In order to provide a quantitative answer to the research question of how much regenerative capacity is required to maintain a given resource flow through human society, Ecological Footprint analysis uses a methodology grounded on six basic assumptions:
1. The annual amounts of resources consumed and wastes generated by countries are tracked by national and international organizations. Most countries have extensive annual statistics documenting their resource use, particularly in the areas of energy, forest products and agricultural products. United Nations agencies, like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), compile many of these national statistics in a consistent format.
2. The quantity of biological resources appropriated for human use is directly related to the amount of bioproductive land area necessary for regeneration and the assimilation of waste. Bioproductive processes are associated with surfaces that capture sunlight for photosynthesis. Even three-dimensional processes that represent layers of such surfaces, as in aquatic ecosystems or rainforests, can be mapped on the two-dimensional area.
3. By weighting each area in proportion to its usable biomass productivity (i.e., its potential annual production of usable biomass), the different areas can be expressed in terms of a standardized average productive hectare. This unit is referred to as a global hectare, a hectare of surface area with world-average useful biological productivity.
4. The overall demand in global hectares can be aggregated by adding all mutually exclusive resource-providing and waste-assimilating areas required to support the demand.
5. Aggregate human demand (Ecological Footprint)and nature's supply (biocapacity) can be directly compared to each other.
By using the standardized unit of a global hectare, demand and supply can be compared, as can different components of demand and supply.
6. Area demanded can exceed area supplied. A footprint greater than available biocapacity at any given scale indicates that demand exceeds the regenerative capacity of existing biological capital. This condition, known as 'overshoot', is possible in the short term, as resources can be harvested faster than they regenerate (e.g., deforestation) and wastes can accumulate (e.g., carbon dioxide in the atmosphere). In the long term, however, such overshoot leads to increasing risks ofecological degradation or collapse.
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