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Family of footprints gives more complete picture of environmental damage

The world abounds with different footprints that calculate human impact on the environment. Environmental specialist Kai Fang is the first person to have developed a family of footprints that allow better measurement of environmental damage and the depletion of natural sources. PhD defence on 24 November.

Lack of knowledge about footprints

An environmental footprint, a measure that indicates things like how much land and water surface is utilised by a population group, is an important instrument for making a country or region more environmentally friendly. But there is no uniform method for doing this. There are at least twenty different systems, each of which looks at a limited area of activity and has its own methodology. According to Fang, there is lack of knowledge about the various footprints, making the total environmental impact difficult to measure.

First family of footprints

Fang is the first researcher to develop a family of footprints and to combine the ecological, energy, carbon and water footprints. He explains: 'My research offers a good starting point for integrating the various types of footprints.’ He investigated the conceptual and mathematical structure of the existing footprints and designed a system that allows the various footprints to be brought together into an integrated index. This creates a better overview of the total human impact on the environment.

Planetary boundaries

Fang also builds a bridge between those researchers who take the footprint as a starting point and those who focus on the so-called planetary boundaries, limits within which people need to operate in order to ensure that natural resources are used in a sustainable way. In 2009 a group of researchers formulated nine of these planetary boundaries in Nature, such as the maximum allowable concentration of carbon dioxide, also setting specific numeric values for them. Three thresholds have already been exceeded: climate change, loss of biodiversity and the amount of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere through human activity.

Sustainability map for water consumption in 28 countries. Relatively sustainable countries are green. Countries with poorer performance are shown in red. Countries between –0.25 and 0.25 are at risk.

Brazil and Indonesia more sustainable than prosperous countries

Using these most recent scientific insights into the planetary boundaries, Fang has also provided thresholds for the environmentally-related footprints. Using his footprint–threshold sustainability analysis, Fang investigated the sustainability of 28 countries. He formulated planetary boundaries on the basis of population size for carbon emissions, and on the basis of the availability of natural resources for water and land use. Brazil and Indonesia come out as operating with relatively greater sustainability than 26 other countries, including prosperous European countries like Belgium and the Netherlands. Fang hopes that his combined analysis will better equip countries to adapt their sustainability policy to reduce human impact on our planet.

K. Fang - Environmental footprints: Assessing anthropogenic effects on the planet’s environment

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