The Ecological Footprint of Cities:
Innovations For Greater Sustainability

Hari Srinivas
Policy Analysis Series E-199. September 2023.

Considering the immense pressure our lifestyles are having on the environment, Canadian researchers Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel developed the "ecological footprint" concept - an area of land needed to provide the necessary resources and absorb the wastes generated by an individual or a community - to highlight the impact of cities on the environment (Wackernagel and Rees 1996).

London, UK serves as a good example: the ecological footprint (EF) of the city is almost equal to the land area of UK as a whole. Similarly, a typical North American city with a population of 650,000 would require 30,000 square kilometres of land - about the size of Kerala state. In comparison, a similar size city in India would require 2,800 square kilometres - less than that of Goa.

Leaders at the national and local levels in developing countries such as India are faced with enormous challenges in providing a secure living environment that meets the needs of both people and natural systems. India's cities and urban population are growing at a rate higher than the overall population. This has put the spotlight on cities in attempting to understanding the impact of our lifestyles on the environment. EFs scale the urban and environmental challenges to the level of an individual, and help in better understanding and identifying solutions.

Keywords Ecological footprints, environment, cities, urban, lifestyles, resource consumption

1. Introduction

Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, population growth and increases in consumption in many parts of the world have increased humanity's ecological burden on the planet, even though the Earth's total natural resources has remained the same. As stated in the Living Planet Report (WWF 2014), the total global consumption of natural resources has risen by 50 percent since 1970, while Earth's natural wealth has decreased by over 30 percent.

Global environmental problems are typically considered part of national and international decision-making, it is now becoming increasingly common to also consider the environmental impacts of urban areas, because a rapidly growing proportion of the world's population live in cities.

According to the United Nations Population Division, 2.9 billion people or 47 percent of the earth's population lived in urban areas in 2000. In 2007, global urbanization rate reached 50 percent, and will become 60 percent in 2030. In other words, the world's population could increase by 2.2 billion people in 2030, with 2.1 billion of these people living in cities (United Nations 2015).

As a response to this, municipal decision-makers must be able to measure urban ecological impacts to inform local environmental policy. One way to do this is through ecological footprint (EF) analysis to understand the impacts of lifestyles , and the natural resources needed for that lifestyle.

2. What is an Ecological Footprint?

All of the resources which people use for their daily needs and activities has to come from somewhere, even if not from their immediate surroundings. Food, electricity, and other basic amenities for survival must be taken from nature. Based on this relationship between humanity and nature, an EF measures the amount of arable land and aquatic resources that must be used to continuously sustain a population, based on its lifestyles and consumption levels at a given point in time.

Figure 1: The Concept of Ecological Footprints

It incorporates water and energy use, uses of land for infrastructure and different forms of agriculture, forests, and all other forms of energy and material "inputs" that people require in their day-to-day lives. It also accounts for the land area required for waste assimilation and CO2 absorption.

3. Scales of Measurement

EFs can be measured at an individual level, for cities, regions, countries, or the entire planet. EF analysis can also be used for specific activities, or to measure the ecological requirements of producing specific goods or services.

Analysts examine the quantity and different types of natural and manufactured materials and services used, and then use a variety of calculations to convert this into a specific land area. Footprints indicate how much "nature" is available for a defined population to use, compared to how much it needs to maintain its current lifestyles.

These materials (and wastes) each demand ecologically productive areas, such as cropland to grow potatoes, or forest to sequester CO2 emissions. All of these materials and wastes are then individually translated into an equivalent number of global hectares (gha ). EFs are calculated using a number of metrics, listed in Table 1

Table 1: Examples of footprint data types used in calculating EFs Footprint type Details
Carbon Forest and other land required to absorb CO2 emitted by human activity
Grazing land Land required to raise the meat and dairy products consumed
Forests Timber and non-timber forest products generated from forests
Fishing grounds Fish catch by species and country
Cropland Area required to produce food for humans, feed for livestock, oil crops etc.
Urban Land covered by infrastructure, housing, industry and other structures.

To accomplish this, an amount of material consumed by a person (tons per year) is divided by the yield of the specific land or sea area (annual tons per hectare) from which it was harvested, or where its waste material was absorbed (EDN, n.d.). The number of hectares that result from this calculation are then converted to ghas. The sum of ghas needed to support resource consumption and waste generation of a person gives that person's total EF.

