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Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
What is a footprint?
What is an ecological footprint?
An ecological footprint measures the land and sea area people require to produce resources that we consume. This includes our food, our clothes, fuel we use for our cars and building materials for our homes. It also measures how much land and water is required to deal with the waste products of our consumption, such as carbon dioxide and rubbish.
This is useful as it allows us to directly compare how much land and water is required to sustain our lifestyles compared with how much there actually is.
How big is our ecological footprint?
In the UK, the average ecological footprint of a person is 5.6 hectares yet the sustainable level is 1.8 global hectares per person. This is three times what is sustainable.
Put another way, if everyone in the world consumed resources at this level we would need three planets to support us.
The UK’s footprint is far above the world average. WWF’s Living Planet Report shows that the UK ranks 14th highest in the league table of national footprints.
This over consumption–or ‘overshoot’ as it is termed–is because we continue to overuse our planet's natural resources, such as forests and fisheries. For over two decades now, we have been ‘running on overshoot’ but we cannot continue to do so without interfering with the planet’s ability to function and renew.
What is a carbon footprint?
Approximately 60-75% of our ecological footprint is made up of what is called our carbon footprint.
This emphasises the vital importance of tackling our ecological footprint in order to reduce our climate change emissions.
A carbon footprint measures all the carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases emitted directly or indirectly by an activity or product we use. Direct emissions of CO2 come from the burning of fossil fuels for energy in our homes and transportation.
Indirect CO2 emissions come from the whole lifecycle of products - those associated with their manufacture and eventual breakdown. Our demand for these products results in CO2 emissions that would not otherwise be released (released during manufacture and disposal) therefore the CO2 can be considered to be a part of or embedded in the products.
The UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculates emissions based on the concept that the producer is responsible for CO2 emissions. Therefore, a country with a large industrial base, such as China, will often have higher emissions, while a service-based economy will have a smaller level.
Yet, it is often the population within service-based economies that are driving the demand for manufactured goods. Individual carbon footprinting allows us to take this into account and measure the emissions attributed to our day-to-day consumption decisions.
Currently, the UK government measures carbon emissions physically released within UK boundaries but it avoids taking account of carbon emissions and other greenhouses gases emitted in the production of goods and services imported into the UK. A definitive carbon footprint measures all emissions resulting from the consumption of goods and services consumed within the UK.
To see your carbon footprint look at the top of your calculator profile page - just below the image of the planets. See here
What is ecological ‘overshoot’?
The word overshoot is used to describe a level of consumption that is greater than a region’s ecological limits.
In other words we are using and degrading the world’s resources and systems at a level that is unsustainable in the long-term.
This concept has also been likened to a person’s bank balance. We can live beyond our means in the short term by using savings or credit but we will go bankrupt if we continue to do it in the long-term. At some point the person will have to not only live within their financial means but also have to pay back their overdraft.
Overshoot puts the spotlight on the reality of living in a world with ecological limits in a simple way that people seem to understand.
Which footprint is better?
Both are important tools. In short, the ecological footprint is a more comprehensive measure of a person’s or organisation’s resource consumption as it not only includes carbon emissions (60-75% of the ecological footprint is made up of the carbon footprint) but also the land and sea area required for the production of the products we use and produce, such as our food, timber and clothing.
In the UK, devolved administrations, regions and local authorities have adopted it as a measure of progress towards sustainable development, alongside economic and social progress indicators.
How will this calculator save endangered species?
WWF recognises that the biggest threat to endangered species is the destruction of their habitats. Unfortunately these habitats are experiencing great pressure, through resource extraction and climate change which is being driven, in part, by the day-to-day consumption habits of people in countries like the UK.
This footprint calculator aims to help you understand more about sustainable consumption and in turn help you to reduce your impact on the planet and the people and creatures that rely so much on it.
Inside the calculator’s mind
What does the footprint calculator do?
The footprint calculator asks a number of questions about your lifestyle and from this, computes the amount of resources you consume – either in terms of hectares in the case of the ecological footprint, or tonnes in the case of the carbon footprint.
The most common footprint calculator focuses solely on carbon. In WWF’s case it is an ecological calculator.
How does a footprint calculator work?
WWF uses the ecological and carbon footprint of 123 production sectors, 76 different consumption categories, 54 socio-economic groups and over 400 local authorities in the UK.
This data creates a baseline for the footprint calculator, enabling us to translate the 20 or more simple lifestyle questions into an ecological and carbon footprint.
How accurate is the WWF footprint calculator?
Once you have completed the main calculator questions as well as the additional eco-tips the calculator is accurate to 91% for UK residents, with the calculator tending to to be less accurate for people with very high or very low footprints.
