Increasing affluence is often postulated as a main driver for the human footprint on biologically productive areas, identified among the main causes of biodiversity loss, but causal relationships are obscured by international trade. Here, we trace the use of land and ocean area through international supply chains to final consumption, modeling agricultural, food, and forestry products on a high level of resolution while also including the land requirements of manufactured goods and services. In 2004, high-income countries required more biologically productive land per capita than low-income countries, but this connection could only be identified when land used to produce internationally traded products was taken into account, because higher-income countries tend to displace a larger fraction of land use. The equivalent land and ocean area footprint of nations increased by a third for each doubling of income, with all variables analyzed on a per capita basis. This increase came largely from imports, which increased proportionally to income. Export depended mostly on the capacity of countries to produce useful biomass, the biocapacity. Our analysis clearly shows that countries with a high biocapacity per capita tend to spare more land for nature. Biocapacity per capita can be increased through more intensive production or by reducing population density. The net displacement of land use from high-income to low-income countries amounted to 6% of the global land demand, even though high-income countries had more land available per capita than low-income countries. In particular, Europe and Japan placed high pressure on ecosystems in lower-income countries.

Jan Weinzettel, Edgar G. Hertwich, Glen P. Peters, Kjartan Steen-Olsen, Alessandro Galli