4. Some Global Examples of Footprints

Data from 2010 reveals that the per capita EF had exceeded global per capita biocapacity (1.7gha) in 91 of 152 countries. Kuwait, which tops the table, has a per capita EF exceeding 10 gha, while India has a gha of 0.91, much below the global average of 1.7. The US's EF is 8.2 gha. London, UK serves as a good example: the ecological footprint (EF) of the city is almost equal to the land area of UK as a whole. Similarly, a typical North American city with a population of 650,000 would require 30,000 square kilometres of land - about the size of Kerala state. In comparison, a similar size city in India would require 2,800 square kilometres - less than that of Goa.

Figure 2: Per Capita Footprints of Global, Indian and American Lifestyles

Calculations done by the author for Tokyo's EF shows that the megacity alone requires a land area more than three times that of Japan as a whole. Such lifestyles have also resulted in more than 60 percent of its food being imported from overseas (MAFF 2016).

5. Example: India's Footprints

On average, an Indian has an ecological footprint that is 1/9th that of an American and 1/3rd that of humanity's global footprint. Despite having the 136th largest footprint per capita, India is third largest in total, after multiplying population with per capita demand.
India has not been immune to gaps between the amount of natural resources the country uses and how much it actually has. India now demands the "biocapacity" of two Indias (UNCBD, 2006) to provide for its consumption and absorb its wastes.

After China and USA, India has the third largest EF in the world. China's share of global EF is a massive 19 percent, followed by USA's 13.7 percent and India at 7.1 percent (WWF 2014) . India's EF has in fact doubled since 1961, exceeded only by the United States and China (GFN and CII, 2008).

While India as a whole demands a significant percent of the world's biocapacity due to its huge population, its per-capita EF, 0.91 gha, is smaller than that in many other countries, and well below the world average of 1.7 gha.

Figure 3: Ecological Footprints of Cities
The United Nations projects that India's population will reach 1.7 billion by 2050. If this is the case, India is likely to face a widening ecological deficit even if current EF per capita levels remain the same.

Since 1961, India's GDP has nearly tripled from $177 to more than $1,200 today. Over that same period, however, the EF of the average individual in India has actually declined by 12 percent, in contrast to other industrializing Asian nations where EFs have increased with GDP. This could be due to uneven wealth distribution, or increasing size of low-income groups.

Even with a per capita EF of 0.91 gha, there is a high degree of variability within the country. For example, a study of students in the age group of 17-19 years at Chandigarh's Punjab University found their Footprint to be 5.58 gha. (Raj 2012).

6. EFs' Contribution to Sustainability

EF is a data tool that helps us play a more important and direct role in understanding and managing our environment. Is the illustrative data of EFs useful? How would EFs contribute to broader sustainability?

  • Better understanding of our (over) consumption of natural resources and impacts on the environment
  • Clearer idea of environmental problems at the individual/micro levels, and linking global environmental problems to the local level
  • Decision-making tool to facilitate action to protect and conserve nature
  • Educational tool to encourage lifestyle change and reduce ur consumption levels

7. Shortcomings of EFs

Current EF analyses provide a robust, aggregate estimate of human demand on the biosphere as compared to the biosphere's productive capacity. As with any such calculations, EFs are subject to uncertainty and incompleteness in source data, calculation parameters, and methodological variations.

EF analyses are not an exact science, and the values generated are not precise since the quality and quantity of data used play an important role in the resulting EF values.

8. Ecological Footprints and Urban Sustainability

Cities play a significant role in global sustainability efforts due to their concentration of population, resources, and impact on the environment. The ecological footprint discussion above highlights the massive negative impacts our lifestyles are having on the environment - whether in terms of food, energy, water or waste.

It may be useful to remind ourselves of some of the well-known urban innovations that the concept of ecological footprints can lead to, helping cities achieve greater sustainability. These innovations lie at the core of our impacts on the environment and thus, targets for sustainability action. The innovations include:

1. Green Infrastructure and Urban Planning:
  • Implementing green roofs, vertical gardens, and urban forests to enhance air quality, reduce the urban heat island effect, and provide habitats for biodiversity.
  • Designing compact and walkable neighborhoods to minimize the need for extensive transportation and promote active lifestyles.
  • Creating mixed-use developments that combine residential, commercial, and recreational spaces, reducing the need for long commutes.

