This question has been intriguing me quite some time. While regulating my own consumption of the world's resources, I keep on wondering:

With the current world population, what would be each single person's share of the global resources, if they were allotted equally? In other words: what size of eco-footprint could I claim without taking anything away from others (be it now or in the future)?

Is anyone aware of studies that either directly answer this question or would enable me to do the calculation by myself?

Ideally I want to be able to draw conclusions as to whether my own consumption of energy, water, heat, food, electronic devices, transportation, carbon emissions, etc. is within tolerable limits.

Please note: I am not interested in my personal ecological footprint but, so to say, in everybody's ideal maximum ecological footprint. Another way to put this would be: I want to know the total resources of the earth as far as this is feasible.

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    It is difficult to quantify. The first (false) assumption needed to make such a comparison is that resources can be equally distributed. Many resources are geographically constrained and so cannot be transferred. What if sharing everything out equally doesn't give you enough to survive (perhaps not the case today, but maybe in the future)? Surely, the better question is to ask, "what do I need?" not "how much can I have?". – George of all trades Feb 10 '17 at 22:57
  • Thanks for commenting but no need for lecturing. I am interested in the numbers. If the result should be: "there is less available than we need" - all the better, all the more informing. I don't know which resources you are having in mind, that are geographically constrained, but I surely don't mind if they are left out of the calculation... – zwiebel Feb 12 '17 at 1:45
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    Possible duplicate of How do I estimate my personal ecological footprint? – LShaver Feb 12 '17 at 17:19
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    Dudes, please. I do not understand how this is a possible duplicate of the mentioned question. I edited to clarify this. To answer George's question: I am personally interested in this, and less for scholarly purposes. And @Fred: just humans to start with. Thx for interest to all. – zwiebel Feb 14 '17 at 12:52
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    I think I see where you're trying to go... at the result of the Global Footprint Network's calculator you get a figure which includes quantities of energy land, crop land, etc. You'd like to know the total amount of land on earth in each category. This paper provides the background data and calculations for that footprint. When I get some time I'll dig in and summarize for an answer. – LShaver Feb 14 '17 at 22:39
up vote 3 down vote accepted

To expand on THelper's answer, and to provide an answer to just one part of the question:

How much land would each person have if everything were distributed evenly?

The back-up research to the Footprint Calculator is found primarily in two documents:

Land categories

The second of these two resources gives 2007 figures (and cites sources) for land in five different categories, and the total amount of land available:

  1. Cropland
  2. Grazing land (for livestock)
  3. Forests (for timber and forest products, and CO2 uptake)
  4. Fisheries (including inland freshwater and continental shelf)
  5. Built-up land (cities, roads, bridges, etc)

Totals and per capita

If we bring all of this data together, here is how it breaks down per person (using land data from 2007 and a population of 6.6708 billion):

Land type       ha (mil.)   EQF     gha (mil.)  ha per capita   gha per capita 
---------       ---------   ---     ----------  -------------   --------------
Cropland         1,560      2.51     3,905      0.24            0.61
Grazing land     3,377      0.46     1,552      0.52            0.24
Forest           3,944      1.26     4,962      0.59            0.75
Fishing          2,840      0.37     1,049      0.43            0.16
Built-up           174      2.51       426      0.03            0.06
TOTAL           11,895              11,895      1.81            1.81
  • ha (mil): million hectares.
  • EQF - equivalence factors. The EQF is used to cmpare different types of land, based on how much human-useful resources can be produced from each type. It assumes that the most productive land is cropland, followed by forests, then grazing land. The calculation then looks at yields to determine how much crops could be produced if grazing land were converted to cropland, forests to cropland, etc. Fisheries are equated through protein yields compared to grazing land, and built-up land is compared to crop-land, as it is assumed that the majority of built-up land (cities) would make suitable crop-land. Ultimately, area times EQF equals global area.
  • gha (mil): million global hectares.
  • A note on totals: The values in the bottom row include more precise figures than what's shown in the table, so the sum of the rows as shown may not add to the totals as shown.
  • YF - yield factors (not shown). To compare nation to nation, yield factors (YF) compare productivity between nations, within each category. For example, grazing land in New Zealand is more productive than world average grazing land, due to precipitation and other factors. The YF is baked into the calculations in the tables from the Footprint Atlas, but I was not able to find a listing of the YF per category, per country.

