On Earth Overshoot Day, an ecological budget 42 percent overdrawn

ShutterstockOksana Boguslavska

Today, Aug. 2, is Earth Overshoot Day, the date when humanity’s annual demand on nature exceeds what Earth can regenerate over the entire year, according to Global Footprint Network, the research institute specialized in natural resource accounting that has developed the Ecological Footprint metric.

Human activity currently consumes 1.71 times more renewable natural resources and ecological services than Earth can renew, depleting our natural capital, stated the organization (to which I provide communications and outreach support).

Consuming natural resources 71 percent faster than what Earth can regenerate means that only 58 percent of our spending is from the ecological income from the Earth, hence we find ourselves 42 percent in the red.

Deforestation, drought, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere all can be identified as costs of that global ecological overspending.

Humanity’s resource security is at stake. Businesses stand on the front line of this challenge of the century, not only because of their dependence on ecological resources but also because they have a major role to play in creating an economy that can operate within the ecological budget of our planet.

"If indeed we depend on the material world, and if indeed we are depleting our natural capital while the social, human and built-infrastructure capital are increasing — all of which depend on natural capital to operate — the ultimate outcome sadly becomes all too clear," said Mathis Wackernagel, founder and CEO of Global Footprint Network. "Hence, the successful enterprises of the future will be those whose business model is aligned with moving humanity out of our ecological deficit."

According to Global Footprint Network, pushing the date of Earth Overshoot Day back by 4.5 days per year would bring humanity back within the resource budget of this one Earth by 2050.

Understanding footprints

The Ecological Footprint measures the productive areas that a given population demands from nature to satisfy its consumption, including plant-based food and fiber products, livestock and fish products, timber and other forest products, land for urban infrastructure and space to absorb its waste, especially carbon emissions from fossil fuels. It tracks the demand on five categories of productive surface areas: cropland; grazing land; fishing grounds; built-up land; and forest area.

Global Footprint Network
Throughout the years, the date of Earth Overshoot Day tracks that of the Ecological Footprint. The recent slowdown, as seen in this graphic, can be attributed to several factors, including the slowdown in carbon emissions due to increasing renewable energy and the emerging decoupling trend (where GDP growth is inverse to Ecological Footprint impact) observed in countries such as Australia, the U.S. and Uruguay.

Currently, the need for carbon sequestration to avoid buildup in the atmosphere is humanity’s largest demand on our planet. The carbon footprint makes up 60 percent of humanity’s Ecological Footprint.

On the supply side, Global Footprint Network tracks resource capacity (including cropland, grazing land, forest land, fishing grounds and built-up land) of more than 200 countries and regions from 1961 to the present. These resource accounts draw primarily on United Nations data sets. The Ecological Footprint also can be scaled for cities and even individuals with an online calculator.

Overcoming overshoot

Urban design, energy, food and demographic trends are the four key factors driving a country’s use of ecological resources. As such, they provide high-leverage opportunities to end overshoot.

In this context, companies focused on increasing renewable energy, deploying smart-grid capacity, improving energy-efficiency or enabling zero-carbon housing (including climate neutral cement production and insulation, etc.) are best positioned for success in the long haul.

"It is not just about how much companies use," stressed Wackernagel. "Rather, it is about whether their products and services are contributing to humanity getting closer to prosperity within the ecological means of one planet."

Through the Paris Climate Accord, governments of the world have agreed to a goal that requires decreasing carbon emissions to zero before 2050. This reduction needs to be achieved without increasing the burden on the other components of the Ecological Footprint: cropland; grazing land; fishing grounds; forests; and built-up land. Global Footprint Network calculated that reducing the carbon component of humanity’s Ecological Footprint by 50 percent would move Earth Overshoot Day back by 89 days, or about three months.

Building on an assessment of solutions by Project Drawdown, Global Footprint Network calculated how many days each solution can push Earth Overshoot Day back on the calendar.

Food as a major lever

For example, cutting food waste could move Earth Overshoot Day back seven days by 2050. Food offers many opportunities because it makes up 26 percent of the global footprint. Beyond reducing food waste, we also can conserve soil fertility and promote more resource-efficient plant-based diets.

Just this year, China set a goal to reduce meat consumption 50 percent by 2030. This alone could push Earth Overshoot Day back 1.5 days.

"It is interesting to note that China, should it do good on its commitment to reduce meat consumption, will be leading by example in its innovative attempt to restore ecological balance," said Wackernagel. "Obviously, one can only hope that all governments, especially in democratic, high-income countries, follow in its footsteps and deploy their own innovative policies that are appropriate for their circumstances.

"Indeed, we need economic policies and mechanisms to be aligned with the emerging recognition of planetary boundaries if we’re serious about creating a sustainable world."

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