But translating such complex data on household consumption into a series of questions is always going to be difficult, especially when we need to balance accuracy with user ease.
It is also important to note that the calculator only computes the footprint of people’s personal lives not their business lives.
Where has WWF got the science from to make these calculations?
We have worked with specialists at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) at York University in the UK, who have the most complete picture of UK consumption and production. For more information about the primary data sources please visit: www.ecologicalbudget.org.uk
The ecological footprint conforms to an international standard that was adopted in 2006. The only exception is with the case of flying. Scientific understanding of the non-CO2 impacts - chiefly emissions of oxides of nitrogen and the formation of contrails and additional cirrus clouds - continues to improve. WWF believes it is appropriate to include a precautionary multiplier to reflect the total climate change impact of aviation, expressed as a multiple of the damage from CO2 alone. WWF’s calculator uses a multiplier of 2.7, derived from the IPCC's Fourth Assessment report.
What makes WWF’s calculator different from all the others on the market?
This calculator is an ecological footprint calculator. Most calculators only measure carbon emitted per person. Our calculator includes the production and use of raw materials as well, which gives a much more accurate idea of the impact an individual is having on the planet and also shows an individual their carbon consumption as well.
This calculator also allows people to see how many planets we would need if everyone in the world lived as they do and most importantly provides tips on how to reduce it. You can then revisit the site when you have made changes and redo your footprint to see it go down!
Why is the calculator UK-based and not international?
Our ecological calculator is based on very specific statistics for the UK, to achieve accuracy for people living here. So, it is most applicable to people living in the UK. However it can be used as a guide by people living in most developed nations.
How long has it taken WWF to create the calculator?
It took us six months to create the calculator but we are continuing to refine it. Although the data behind our calculations covers over ten years of analysis.
What isn’t included in the calculator
There are a number of things that are not included by the footprint calculator.
Some pollutants: As an ecological footprint uses recent but nevertheless historical data, many activities that erode nature's future regenerative capacity are not covered. These activities include the release of materials for which the biosphere has no significant assimilation capacity (e.g. plutonium, PCBs, dioxins, and other persistent pollutants) and processes that damage the biosphere's future capacity (e.g. loss of biodiversity, salination resulting from cropland irrigation, soil erosion from tilling). Although the consequences of these activities will be reflected in future ecological footprint accounts as a decrease in biocapacity they are not accounted for when you calculate your footprint.
Other greenhouse gases: The demand on biocapacity resulting from emission of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide are also not currently included in this calculator. Incomplete scientific knowledge about the fate of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide makes it difficult to estimate the biocapacity required to neutralize their climate change potential.
Fresh water: Use and availability of freshwater is not directly accounted for since freshwater acts as a limit on the amount of biological capacity in an area but is not itself a biologically produced good or service. Although the loss of biocapacity associated with water appropriation or water quality degradation is reflected as a decrease in overall biocapacity in that year, an ecological footprint of its use is not currently allocated to the consumer of the water resource.
Tourism: This activity is currently attributed to the country in which they occur rather than to the traveller's country of origin. This distorts the relative size of some countries footprints, overestimating those that host tourists and underestimating the home countries of travellers.
Are children and pets included in the calculator?
Children can use the calculator but as they make smaller purchases and have less say about their lifestyles than their parents it makes sense for the parents to include all purchases they make – be it for them or their children.
As children grow older so their control over the amount of resources they consume increases. There is no specific age when they become responsible for their own footprint but WWF has chosen 17 years old as its starting date. At this age people can legally set up their own home and drive. If they did this it would result in a significant increase in their footprint.
Pets also consume resources. Dogs and cats eat a lot of meat (which has a higher footprint than vegetables) and often get more protein per day than people in many African countries. It is for this very important reason that we have included pets in the calculator.
I’m a student living with my parents and I have no control over house issues - shouldn’t this be taken into account?
Even if you live with your parents you are still responsible for your share of the household’s footprint. This is why we ask how many people live in your house. While we appreciate that not all people have control over house issues, such as electricity providers, they are still ultimately responsible for their own day-to-day use. The best thing to do is to start talking with your parents or the house owner and keep these issues in mind when you decide to move on. Good luck!
Why do you not ask about my bike usage?
The calculator assumes at the start of the questionnaire that you do not travel at all and then it adds the amount of our planet’s resources that you would use, depending on how many hours you drive/fly/get the bus. You cannot add points for cycling or walking because they are the ultimate in pollution-free transport, but you cannot subtract them either because cycling doesn’t create negative resource usage. However, every new bike you purchase consumes fresh resources so try to buy second hand bikes or better still get your old bike retuned to be the road racer it once was!
Why do you apply a multiplier to emissions from flying?