A real-world example

If, like me, you don't have much concept of a hectare, Wikipedia is quite helpful: The grass area inside a standard outdoor athletic track is equal to one hectare.

Hansen Field.JPG
By IlliniGradResearch - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Thus, each person gets just under two of these. A family of five would get a hair over nine. Here's how their land use would break down:

enter image description here

These numbers are in absolute (not global) terms, thus related to the actual land usage, not the productivity of the land.

So, roughly speaking, this family would have:

  • Four fields for crops and animal pasture
  • Three fields forested
  • Two fields filled with lakes for fishing

Housing, barns, workshops, etc would be spread throughout all areas.

  • Nice answer! I was looking for that table, but couldn't find it. Good thing you did. – THelper Feb 16 '17 at 7:00
  • BTW there is a small error in the table. The sum of all hectares and all global hectares should be the same. Both sum up to 1.81 – THelper Feb 16 '17 at 7:38
  • @THelper thanks for catching that - I had meant to include a note. The back-up data from the National Footprints account is poorly cited and imprecise: I'm sure more precise numbers are out there, but I couldn't find them. – LShaver Feb 16 '17 at 16:16
  • I also think more recent and precise data exists, but it probably isn't free. The GFN sells EF data subscriptions. – THelper Feb 16 '17 at 16:34
  • @THelper I did find somewhat better data in the Ecological Footprint Atlas I linked at the beginning, however the values for EQF they publish are less precise than what they used, since I didn't get the same values for gha based on the starting ha. I split the difference across all five categories to make the totals match. – LShaver Feb 16 '17 at 17:19

I think the closest measure to what you are asking is the ecological footprint. It's a commonly-used measure for the amount of productive land and sea area one needs to support a particular activity, lifestyle, person, or group of people. The ecological footprint is expressed in number of Earths or in global hectares.

One global hectare represents the average productivity of all biologically productive areas (measured in hectares) on earth in a given year.

The world ecological footprint is estimated to be around 1.6 Earths (source: Footprintnetwork.org). That means that on average each person on Earth consumes 1.6 times as much resources than the Earth can replenish. I can't find the latest figures but in 2011 the Earth had around 12 billion hectares of productive land and water. With 7 billion people this means each person can use 1.72 global hectares (source: Footprintnetwork.org). Actual usage was 1.72 * 1.6 = 2.7 global hectares (gha) per person.

In the paper LShaver mentioned in his comment there is a breakdown into different types of land.

Relative area of land use types worldwide in hectares and global hectares, 2008

Relative area of land use types worldwide in hectares and global hectares, 2008 (source)

If you are interested you can get a rough estimate of your own ecological footprint by using an online calculator, for example this one. The wiki of the tag has a short list of calculators

I agree that the Global Footprint Network (GFN) is a good starting point. However, the challenge is: On whose personal footprint should we put all the schools, hospitals, roads, etc. that citizens of a country have decided to build? What you will find is that if you keep your personal consumption constant on GFN's calculator, but change country from the UK to India, your footprint decreases dramatically! What does this mean for how much you can consume personally? I think there are several responses to this, e.g.:

  • "I vote green, so I would have chosen a much more sustainable society." But to this someone might respond - "but you still use our roads and hospitals etc. so you should bear the same burden", or, "it is not possible to have our high standards of health and education without the associated ecological footprint."
  • "I would have moved to India if I could" to which the response might be: "go on, then."
  • "India has a much warmer climate so cold countries should get some extra footprint for staying warm (and extreme hot ones for staying cold)" to which someone will say "but we have less renewable energy per capita than e.g. hydropowered Norway"

In other words, I think the best is for everyone to really try their best to limit their footprint no matter where they live or what level they started out from. We then need to recognize that some people might need "more than their fair share", another example being farmers who live remotely and might not have access to public transportation (but maybe some of their "personal travel" should really be baked into food footprint borne by city-dwelling consumers?).

It is commendable that you want to live within the planet's means and I am motivated to see others like yourself try to do what I aim to do. I know we can be 9 billion people living sustainably on this planet. I also know that to get there, we all need to see how each one of us can best reduce her/his footprint and not worry too much about others, who live in very different situations. What is good is that research on happiness shows that we do not need to consume much to live happy, free and fulfilling lives. In fact, by giving to others we are likely to increase our own happiness so if we can give e.g. elderly people access to cars, or give people living in harsh climates resources to live comfortably like ourselves, we are all going to benefit from it, now and in future generations.

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