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Global environmental footprints

A guide to estimating, interpreting and using consumption-based accounts of resource use and environmental impacts

image of Global environmental footprints

Emissions and resources are typically allocated to national territories. There has been increased interest in allocating environmental flows to the final consumption of goods and services. The resulting "environment footprints" are particularly relevant for global environmental problems in a globalised world. Developed countries generally have larger environmental footprints than their national territorial flows, and the gap has tended to increase over the last two decades. Consequently, some have argued that environmental policies should address the environmental footprint. Despite the potential policy relevance, there has been relatively little research on policy applications. While environmental footprints have many advantages, policy applications are limited by estimation and interpretation uncertainty, and by the lack of a clear policy motivation.

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Introduction

Environmental policy has traditionally been implemented from a territorial perspective, addressing environmental flows at the source (e.g., emissions from a tailpipe).1 This is intuitively appealing for two related reasons. First, to analyse environmental flows the source of the environmental flows needs to be known (e.g. for atmospheric transport modelling), leading to good datasets on sources. Second, policy makers have jurisdiction over environmental flows originating in their own borders and can therefore implement policies. Since the source of environmental flows is often at the point of production (e.g., factory) a territorial perspective generally leads to a focus on producers, consequently a “territorial” and “production” perspective are often synonyms.

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