What is Ecological Footprint vs Carbon Footprint? How to Calculate Both

By Natalia Mello | Updated on September 15, 2021

Many people have heard about their footprint on the planet, but aren’t exactly sure about the differences between ecological footprints vs carbon footprints.

As news about extreme temperatures, floods, uncontrolled fires, fierce hurricanes, water scarcity, biodiversity loss, and other ecological disturbances become more and more common, a growing number of people want to learn how to make more sustainable choices.1

That’s great!

An 8 Billion Trees graphic charting an ecological footprint versus a carbon footprint, with their definitions, how it's measured, and how it's calculated.

[Click here to fast forward to the calculator!]

Understanding how our lifestyles impact the environment is the first step towards living more sustainably. Both a carbon footprint and an ecological footprint measure the impact we have on the planet…

But many people wonder what these tools are… how are they different… and how can you calculate both?

Keep reading…

What Are Carbon and Ecological Footprints?

Carbon and ecological footprint measurements are used to determine the negative impact specific activities have on the environment. Each is specific in the ‘costs’ they tally.

So, how do carbon footprints and ecological footprints differ?

The differences between an ecological and carbon footprint are largely based on what types of actions are measured, based on their definitions.

What’s the Definition of a Carbon Footprint?

A carbon footprint is one of the most important tools that helps us understand how much we contribute to climate change. It calculates the carbon emissions being generated in tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e)2…Calculating our emissions requires a thorough analysis of all steps involved in all of our operations, and a life cycle assessment of each product we use.3 This footprint accounts for emissions from our vehicles (which depend on their efficiency, what fuels them, and how often we use them), homes, food, and waste generation patterns.

Globally, the average person has a carbon footprint of 4.8 tons of CO2e,4 per year. In contrast, the average American carbon footprint is roughly 20 tons.11 To control climate change and prevent serious social and ecological impacts,5 the average global footprint must drop to 1.87 tons before 2050.6

What’s the Definition of an Ecological Footprint?

Including much more than greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions, the ecological footprint measures the pressure we exert on nature. It calculates how much natural resources we use and compares that with the availability of these resources.

In other words, this footprint determines how many hectares of productive land and sea (forests, croplands, and fishing grounds) are necessary to sustain our consumption habits and absorb the waste and GHG emissions we generate.

These calculations encompass how many animal- and plant-based products we consume and what type of food we eat – is it processed? Packaged? Locally grown?

The calculations also take into consideration the size of our homes, with what materials they were built, and how energy efficient they are. Information on whether we have access to renewable energy sources, how much garbage we generate, how we move about, and how much we travel are also encompassed in the ecological footprint.

Some people have a large footprint based on where they live, like those in the United States of America.

For instance, if the entire world shared the same lifestyle of Americans, the size of the biologically productive area necessary to sustain humanity would be so big it would amount to five Earths. Because many other individuals, organizations, and nations also have large ecological footprints, the world has been witnessing an ecological overshoot on a yearly basis.

The ecological overshoot happens when humans’ operations – use of natural resources and GHG emissions – exceed Earth’s capacity to regenerate, produce resources, and absorb the waste we produce. In 2021, Earth Overshoot Day will fall on July 29th.10

An 8 Billion Trees graphic showing what comprises an ecological footprint, including your carbon footprint, land use, forest use, farmland and pasture use, and oceans and rivers use.

Measuring Contributions to Climate Change and Global Impact: Calculate Your Carbon Footprint and Ecological Footprint

Most carbon footprint calculators focus on three areas – transportation, home energy, and waste – and do not include food emissions. However, food represents 10 to 30% of total emissions from a household and 26% of global GHG emissions.7,8

The majority of these emissions – CO2, N2O, and CH4 – result from agricultural operations. Animal-based products emit more GHG than plant-based ones, accounting for 58% of all food emissions.8 That is because of ruminants’ belching and animals’ manure production – both of which are CH4 sources.

In addition, raising animals involves chopping down more trees to open up space for new pasturelands and croplands (large amounts of soy are used to feed animals). Out of animal-based products, those containing beef and lamb are the ones linked to higher GHG emissions.8

Recent research has also found that ingesting alcohol,9 sweets, and eating out increases our footprints substantially. Even if we have already shifted to a vegetarian diet, watching out for the amount of these products we consume and how often we skip cooking is key.

