ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES / Pollutants and Non-renewables
How does the Ecological Footprint account for pollution and toxic waste?
Toxics and pollutants released from the human economy that cannot in any way be absorbed or broken down by biological processes, such as many types of plastics, cannot be directly assigned an Ecological Footprint. As the Ecological Footprint measures the area required to produce a material or absorb a waste, materials such as mercury that are not created by biological processes nor absorbed by biological systems do not have a defined Ecological Footprint (although their extraction, processing, and transport may have an associated carbon Footprint, for example). Many of the most important concerns surrounding toxic materials, such as future storage risks and human health impacts, are best captured by indicators other than the Ecological Footprint.
Many of these materials can cause damage to ecosystems when they are released into the environment, however, and this resultant loss of biocapacity can be measured using Ecological Footprint accounting and allocated to the activity that caused the release of the pollutant. The relationships between pollution and ecosystem damage are very site specific, data intensive, and difficult to calculate in practice. Even if no specific calculation is undertaken, however, any loss of biocapacity associated with the release of pollutants will be reflected in future assessments of the affected area.
We are using up many of our non-renewable resources such as copper, tin, coal and oil. How does the Ecological Footprint measure this resource depletion?
As the Ecological Footprint measures demand on the biosphere’s productive capacity, materials that are extracted from outside the biosphere (such as copper and other minerals that are mined beneath the ground) do not have a yield value that can be used to translate their creation into a productive area. One tonne of copper thus does not have an Ecological Footprint in the same way as one tonne of timber, which requires bioproductive area for its creation. There is, however, an Ecological Footprint associated with the energy and other materials used in extracting, refining, processing, and shipping these mineral resources, and together these are often reported as the Footprint of the mineral. Additionally, when mined materials such as mercury or arsenic enter the environment, they may cause damage and a loss of productivity.
Non-renewable fossil fuel resources are treated differently from other minerals, however, since they actually represent an ancient material of biological origin, and their combustion releases a material, carbon dioxide, which is part of the biosphere’s material cycles. The Footprint of carbon released from the combustion of fossil fuels is thus defined as the amount of productive area required to sequester this waste and prevent its accumulation. An alternative method would be to calculate the consumption of fossil fuels according to the productive area required to regenerate them, which would result in a carbon Footprint many hundreds of times higher than the current calculation.
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