2. Renewable Energy Integration:

  • Installing solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable energy sources on buildings and urban infrastructure to decrease reliance on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions.
  • Developing smart grids and energy storage systems to efficiently manage and distribute renewable energy throughout the city.

3. Efficient Waste Management:

  • Implementing comprehensive recycling and composting programs to divert organic waste from landfills and reduce methane emissions.
  • Adopting advanced waste-to-energy technologies that convert waste into biofuels or electricity, reducing the environmental impact of waste disposal.

4. Sustainable Transportation:

  • Expanding public transportation networks, including buses, subways, and light rail systems, to provide convenient alternatives to private vehicle use.
  • Promoting active transportation modes like walking and cycling by creating dedicated lanes, pedestrian-friendly streets, and bike-sharing programs.
  • Supporting the adoption of electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles, along with the necessary charging infrastructure.

5. Water Management and Conservation:

  • Implementing rainwater harvesting and graywater reuse systems to reduce the demand for potable water and alleviate strain on local water supplies.
  • Designing permeable surfaces and green spaces that facilitate groundwater recharge and reduce stormwater runoff.

6. Circular Economy Practices:

  • Encouraging businesses and consumers to adopt circular economy principles, such as reducing, reusing, and recycling materials to minimize waste and resource consumption.
  • Establishing local material recovery facilities to efficiently process and repurpose discarded items.

7. Smart Technologies and Data Analytics:

  • Deploying smart sensors and data analytics to monitor energy use, air quality, traffic patterns, and other environmental factors, enabling informed decision-making for resource allocation and optimization.
  • Developing smart building technologies that optimize energy and water use through automation and real-time data analysis.

8. Community Engagement and Education:

  • Raising awareness about ecological footprints and sustainability through educational programs, workshops, and community events.
  • Encouraging citizen participation in sustainability initiatives, such as community gardens, clean-up drives, and local environmental protection projects.

9. Collaborative Governance and Policy Innovation:

  • Establishing partnerships between government, businesses, academia, and civil society to develop and implement effective sustainability policies and initiatives.
  • Incorporating ecological footprint assessments into urban planning and development regulations to ensure that new projects align with sustainability goals.

10. Biodiversity Conservation and Green Spaces:

  • Preserving and restoring natural habitats within urban areas to support native plant and animal species.
  • Creating parks, green belts, and urban nature reserves to enhance recreational opportunities and provide ecosystem services.

Cities, whether in India or in the US, ultimately become crucibles of sustainability solutions emerging out of a better understanding of our environmental impacts - with the concept of ecological footprints. The concept of ecological footprints presents a compelling framework for guiding cities toward a path of greater sustainability.

The above innovations not only help in mitigating urban ecological footprints but also enhance the quality of life for their residents, foster economic prosperity, and contribute meaningfully to the global effort to address pressing environmental challenges.


Wackernagel, Mathis and William Rees (1996), "Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth". Gabriola Island, B.C: New Society Publishers

Global Footprint Network -

Worldwide Fund for Nature -

Ecological Footprint Calculator -

EDN (n.d.) Ecological Footprints. Earth Day Network. Document on the World Wide Web. Document URL: - Document retrived on 15 March 2016

GFN and CII (2008), "India's Ecological Footprint: A Business Perspective" Hyderabad: Global Footprint Network and the Confederation of Indian Industry.

MAFF (2016), "Monthly statistics of agriculture, forestry and fisheries". Tokyo: Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Raj, Sonika et al. (2012), "Ecological footprint score in university students of an Indian city". Journal of Environmental and Occupational Science. 2012; 1(1): 23-26

UNCBD (2006) "Biodiversity - A Global Outlook" United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD)

United Nations (2015), "World Population Prospects". New York: United Nations Population Division

WWF (2914), "Living Planet Report 2014: Species and Spaces, People and Places" Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Wackernagel, Mathis and William Rees (1996), "Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth". Gabriola Island, B.C: New Society Publishers

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