The Ecological Footprint framework addresses climate change in a comprehensive way beyond measuring carbon emissions. It shows how carbon emissions compare and compete with other human demands on our planet, such as food, fibers, timber, and land for dwellings and roads.
Today, the term “carbon footprint” is often used as shorthand for the amount of carbon (usually in tonnes) being emitted by an activity or organization. The carbon footprint is also an important component of the Ecological Footprint, since it is one competing demand for biologically productive space. Carbon emissions from burning fossil fuel accumulate in the atmosphere if there is not enough biocapacity dedicated to absorb these emissions. Therefore, when the carbon footprint is reported within the context of the total Ecological Footprint, the tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions are expressed as the amount of productive land area required to sequester those carbon dioxide emissions. This tells us how much biocapacity is necessary to neutralize the emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Measuring the carbon footprint in land area does not imply that carbon sequestration is is the sole solution to the carbon dilemma. It just shows how much biocapacity is needed to take care of our untreated carbon waste and avoid a carbon build-up in the atmosphere. Measuring it in this way enables us to address the climate change challenge in a holistic way that does not simply shift the burden from one natural system to another. In fact, the climate problem emerges because the planet does not have enough biocapacity to neutralize all the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel and provide for all other demands.
This framework also shows climate change in a greater context—one which unites all of the ecological threats we face today. Climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity, and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: Humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide. By focusing on the single issue, we can address all of its symptoms, rather than solving one problem at the cost of another.
The carbon Footprint is currently 60 percent of humanity’s overall Ecological Footprint and its most rapidly growing component. Humanity’s carbon Footprint has increased 11-fold since 1961. Reducing humanity’s carbon Footprint is the most essential step we can take to end overshoot and live within the means of our planet.