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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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The policy relevance and application of environmental footprints

There is a range of different environmental issues addressed by environmental footprints, but the policy context can differ substantially between these. Greenhouse gas emissions lead to global climate impacts largely independent of where the emissions occur, and consequently a global policy response is most effective. In contrast, local water pollution covers a limited geographic extent, and policy measures to reduce local water pollution in distant lands may not be of policy interest. Policies addressing material, land, and water footprints may lead to better resource efficiency, and ensure the future supply of potentially scarce resources. Thus, policies and measures relevant for one environmental issue (e.g., climate change) may not be relevant for other policy domains (e.g., water use).

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