Considering the importance of accounting for food emissions, the calculator below includes data about food habits, as well as transportation, waste generation, and energy consumption.

Ways to Reduce Your Carbon and Ecological Footprints Right Now

Taking action against climate change can sometimes feel overwhelming, but we must bear in mind that every little step towards a more sustainable lifestyle counts immensely. Everyone doing their part to reduce and mitigate their carbon and ecological footprint, as well as their waste, has the power to not just stop climate change, but give forests and animals another chance.

Some examples of changes we can make right now to reduce our footprints and contribute to a healthier, more ethical and sustainable world include:

  • Giving preference to natural products, locally grown food, and unpackaged goods
  • Eating more organic plant-based produce and less animal protein
  • Reducing food waste
  • Reducing all other types of waste – there are many helpful guidelines towards this direction, as well as many zero-waste, plastic-free options we can choose
  • Making sure to reuse and recycle waste
  • Purchasing energy-efficient goods
  • Reducing energy consumption
  • Going for solar energy or other renewable sources if possible
  • Opting for more sustainable ways of commuting: give preference to public transportation or carpooling, and cycle or walk as much as possible
  • Planting trees and growing them, choosing a variety of appropriate species and aiming for diversity
  • Offsetting GHG emissions, making sure to use programs that government agencies and market regulators have approved
  • Sharing knowledge and motivating as many people as possible to enjoy healthier, more sustainable lifestyles

Deciduous tree trunks and leaves in a forest at Chattahoochee Bend State Park in GA, with an 8 Billion Trees watermark.

Understanding Your Ecological and Carbon Footprints Allows You to Live More Sustainably

Understanding how our lifestyles determine our carbon and ecological footprints —and keeping track of them— empower us to adopt climate- and environmental-friendly behaviors.

Small changes in our daily routines can have significant benefits. Plus, we can always support enhancing sustainability on larger scales, such as carbon removal through tree planting offset programs. Determine your total emissions using an ecological footprint counter first, and then choose one of the best carbon offset providers to remove your carbon emissions. By making earth-friendly choices and encouraging others to do so, you can make a huge difference in the planet’s health, from the climate and habitats for animals, to the conservation of natural resources… making the ‘real’ distinction between carbon footprints vs ecological footprints, just how low you can get yours.


References

1Ellsmoor, J. (2019, July 23). 77% Of People Want To Learn How To Live More Sustainably. Forbes. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from forbes.com: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/07/23/77-of-people-want-to-learn-how-to-live-more-sustainably/. web.

2Environmental Protection Agency. (2021). EPA. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from epa.gov: https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/tool/definitions/co2e.html.

3Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) – Complete Beginner’s Guide. Ecochain. (2021, June 29). Retrieved July 25, 2021, from ecochain.com: https://ecochain.com/knowledge/life-cycle-assessment-lca-guide/. web.

4Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2020, May 11). CO2 emissions. Our World in Data. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from ourworldindata.org: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions. web.

5NASA. (2019, June 19). A Degree of Concern: Why Global Temperatures Matter – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. NASA. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from climate.nasa.gov: https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2878/a-degree-of-concern-why-global-temperatures-matter/. web.

6Cho, R. (2020, December 30). The 35 Easiest Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint. State of the Planet. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from climate.columbia.edu: https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2018/12/27/35-ways-reduce-carbon-footprint/. web.

7Carbon Footprint Factsheet. Carbon Footprint Factsheet | Center for Sustainable Systems. (2020). Retrieved July 25, 2021, from css.umich.edu: https://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet. pdf.

8Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018, June 1). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from ora.ox.ac.uk: https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:b0b53649-5e93-4415-bf07-6b0b1227172f. pdf.

9Moran, D. (2019, December 20). Meat Consumption Does Not Explain Differences in Household Food Carbon Footprints in Japan. One Earth. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from cell.com: https://www.cell.com/one-earth/fulltext/S2590-3322(19)30226-X.web.

10#MoveTheDate. Earth Overshoot Day. (2021, July 9). https://www.overshootday.org/. web.

11University, S. (2019, December 17). Global carbon emissions increase. Stanford News. https://news.stanford.edu/2019/12/03/global-carbon-emission-increase/. web.