The global effort for sustainability will be won, or lost, in the world’s cities, where urban design may influence more than 70 percent of people’s Ecological Footprint and 80 percent of the world’s population is expected to live by 2050. High-Footprint cities can reduce this demand on nature greatly with existing technology. Many of these savings also cut costs and make cities more livable. Since urban infrastructure is long lasting and influences resource needs for decades to come, infrastructure decisions make or break a city’s future. Which ones are building opportunities for resource-efficient and more competitive lifestyles? Which cities are building future resource traps?

What’s in it for local governments?

Local governments succeed by helping all their residents live fulfilling lives, both today and in the future. The availability of natural capital, nature’s ability to renew and provide resources and services, is not the only ingredient in this vision. However, without natural capital – healthy food, energy for mobility and heat, fiber for paper, clothing and shelter, fresh air and clean water – such a vision is impossible. Thus, providing current and future human well-being depends on protecting natural capital from systematic overuse; otherwise, nature will no longer be able to secure society with these basic services.

Ecological Footprint accounts allow governments to track a city or region’s demand on natural capital, and to compare this demand with the amount of natural capital actually available. The accounts also give governments the ability to answer more specific questions about the distribution of these demands within their economy. In other words, Ecological Footprint Accounting gives policy-makers information about their region’s resource metabolism.

To learn more about cities that have calculated their Ecological Footprint, read our case story on Calgary, Canada.

For example, Footprint accounts reveal the ecological demand associated with residential consumption, the production of value-added products, and the generation of exports. They also help assess the ecological capacity embodied in the imports upon which a region depends. This can shed light on the region’s constraints or future liabilities in comparison with other regions of the world, and identify opportunities to defend or improve the local quality of life. Footprint accounts help governments become more specific about sustainability in a number of ways. The accounts provide a common language and a clearly defined methodology that can be used to support staff training and to communicate about sustainability issues with other levels of government or with the public.

Footprint accounts add value to existing data sets on production, trade, and environmental performance by providing a comprehensive way to interpret them. For instance, the accounts can help guide “environmental management systems” by offering a framework for gathering and organizing data, setting targets, and tracking progress. The accounts can also serve as environmental reporting requirements, and inform strategic decision-making for regional economic development.

Without regional resource accounting, governments can easily overlook or fail to realize the extent of these kinds of opportunities and threats. The Ecological Footprint, a comprehensive, science-based resource accounting system that compares people’s use of nature with nature’s ability to regenerate, helps eliminate this blind spot.