Four footprints

When we talk about the four footprints, we’re referring to our land, water, material and carbon footprints.


Four footprints explained

To cut climate changing emissions we first measure how much we are emitting, then set targets to reduce them.

Why not do the same with consumption of resources?

One reason is that there is no agreement on how to measure the resources humanity uses. Which is where our work on resource use indicators, or “footprints”, comes in.

We’ve been working with Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI) in Vienna. They conclude that the best approach is to use four indicators which can apply to products, organisations or entire countries.

We're working to get the EU to adopt these four indicators as a way of measuring Europe’s overall consumption – and then to set targets to reduce this resource use.

These indicators are:

1. Land footprint

The real land we are using for our food, timber and so on, wherever it is in the world. This can also be referred to as “virtual land”, “embedded land” or “global cropland”.

Did you know . . ?

The UK imports so much agricultural and forestry products that we require around 80 million hectares of land outside the UK to produce them.

We have set up a land footprint coalition calling for Europe to measure and reduce its land footprint.

2. Water footprint

The quantity of water used in the life cycle of a product or by a country.

The Water Footprint Network has information on the water footprints of countries and products.

3. Material footprint

The total tonnage of material extracted to make a product, or a country’s consumption.

See our report 'Overconsumption? Our use of the world's resources'

4. Carbon footprint

The greenhouse gas emissions produced during the life cycle of a product. Or the emissions produced by a country, including from consumption of goods, wherever they happen in the world.

The UK Committee on Climate Change has published a detailed analysis of the UK’s carbon footprint.

Further reading

Key briefing - The Four Footprints: increasing our resource efficiency, reducing our social & environmental impacts 

CORE blog post by Richard Dyer - Overconsumption: ‘Tis the reason to be sorry

Our technical briefing: An FAQ for policy-makers on the land, water, materials and carbon footprint indicators of resource use

Using the four footprints together