Science now clearly shows that flying has an even greater impact on climate change than was previously thought. Changes to cloud formation and exhaust emissions at high altitudes mean aviation’s total impact is likely to be two to four times that of its CO2 alone. Having analysed the latest science, WWF multiplies CO2 emissions on all flights by 2.7. This is a little higher than the government’s figure, but we believe it is justified since the government takes no account of the impact of additional cirrus clouds triggered by planes – potentially a large source of warming.
Is the multiplier effect on flights also applied to my ecological footprint?
Yes. Adding a multiplier means your carbon footprint will now be measured in tonnes of CO2 equivalent (covering all greenhouse gases) and not just CO2. Since your carbon footprint makes up a large proportion of your ecological footprint, any increases will have an impact.
I have a green electricity tariff, why is this not taken into account?
Truly green, or renewable, energy is a good thing and something that WWF strongly supports.
However, after researching all the green energy tariffs available on the UK market, WWF believes that it is difficult to have confidence that any tariff is really leading to significant levels of renewable generation beyond the legal obligation on electricity suppliers. The law already requires UK energy companies to provide a level of renewable electricity, and few ‘green’ tariffs go beyond this legal minimum. For this reason, and because it’s very likely green tariffs don’t reduce your footprint, WWF has removed this question from its ecological footprint calculator.
WWF strongly supports policies to encourage the energy companies to greatly increase investment in new, sustainable renewable energy sources. Individuals can really make a difference here by helping us to campaign for strong policies on clean energy, and speaking up in favour of renewable energy projects as they pass through the planning system.
Reducing my footprint
How can I get down to a ‘one planet’ lifestyle?
Individual actions, such as flying less, will reduce approximately one planet’s worth of footprint whilst the remaining planet can only be tackled by government and business. This is because we inherit a planet’s worth of footprint from the UK’s infrastructure - our hospitals, electricity grids, farming subsidies - and can only become more efficient through policies beyond our day-to-day control.
WWF has produced this calculator with its eco-tips to help achieve individual behaviour change and also runs campaigns to encourage government and industry to take action. Neither will be successful without your efforts – you’ve found the calculator so why not help us change government policies by campaigning with us.
How could the calculator help me reduce my impact on the planet?
The calculator helps makes the reality of your ecological footprint more transparent and acts as a guide so you can see how changes in your day-to-day lifestyle impacts on the amount of resources you consume. Once you know what your ecological footprint is, you can work out what you want your footprint to be and execute a strategy of how you can get there.
Our eco-tips also show how you can further reduce your footprint and our online community links you to other ‘footprinters’. We offer tips and advice. WWF has a number of great campaigns with ways you can help us change government policy. Campaigning will help apply pressure on the government to make changes that will also reduce your impact – such as developing a ‘zero carbon’ electricity supply.
What does WWF think is a good individual footprint for me?
At the moment we are living beyond the capacity of the planet. However, while there are simple things you can do to reduce your footprint, many actions are outside of our individual control and require change in legislation, regulation, taxation or business practice. Given our current unsustainable infrastructure, we believe that in the short-term a two planet lifestyle is achievable for the majority of the population. Of course this is double what the planet could support in the long-term and we therefore need to ‘green’ all the existing infrastructure to help us achieve a One Planet Future.
WWF is trying to achieve this through its campaigns – and we need your help.
Why don’t you use more open ended questions to take account of my specific situation?
In order to calculate everyone’s footprint, we have to keep the questions fairly simple so that we can accurately measure the results.
However, even without open-ended questions the calculator is still very sophisticated and as a guide builds an accurate picture of your ecological footprint.
Your questions have ignored some really important things, such as home composting and solar thermal heating.
There are many lifestyles choices we could have included in the initial questions, but we were keen to keep the calculator reasonably straightforward. However, once you have completed the calculator there are 170 eco-tips that you may have already completed or can pledge to do. This will help reduce your footprint score further.
Should I include work travel?
We have designed this calculator to factor in your personal life but not activities that are beyond your control at work. So by our rationale you would include your commute as you have control over where you live in relation to your work but not the travel that is part of and essential for your job. However, you are free to define ‘personal’ in any way you like and if that means challenging yourself to include work time – then fantastic! Hopefully, your behaviour will influence your colleagues and create an even greater change.
Find out more about WWF’s recent campaign encouraging companies to cut one in five flights.
We give loads of stuff away to charity shops. Should this affect my footprint?
If the stuff you buy is new then you are responsible for its footprint regardless of whether you give it away to a charity shop. However the person who eventually buys your stuff from the charity shop can do so without increasing their footprint, since they were not responsible for their original production. Lucky them! So buying second hand can help reduce your resource use.