Researching Canada's Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity

Researching Canada’s Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity

Written by Katie Kish and Eric Miller

An initiative at York University is measuring how humanity’s consumption of renewable resources has changed over the last 50 years – since the first Earth Day in 1970. Research out of York’s Ecological Footprint Initiative (EFI) in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, involves faculty, staff and students, to bridge the gap between government and the academy to create useful policy to change the way humans use the Earth’s resources and the planet’s capacity to provide them. The EFI is training the next generation on sustainability informatics and leading cutting edge research on National Footprint Accounting, provincial biocapacity accounting, assessing the footprint science, and understanding what demand exists for the footprint across Canada. 

According to the Ecological Footprint, if everyone in the world lived like a Canadian, we would need 4.72 Earths to sustain us. This measurement comes from the Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity (EFB) databases which provide the most integrative metrics for measuring the demand and supply of carrying capacity. It is an accounting system of indicators that measure Earth’s resources and biological production, and human demand on nature. Doing so produces an overall view of the biologically productive area (footprint size) necessary for humans at all scales – global, national, regional, and individual.

Ecological Footprint measures any population’s demand for carrying capacity, in units that are comparable to any portion of the planet’s supply of Biocapacity, which consists of the elements labelled in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The elements that make-up the Earth's biocapacity.

Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity are measured in “global hectares” (gha) to allow for comparisons across the planet and over time. A local hectare anywhere on the planet can be equated with a global hectare using a system of conversion factors that account for its capacity relative to the global average. Biocapacity can be calculated for anything with a defined boundary such as activities, institutions, individuals, and populations of all global, national, or regional scales.

The framework is applied to real-world data, such as the work currently happening at the Footprint Initiative at York University. At York, we use many international data sources, predominantly from various statistical agencies at the United Nations and the International Energy Agency.

Applying this concept globally, we see in Figure 2 that humanity’s Ecological Footprint in 2017 exceeded the supply of Biocapacity. This means that humanity’s consumption in 2017 exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity, resulting in the further accumulation of carbon emissions and ongoing pressures on biodiversity.

Figure 2: Canada's demand and supply of biocapacity in 2017.

We can look at Canada’s supply of, and demand for, carrying capacity in 2017 (Figure 3). Out of approximately 1000 hectares of lands and waters in Canada, about 750 million hectares can sustain one of the components of ecological footprint. These hectares provide the equivalent of 550 million global hectares of biocapacity. Canada’s lands and waters tend to provide carrying capacity at less than the global average rate. Therefore the hectares are deflated to get global hectares.  

Of this biocapacity, about 78% was needed to sustain the Ecological Footprint of economic activities within Canada in 2017. About 57% of this footprint was used to produce exports, which is disproportionately large considering that Canada exports about 30% of domestic production. In 2017, more than twice as much Biocapacity was used per dollar of Canadian exports than per dollar of Canadian imports; this difference was even larger in prior years. Canada effectively imports carrying capacity embedded within products and services produced in the rest of the world but consumed in Canada. When we take the EF of production and subtract the EF of exports and add the EF of imports, we arrive at Canada’s ecological footprint of consumption (the final bar on the graph).

Having just explored the supply and demand of the EFB (link to report) through a Social Science and Humanities Research Council grant, we are now looking towards the future, including a research agenda on the EFB and current key policy recommendations.

Figure 3.

A Research Agenda

For the final stage of the research collection process, we spoke with key environmental stakeholders across Canada regarding how they currently use or would like to use the Ecological Footprint. The first area of interest from the stakeholders regards provincial biocapacity accounting to understand better what capacity exists, how natural space is used over time, and to decide on specific regions such as the greenbelt. 

The second is regarding municipal decision-making. Most government members were at the municipal level, and they require better tools to engage with the day-to-day efforts happening at the local level. Most have declared a climate emergency, but now they need to know how their budgeting, infrastructure decision making, local manufacturing efforts, etc., can respond to that emergency. Given this, they have quite different data requirements than what we currently offer – they require disaggregated data to assist in these kinds of decisions. This exposes a very clear and long-term research agenda for the footprint.

Finally, even if stakeholders were unfamiliar with the biocapacity accounting system, all of them knew about the online individual footprint calculator (link to calculator). The calculator is used to determine an individual’s footprint size or how many earths it would take to support their lifestyle. Stakeholders applauded this for educational initiatives. However, many asked if this leads to broader cultural change and questioned how it takes different regional cultures into account. This is another question for the future of the Footprint and Biocapacity.

Policy Recommendations

There is pan-Canadian interest in nature-based solutions to reduce climate change and to reverse the decline in biodiversity. To succeed with nature-based solutions for climate and biodiversity, Canada needs:

  • An integrative area-based accounting of carrying capacity.  After all, our success or failures will relate in large part to how we manage land use. The path to a carbon-neutral Canadian economy – and the same for the global economy – involves challenging trade-offs, such as using arable lands for afforestation to sequester carbon versus producing ethanol, versus food, versus settlements. These demands can add pressure upon scarce biodiversity.
  • Sub-nationally scalable measures that relate to trade flows to inform provinces tasked with managing most of Canada’s lands and waters. Canada and its provinces and territories have a high degree of trade dependence with the rest of the world. Carrying capacity in Canada is embedded within all that we export and all that we import. As the rest of the world works to reduce emissions and conserve its biodiversity, there will be significant implications for Canada and the provinces and territories through trade linkages.
  • Impact (multiplier) metrics to reveal how economic sectors relate to carrying capacity, directly and indirectly through supply chains.  Jobs and GDP are not sufficient metrics to inform economic policy in the 21st century – every dollar of stimulus that government contemplates should be informed about its impacts upon carrying capacity.


All of these are within reach using Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity accounts to measure and manage Canada’s use of the Earth’s regenerative carrying capacity.

Katie Kish is a research associate for the Footprint Initiative at York University and lecturer at the University of British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii Institute. Katie’s background is in systems thinking, ecological economics, and complexity science which she applies to her current research on exploring radical and disruptive political economies and possible pathways to alternative futures – particularly related to new forms of production and manufacturing in localized economies. Katie has a Ph.D. in Social and Ecological Sustainability from the University of Waterloo.  Twitter: @ktkish 

Eric Miller is a David Suzuki Fellow focussed on enhancing ecological economic literacy.  Eric also teaches courses in ecological economics and sustainability informatics, and directs many projects and partnerships at York University including the production of the National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts. Twitter: @eco_miller