Big footprint on a small planet

A multifaceted approach to the ecological footprint

Participants learn about the ecological footprint, criticism of it’s individual calculation and deal with global inequality in the context of the climate crisis.

Working materials for download

Big foot on a small planet – background information for instructors
Big foot on a small planet_footprint test

Learning goals

The participants…

  • learn about the concept of the ecological footprint.

  • are encouraged to critically reflect on their personal footprint and the focus on individual consumption in sustainability debates

  • establish the connection between the ecological footprint and global justice issues. They reflect on their own needs and ideas of justice in this context.

  • recognize opportunities for action and approaches to make society and the economy more sustainable.



The facilitator familiarizes themselves with the concept of the ecological footprint. To that aim, they read the background text for facilitators, do the footprint test themselves and watch the video. The video is in English. Subtitles in German can be added and the speed can be adjusted if necessary (see Tips and notes for facilitators)

For the third point, the facilitator selects four to six countries on the Global Footprint Network website and notes their per capita footprint. It is suggested to choose countries with very different footprints.


1. (5 minutes) Input

In a short input, the facilitator first introduces the ecological footprint as a method of measuring human consumption of natural resources. This is based on the background text for facilitators (see downloadable material). It is useful to simply to clarify the basics of the measurement of the ecological footprint at the beginning. For the following part, it is important that the participants know the average global footprint (2022: 2.6 gha), the average footprint in Germany (2022: 4.5 gha) and the average available biocapacity (2022: 1.5 gha). These three figures should be visualized on the pinboard to keep them present for further work. Questions of understanding should be clarified immediately.

2. (35 minutes) Footprint calculation

The participants calculate their personal ecological footprint and critically examine the concept of the ecological footprint. They use the footprint test from Global footprint network. To do this, they scan the printed QR code with their mobile devices (see download material) and click through the areas of nutrition, living, mobility and consumption independently. After each step, they receive a final result which also shows their personal ecological footprint compared to the average footprint in different countries and compared to the global biocapacity. The collective footprint, i.e. the ecological consumption caused by the overall infrastructure in a country, independent of personal consumption, is also indicated.

Immediately afterwards, the facilitator explains that there is also criticism of the concept of the ecological footprint and shows a short video (excerpt from: DW „Why Big Oil loves to talk about your carbon footprint“ minute 0:00-03:14) about this. The video is in English, with German subtitles.

The results of the footprint test and the information from the video are then evaluated together. The following questions can be used for this:

  • How did you feel when answering the questions?

  • Are you surprised by your result?

  • Why do you think your personal footprint is so big or so small?

  • Which aspects of the footprint could you change and where do you actually have no influence? What possibilities do you see to reduce the collective footprint?

  • Can everyone in Germany and globally make the same adjustments or are there differences?

  • In the video, the protagonist asks himself: „Should I feel guilty about my ecological footprint? Or are these demands for personal sacrifice just a distraction from real solutions for the climate?“ What do you think about this question?

3. (10-15 minutes) Global Comparison

In the next step, the participants look at the global comparison of the ecological footprints of different countries.

To do this, a line is first marked on the floor with masking tape or chalk that offers enough space for all participants to position themselves on it without any problems. Based on the average global footprint (2018: 2.8 gha), the participants should now estimate the size of the footprints of different countries. One end of the line stands for „much larger than the average global footprint“, the other end for „much smaller than the average global footprint“. The range can vary from country to country (for the USA, it is more appropriate to set the poles at „more than four times as large“ and „as large as the average global footprint“).

The facilitator names a country and the participants line up on the marked line according to their estimations. After the participants have positioned themselves, they can justify their estimation before the actual size of the countries‘ footprints is resolved. It is suggested to make line-ups for a maximum of six countries.

4. (10-15 minutes) Evaluation

The following questions can be used for the evaluation:

  • What does a look at the ecological footprint help us to do? What information can it give us? What information can’t it give us?

  • What is the difference between the personal footprint and the national footprint? Which do you think is more meaningful?

  • Which countries have a particularly large footprint? How can this be explained?

  • Do you see a connection between the level of material wealth and the size of the Footprint?

  • The national footprint says nothing about which population groups in a country contribute to the footprint and to what extent. What differences do you think there are?

