Report on Footprint calculation

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The concept of environmental footprints emerged at the beginning of the 1990’s through the introduction of the “ecological footprint”. This indicator has achieved a large amount of media coverage and impact on policy discussion. In later years, carbon, water, material, land and biodiversity footprints were also developed. Footprint calculations are valuable because they directly link environmental pressures to consumption. Furthermore, this type of work can also help to answer other environment-economic questions related to the shifts in environmental burdens between countries (sometimes referred to as “carbon leakage” or the “pollution haven hypothesis”).

So far academia and research institutes are doing the bulk of the work in this field, but National Statistical Institutes (NSI) are also increasingly producing footprint indicators. For the most part, the calculations at NSIs are experimental.

Footprint calculations, both in the academic and statistical world, are increasingly using multiregional input-output (MRIO) databases. Over the last few years quite a number of these databases have emerged (e.g. GTAP, OECD, EXIOBASE/CREEA, WIOD and EORA). These databases are increasingly relying on official statistics. This raises the prospect that these databases can start to be used in the production of “official” footprints by NSI’s.

This paper aims to answer the question: what prospect is there to introduce MRIO-based “official” footprints at NSI’s? This is done by providing an inventory of the academic work as well as the work that is currently being done at NSIs. Furthermore, the MRIO databases that have been created, are reviewed.

Following these overviews, the paper explores the differences between these database and NSI data are illustrated by taking the WIOD database and contrasting it to the data of Statistics Netherlands. The paper also discusses the problems associated with revisions of the national accounts which are currently taking place. Finally, this paper will show how the WIOD database can be adapted to Dutch statistics to arrive at an “official” footprint for the Netherlands.



This report is an output of the e-Frame (European Framework for Measuring Progress) project.

e-Frame is a major international project which aims to provide a European framework for the debate over the measure of well-being and progress. The project involves a broad range of activities including conferences and workshops, as well as research and the development of guidelines. It is led by two major European National Statistical Institutes (NSIs), ISTAT (in Italy) and the CBS (in the Netherlands), and includes amongst the partners two other NSIs (the French INSEE and the UK ONS), the OECD, and several universities and civil society organisations. It is funded by the EU FP7 Work Programme.

A footprint quantifies the environmental pressures that are related to the consumption of a country . However, footprint calculations are also used to answer other environmental-economic questions. To fully appreciate the value of footprint calculations it is important to distinguish three interrelated questions in the academic literature: footprint calculations, producer and consumer responsibility and global shifts in environmental pressures.

The calculation of “footprints” started with the work on “ecological footprints” in the early 1990s. The ecological footprint calculates the amount of land and water (surface area) that is necessary in the production of a certain consumption bundle. For example, the amount of land that is required to produce food is a component. An important, but often criticised part of the calculation, is the fictive amount of forest that would be required to sequester the human CO2 emissions.

The ecological footprint is capable of directly linking human consumption to environmental pressures. It also shows the “overshoot” i.e. the difference between the ecological footprint and the actual area of productive land available to us. This communicative power has led influential institutes such as the World Wildlife Fund to adopt it in their Living Planet Report (WWF, 2010). On the other hand, the methodology of the ecological footprint has also been criticized.

The ecological footprint has also inspired researchers to develop other footprint indicators such as the carbon footprint and water footprint. Although the methodologies are currently quite different, there are efforts to harmonise their calculations. For example, in the OPEN-EU project an effort was made to identify a “family of footprints” by defining the similarities and differences in methodologies and data. The overall conclusion was that footprint calculations should converge towards the use of MRIO data and input-output analysis.

Most of the above developments have taken place in the academic realm. However, NSIs are also increasingly looking at these issues. As we will show, quite a few NSIs have developed and published (experimental) calculations, particularly on carbon footprints.

Footprint indicators make explicit the environmental pressures that are caused by consumer behaviour. However, their calculation is often used to prove another point as well. It is a strand of the literature which is often referred to as the “production versus consumption perspective”.

Underlying this discussion is the question: Which environmental pressures should a country be held responsible for? Put differently, who is the polluter in the polluter-pays-principle? On the one hand you could say that industries, which are directly emitting the pollutants (and creating value added), are responsible. This is commonly referred to as the production perspective. International agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, have a similar basis because all greenhouse gas emissions within a country’s geographical boundaries are included. On the other hand, the consumption perspective is based on the premise that the “polluter” is the final consumer of the products. In the consumer perspective all environmental pressures in the production cycle are included, whether the production takes place in the country itself or abroad.


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Environmental footprints: An methodological and empirical overview from the perspective of official statistics



Rutger Hoekstra, Bram Edens, Daan Zult, Statistics Netherlands Ronghao Wu, University of Wageningen and Harry Wilting, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency

See Also

Global Footprint Network

European Network on Measuring Progress
European Framework for Measuring Progress