An environmental footprint calculator estimates the environmental impact of specific activities, such as transport and energy use, food consumption, and production and use of products.
This page was developed through the Footprint Evaluation Initiative. Thanks to the Footprint Evaluation Community members, Paul Jorgensen, Ian Goldman and Jen Noris, for helpful feedback on the initial draft of this page.
Many of these calculators focus on individual or household consumption and waste production. Others focus on organisational footprints, especially in meeting commitments to zero carbon and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) goals.
Footprint calculators for products often take a life cycle stages approach, considering impacts from sourcing raw materials and production, through use and end-of-life, including potential impacts from disposal.
The environmental impacts considered by a footprint calculator may be broad or specific. For example, individual calculators for water usage, stormwater, nitrogen production, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions exist. The ecological footprint calculator covers a range of ecological assets that a given population or product requires to produce the natural resources it consumes and to absorb its waste, especially carbon emissions.
Environmental footprint calculators work by synthesising available evidence about the likely impacts of different activities and then providing an interactive tool to estimate the scale of these impacts for a particular activity level. For example, when estimating greenhouse gas production through private motor vehicle use, a calculator might provide an opportunity to adjust the number of kilometres travelled per year and the engine size and type.
Since most of the calculators are intended for use by individual households or companies, they can be useful for informing and motivating individuals or organisations to make changes to reduce their negative environmental impacts. However, their use in evaluations of programs and policies has not been as well documented. There are two main caveats to using footprint calculators in evaluations of programs, policies, and projects.
Firstly it is important to consider whether a particular type of impact is likely to be material and, therefore, important to include. For example, a project might not have significant greenhouse gas emissions, so calculating these would be of little benefit to the overall evaluation and would risk diverting evaluation effort and user attention away from more important impacts. This fits with one of the principles underlying footprint evaluation – 'focus on the big issues'.
To identify whether a type of impact is likely to be important, it might be possible to undertake a materiality assessment - consulting with internal and external stakeholders to identify types
of impacts with the potential to be significant. It might be possible to draw on guidance for particular sectors to identify important issues. For example, the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) has produced sector standards, which identify the topics that are likely to be material for organisations in particular sectors and reporting standards for particular topics. The CEDRIG rapid assessment tool (PDF, 392KB) provides a list of potential impacts to consider and a process to engage expert advice to review them.
The second issue concerns the credibility and relevance of a particular footprint calculator for an evaluation. Calculators vary in terms of the factors they cover, the assumptions and evidence they are based on, and the ability to provide more specific information. Many calculators have been developed in specific countries (especially the USA and UK) and might have limited validity if used in countries where the underlying assumptions don't hold. There is an ISO Standard 14067: 2018 for the quantification of the carbon footprint of products which sets out principles, requirements, and guidelines.
Reviewers: Thanks to Paul Jorgensen, Ian Goldman and Jen Noris for helpful feedback on the initial draft of this page.
Advice for choosing this method
- You might need to use a number of calculators to cover all potential environmental impacts
- Before deciding to use a footprint calculator, get some advice about whether this particular impact has the potential to be significant, and choose a calculator which covers these types of impact
- Choose a calculator which is transparent about its data sources and assumptions and where these are relevant to your location and situation
- Choose a calculator which provides significant opportunities to provide data to finetune the estimate – for example, the type of car driven or the type of electricity used.
Advice for using this method
- These calculators can be particularly important in providing evidence-informed estimates early on in implementation rather than waiting to track actual impacts. They can be used to compare the likely effects of different options and to estimate the estimated effect of changes in activities. In this way, they can be useful in informing change and reductions in negative environmental impacts.
- The calculators can be useful in raising awareness of likely impacts as long as they cover all relevant activities
- Make sure to also explore potential impacts that are not considered by the calculator – for example, pollution from waste disposal as well as impacts on resource usage.