  • Where do you see connections between the ecological footprint and economic growth?

  • What are the possible consequences for our economy if we want to live within the Earth’s limits in the future?

5. (20-30 minutes)

At the end of this unit, the participants can collect their own ideas and recommendations for reducing the ecological footprint in Germany. The focus should not be on individual consumer choices, but on (civil) society ideas and political measures that contribute to reducing the ecological footprint of the entire population. To this end, small groups are formed to make a bullet point list of their recommendations on posters and then present them to the large group.


The method is very extensive and takes a long time to complete. If there is not enough time during an educational session, the method can be shortened by leaving out individual parts of it.

For example, the focus can be placed either on the personal footprint and the criticism of it (1. and 2.), or on the country comparison and the major differences between countries of the Global North and countries of the Global South (1. and 3.). If all participants have only recently taken the footprint test, 2. can be skipped. The collection of ideas for reducing the footprint (4.) can be skipped in this method if another solution- or action-oriented method is used, e.g. „Building another world“, „Who can change things?“.

Digital version

The method can also be used in digital format with the following adjustments:

  • 1. and 2. can be applied as described above. The video can be shown via „share screen“, or the participants receive the link via the chat and watch the video individually.
  • 3. global comparison of ecological footprints of different countries: The participants are divided into small groups of 3-4 people and given access to the Footprint Network website: The facilitator can also briefly show the page via „Share screen“. The participants are given the task of finding two countries as a group whose Footprint is below the sustainable average of biocapacity (as of 2024: 1.6 gha), two countries that are around the average, and two countries that are significantly above it. Back in the large group, the groups each present the countries they have found. The group then goes into a joint evaluation.
  • 4. ideas for reducing the ecological footprint: At the end of the unit, the participants can brainstorm their ideas for reducing the footprint in Germany in an online word cloud tool. To do this, the facilitator shares the appropriate link and the participants type all their ideas into the tool. The participants then see everyone’s ideas in a word cloud and can discuss them briefly.

Tips and notes for facilitators

Video instructions:

The video is in English. To add subtitles, click on the „Settings“ icon → Subtitles → Automatically translate → choose language. Click on the „Subtitles“ icon to show the subtitles. The relevant section for the method is from minute 0:00 to minute 3:14.

The video is also very fast. Depending on the target group, it may be a good idea to reduce the playback speed to 0.75. To do this, click on the symbol for „Settings“ → Playback speed → 0.75.

The footprint is a good way to visualize the consumption of ecological resources and thus make it useful for educational work. At the same time, the footprint is a very complex method of measurement. It is therefore advisable for facilitators to deal with the topic in more detail and to read the background text (see downloadable material) for facilitators in depth.

With this method, it is particularly important to ensure that the participants also critically examine the personal footprint and its history. When calculating the personal footprint, it should be ensured that there are no extreme comparative situations between participants or that individual participants are put on display. The method requires an awareness of the fact that individually sustainable behavior is often only possible with privileges. For example, taking the train is usually more expensive than flying. Organic and regional food from direct production is often more expensive than conventional food from the supermarket. Similarly, the question of reducing air travel is a completely different one for people whose family lives on another continent. At the same time, the method only partially reveals that the population group most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions is rich people. Poor and structurally discriminated people contribute far less to the average ecological footprint of a country. The focus on individual consumer behavior in the sustainability debate can therefore reproduce classist discrimination (= devaluation and exclusion based on social background or class). It is therefore important to raise awareness of the dimension of social inequality among the participants, particularly in the evaluation.

Greater individual awareness of sustainable consumption makes sense, but is by no means enough to really reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a large scale. The biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Germany are the energy sector, industry and transport. Individuals can only have a very limited influence on these sectors. When it comes to ways to reduce the footprint, it is therefore important that the participants do not just stick to individual options for action as „sustainable consumption“, but also talk about what needs to be done at a political and societal level to reduce emissions and tackle the climate crisis and global inequality.

Possibilities for further work

  • In-depth study of structural causes (z.B. Zeitstrahl, Autobahn im Kopf, Kolonialismus und Klimakrise)
  • Alternatives and possible courses of action (z.B. Wo geht’s hier weiter?, Who can make change?)