion, selling indulgences to water stingy recycling industrial plants, and to food producers who decide not to "put up a parking lot" or other structures on croplands.

    Offsets are just that, not an immediate reduction, nor even a guarantee of future reductions. Thre are faster and surer open market carrots. Nobody loves the sticks. We should keep the spectre ever near and looming!

    sincerely, asocial libertarian

  3. Hi David Rush,

    This is yaanva from twitter. I hope you would remember me, In fact I was started a team who called as "Global Welfare Trust", we are working for Global Warming in this variation "Tree Planting". If you have any idea of planting a tree in different way... I welcome you with your innovative ideas.

  4. Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them.............................................

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Interesting blog, I'd like to know your thoughts on the use and effectiveness of the carbon offsets market.

  7. Nice blog created by blog director it’s very informative and template is according to blog theme. Nice visit on this blog. I would like to come on this blog again and again. Hydraulic Trolley, Hydraulic Cylinder Tubes

  8. This is yaanva from twitter. I hope you would remember me, In fact I was started a team who called as "Global Welfare Trust", we are working for Global Warming in this variation "Tree Planting

  9. AnonymousJuly 23, 2012

    Stunning story there. What happened after? Thanks!
    Here is my page :: bedspreads and comforters