Specific environmental footprint calculators
- Biodiversity Footprint, IRIS+, Global Impact Investing Network
Describes the organisation’s biodiversity footprint – a measure of ecosystem intactness – on the area directly or indirectly controlled by the organisation as of the end of the reporting period.
- Carbon Footprint, Conservation International
Develops an estimate of an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions produced through residential energy, personal travel, and dietary emissions. It does not include commercial or industrial energy or transportation.
- Carbon Footprint Calculator, US Environmental Protection Agency
Develops an estimate of a household’s carbon footprint based on home energy use, transportation and waste. The estimate is based on US averages or additional information provided by the user. This calculator has very transparent calculations, including access to a downloadable Excel file.
- Ecological Footprint Calculator, Global Footprint Network
The Ecological Footprint accounting measures the impact of human activities on the environment by comparing the demand for and supply of nature. It takes into account the land required for producing resources, absorbing waste, and supporting urban infrastructure, including crops, livestock, forests, and fishing grounds. On the supply side, it looks at the capacity of a city, state, or nation to produce resources and absorb waste through its ecological assets. The Ecological Footprint tracks the use of land, including cropland, grazing land, fishing grounds, built-up land, forest area, and carbon emissions.
- Personal water extended footprint calculator, UNESCO-IHE
Published by Water Footprint Network, this calculator develops an estimate of the water used to produce goods and services consumed by the individual.
- Nitrogen footprint, N-print
A tool that estimates an individual’s nitrogen footprint. The tool can also be scaled for use by communities, organisations, or countries. It is based on data about resource consumption in the following areas: Food choices; Housing; Transportation; Goods and services.
- Footprint calculators (Evaluation Toolbox)
This page provides an overview of ecological or carbon footprint calculators, including the Victorian Environment Protection Authority Ecological Footprint Calculator, widely used as an awareness-raising tool. The page explains how a footprint calculator can be used to calculate environmental impact, but discusses the limitations of using this method.
- Environmental footprint calculators have one big flaw we need to talk about
This article discusses the limitations of extrapolating from existing production systems to large-scale change. The authors argue that the design of environmental footprint calculators needs to be improved to provide consumers with more accurate information on the environmental impact of their food choices.
- 7 best carbon footprint calculators 2021
This article provides a side-by-side comparison of seven carbon footprint calculators, rated based on their comprehensiveness across four main categories of household consumption (transportation, housing, food and goods, services, and leisure). The author has tested and rated these calculators to help users understand which situations they are best suited to.
- ISO Standard 14067: 2018
This ISO standard provides the principles, requirements and guidelines for the quantification of the carbon footprint of products. It includes terms and definitions, principles – including relevance, completeness, consistency, coherence, accuracy, transparency and avoidance of double-counting – a methodology and information required. The standard is not open access and is available for purchase.
Other related resources
This initiative provides reporting standards on impacts for economy, environment and people which include a discussion of issues likely to be material for particular sectors – agriculture, aquaculture and fishing; oil and gas; and coal – and for particular issues including biodiversity; and the rights of Indigenous people.
- CEDRIG (Climate, Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction Integration Guidance)
CEDRIG is a tool developed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) which can be used to structure a process to identify whether existing and planned strategies, programs and projects are at risk from climate change, environmental degradation and natural hazards, as well as whether these interventions could further exacerbate GHG emissions, environmental degradation or risks of natural hazards. There are 3 different modules available: CEDRIG light - for a rapid assessment - about an hour - serves as an initial filter to to decide if a detailed assessment must be conducted (CEDRIG Strategic or CEDRIG Operational; CEDRIG Strategic - a participatory module taking taking approximately one day plus preparation time; CEDRIG Operational - a participatory module, taking approximately two to three days plus preparation time.
This page was developed through the Footprint Evaluation Initiative. Reviewers: Thanks to the Footprint Evaluation Community members, Paul Jorgensen, Ian Goldman and Jen Noris, for helpful feedback on the initial draft of this page.