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.




The idea of “footprinting” global environmental impacts has been discussed for some time now. Our working group in 2010 published an earlier report on global carbon footprints. This concept was at the time attracting a considerable amount of attention from the scientific community as well as the general public. The aim of that project was to estimate the consumption-based carbon footprints generated by the Nordic countries, using, and comparing, alternative methods. One conclusion was the lack of consistency and agreement within the scientific community on definitions and methods –which often caused widely divergent results. The study concluded thatfootprinting required quite specific and high quality data on both resourceinputs and multiregional trade flows, and that a lot of work was still neededin order to make such estimates and calculations consistent and – perhapsmost importantly – policy relevant.


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