Theoretical exploration for the combination of the ecological, energy, carbon, and water footprints. Overview of a footprint family

K. Fang, R. Heijungs, G.R. de Snoo

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Over the past two decades, a continuously expanding list of footprint-style indicators has been introduced to the scientific community with the aim of raising public awareness of how humanity exerts pressures on the environment. A deeper understanding of the connections and interactions between different footprints is required in an attempt to support policy makers in the measurement and choice of environmental impact mitigation strategies. Combining a selection of footprints that address different aspects of environmental issues into an integrated system is, therefore, a natural step. This paper starts with the idea of developing a footprint family from which most important footprints can be compared and integrated. On the basis of literature review in related fields, the ecological, energy, carbon, and water footprints are employed as selected indicators to define a footprint family. A brief survey is presented to provide background information on each of the footprints with an emphasis on their main characteristics in a comparative sense; that is, the footprints differ in many aspects more than just the impacts they are addressed. This allows the four footprints to be complementarily used in assessing environmental impacts associated with natural resource use and waste discharge. We evaluate the performance of the footprint family in terms of data availability, coverage complementarity, methodological consistency, and policy relevance and propose solutions and suggestions for further improvement. The key conclusions are that the footprint family, which captures a broad spectrum of sustainability issues, is able to offer a more complete picture of environmental complexity for policy makers and, in particular, in national-level studies. The research provides new insights into the distinction between environmental impact assessment and sustainability evaluation, properly serving as a reference for multidisciplinary efforts in estimating planetary boundaries for global sustainability. © 2013 Elsevier Ltd.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)508-518
JournalEcological Indicators
Issue numberJanuary
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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