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New research reports on ecological footprint

Issue 02-04-2014On behalf of MIRA, Ecolife has conducted two studies on the ecological footprint. A first study examined why the ecological footprint of Belgium is higher than that of our neighbouring countries. A second study calculated the ecological footprint of Flanders over the period 2004-2009.

Do Belgians enjoy a higher living standard than their neighbours?

National or regional footprint indicators such as ecological footprint, carbon footprint, water footprint and materials footprint, indicate how many resources a country or region uses worldwide for its consumption or the amount of contamination that is caused worldwide by that consumption. Country comparisons that are regularly conducted by scientists and organisations such as the Global Footprint Network and the Water Footprint Network show that Belgian footprints are almost systematically higher than those of neighbouring countries. Ecolife investigated the reasons for this. The study focused on the ecological footprint and used the other footprints in support of the analyses.

A first finding is that more than half of the difference with our neighbouring countries can be explained by methodological choices that lead to overestimations for small, open economies such as Belgium. However, the researchers also identified a series of structural differences in consumption and production patterns that are at the basis of the high ecological footprint. Belgium has on average older buildings with low energy performance, resulting in high energy use for heating. The low utilisation rate of Belgian passenger cars, the dense road network and the low tax on diesel all contribute to a higher number of vehicle kilometres per person, and therefore also to the higher ecological footprint. We also appear to consume more fish with a high footprint intensity and more vegetable oils, coffee, sugar and beer than our neighbours.

Improving efficiency is not enough

Ecolife also calculated the ecological footprint of Flanders over the period 2004-2009. The footprint of the average Flemish citizen was found to fluctuate around 9 global hectares (gha) over this period. Due to differences in data sources, the Flemish results cannot simply be compared with the figures in the international footprint databases. Moreover, these 9 gha are almost certainly an overestimation: the aforementioned study shows in fact that methodological choices in the footprint calculation lead to overestimations for small, open economies. We can nonetheless conclude that we live well beyond our means: we only have one earth and that means the global average ecological footprint should not exceed 1.8 gha per inhabitant. With 9 gha, we are far above that figure.

Almost half of the Flemish footprint is made up of the amount of land that is needed for the production of biomass for food, clothing, furniture, etc. An equally large portion consists of so-called energy land. This is the theoretical area of woodland needed to capture the CO2 that is released by the burning of fossil fuels. The remaining 4 % of the footprint is building land, i.e. land used for buildings, infrastructure and recreation facilities.

National footprints reflect the environmental impact of consumption and are calculated as the footprint of domestic production plus the footprint of imports minus the footprint of exports. Flemish production is in many areas more efficient than the worldwide average and therefore has relatively low footprint intensities. The footprint of net imports is, however, of the same order of magnitude as the production footprint, so that only improving production efficiency will not suffice to significantly reduce the total footprint; we will also have to change our consumption patterns. The study on factors explaining the high Belgian footprint can certainly be used as a source of inspiration.

Average footprint values (Flanders, 2004-2009)       

ecological footprint (gha/person)

footprint of fossil fuels (energy land)

footprint of renewable materials (arable, grazing, fishing and forest land) 

footprint of buildings and infrastructure(building land) 

total 

 domectic production

 4.0

0.6

0.4

5.0

 net imports

 0.3

3.7

-

4.0

 consumption

 4.3

4.3

0.4

9.0

Source: Ecolife

Read the English summary of the Dutch report ‘Calculation of the Ecological Footprint of Flanders (2004-2009, following NFA edition 2010)’

Study commissioned by MIRA, the Environment Reporting Unit
Research report MIRA/2014/01

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Read the English summary of the Dutch report ‘Structural explanations for the high footprint of Belgium. Comparison of footprint indicators for Belgium and neighbouring countries’

Study commissioned by MIRA, the Environment Reporting Unit
Research report MIRA/2014/02

researchers: Stijn Bruers, Koen Vandenberghe, Ecolife

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