Katie Kish, Ph.D.

Research Direction for the Ecological Footprint Team

Assessing the use and demand of the Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts

Background and Context

The Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity are integrative measures of human need for Earth's sources and it's available supply to meet those needs. The concept was developed over 25 years ago in Canada and has since been applied in thousands of diverse settings and received tremendous public success. For example:

  • Personal ecological footprint calculator sees 2 million+ unique visitors per year

  • Earth Overshoot Day has had 4 billion media impressions from over 5000 websites in 112 countries and 8 online major partner events

  • data.footprintnetwork.org saw an average of 200 000+ unique visitors per year in 2017-19

  • The public data package had over 5000 downloads per year in 2016-19

  • Multiple other hosts of the data including Work Resources Institution, Biodiversity Indicators Partnership, data.world, and others

The challenge: to understand current demand for knowledge regarding the usage of the Footprint methodology and data sets.

We completed this through three key phases:

  1. A thorough literature review of all historical uses of the Footprint with special attention given to critiques by policy professionals and academics.

  2. Interviews with key sustainability stakeholders in Canadian government, NGOs, and think tanks regarding if they use the Footprint, why or why not, and how.

  3. Evaluate the sensitivity of the data sets to differences in input data to understand empirical significance of key parameters that have been questioned by policy professionals and researchers (not covered in this portfolio as this was completed by the engineers).

Reviewing the literature and historic usages

Literature Review Methodology

To synthesize the supply of knowledge regarding the Ecological Footprint, we conducted a systemic literature review of research papers. Below is a flow of the methodology for the literature review. Orange represents automated activities, yellow is final input into the database, pink is user research, and black is collaborative space.

Research Direction for the Ecological Footprint
Number of papers published on the Ecological Footprint from 1992 – 2020

Number of papers published on the Ecological Footprint from 1992 – 2020

Literature Review Results

To begin the literature review, we searched Scopus using the query:

((TITLE-ABS-KEY("ecological footprint" OR "biocapacity") AND (REF(wackernagel) OR REF(Borucke) OR REF(rees)) AND DOCTYPE(ar) ) AND ( LIMIT-TO ( LANGUAGE,"English" ) ) )

The search resulted in 1326 results, of which we complied the metadata for all including country of publication, number of citations, journal of publication, and other general information. We also compiled sources into a Zotero collection with the resources found accessed via Google Scholar using the search <<critiques “ecological footprint” methodologies data>>, excluding patents, which resulted in 16 100 results.

Number of citations on papers within the literature review per year

Number of citations on papers within the literature review per year

After selecting 335 papers, 40 selected at random and the remanure selected according to the highest annual citation rate over time, researchers coded the items.

Most of the papers consider the standard six Ecological Footprint components and follow the conceptual approach promoted by the Global Footprint Network. Half of the papers use data from the Global Footprint Network or the National Footprint Accounts, while others obtain their data from elsewhere. The Ecological Footprint clearly has a strong conceptual foundation and growing use within academic literature, and continued updates to the accounts will result in continued growth particularly in innovations to the tool. Given the continued growing use of the data within academia, it is important to ensure practical application of the Ecological Footprint. The literature review demonstrates strong global usage in academic analysis and empirical investigations, particularly in China and Spain, but no significant usage in political decision making, and nearly no uptake in Canadian politics whatsoever. 

Of all the papers published since 1992, only 15% focus on criticisms of the Footprint methodology, to which the Global Footprint Network has responded at length. Given these outcomes of the review, our focus for the research agenda is on expanding to different academic, public, and state audiences and actors. While there is still room for improvement regarding the source data, there is a greater need for bridging the gap between academic empirics and policy needs.

Key stakeholder and user needs for the Footprint
Municipal government demands for policy that incorporates EFB and carrying capacity.

Municipal government demands for policy that incorporates EFB and carrying capacity.

User-Need Methodology

To synthesize knowledge regarding the demand for knowledge about Canada’s use of the Ecological Footprint we conducted interviews with 23 key sustainability decision-makers in Canada including 5 municipal government actors, 12 executive members of national NGOs, 3 members of Indigenous think tanks, and 3 academics who are now situated within the public domain.

I transcribed all interviews while simultaneously conducting an affinity sort.

Research Direction for the Ecological Footprint

Affinity sorting

During the affinity sorting, four main outcomes emerged, which we use as the main themes for the research agenda: data, complexity and scale, behaviour, and policy. I designed a research agenda around these outcomes and tested it on the stakeholders.

Results and Outcomes

A presentation I did on the outcomes of this stage of the project.

What did we learn?

Outcomes of this research project have wide-reading implications for policy and decision makers and academic research programs related to the Footprint. Findings help inform the future direction of research and program planning for the Global Ecological Footprint Network, the Footprint Initiative at York University, and the Footprint Data Foundation.

Key components of a research agenda for the Ecological Footprint in Canada

Key components of a research agenda for the Ecological Footprint in Canada

What are the implications?

The outcomes of this work have been submitted to the government of Canada with policy recommendations.

It is also makes up the underlying framework for the newly developed research agenda for the Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity which will shape the data, uses, and outcomes in thousands of projects across the world.

Research Direction for the Ecological Footprint

Bringing Qualitative and Quantitative Together

This research agenda was brought to the Footprint Data Foundation's scientific committee. I worked with them to make a complimentary plan for scientific recommendations to the methodology.

I did this by sorting through the last three years of their minutes to find priority areas and then held a meeting where each member said how long the area would take to complete and if they could champion the research that would need to go into it.

This resulted in a 6-month plan for major methodological improvements and specific quantitative research questions.


This was one of the first times I walked into a project without any background knowledge. I had to quickly learn the methodologies and how the Footprint is used globally. I then had to immediately start doing interviews with people in fairly high up positions, while sounding knowledgeable on something I had learned about just the week before! It was one of the more challenging transitions I've had to do, but it really showed me that I can quickly apply methodologies to a diverse array of settings.

"Katie came into this project without any background. She quickly adapted, learned the methodology, conducted unique research, and wrote a detailed report in a matter of weeks. Her adaptability on this project really speaks to hear research abilities."
- Supervisor on the project