Updated: Jul 27, 2020
The ecological crisis is not climate change or loss of biodiversity. It is overshoot.
Earth Overshoot Day is calculated by Global Footprint Network, an international research organisation that observes humanity's use of natural materials, as well as the environmental damage we cause. The result is the calendar date on which humanity's resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year. For the rest of the year we are living on the resources of future generations, depleting the stock of natural capital and accumulating more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
In 2000, Earth Overshoot Day fell in late September. Last year humanity started stealing on the first day of August, the earliest it has ever been. The same calculation can be done for individual countries. This year, the Overshoot Day for the U.K. was May 17 – each year, we start our depredation before summer begins. Even before this shocking date, Australia, Canada, USA, Russia, all the Nordic countries (with the exception of Iceland), the Benelux countries, and more, were already in the red and bleeding out.
Living outside our planetary boundaries is stealing from our children (because you don’t “borrow” something you can’t return). Plenty of solutions exist to push back this date, in the four key areas of energy, food, population and cities. Our actions can turn back the clock:
Energy – Carbon emissions from activities such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation make up 60% of the global ecological footprint. Reducing our carbon footprint to alleviate climate change will also reduce our ecological overshoot. If we reduce the carbon component in the ecological footprint by 50%, we would push back the Overshoot Day by 93 days, or three months.
Food – Demand for food makes up 26% of the global ecological footprint. However, the two major issues in addressing food sufficiency for everyone are inefficiencies in our food production and food waste. About one third of all the food produced in the world for human consumption, equivalent to 1.3 billion tonnes every year, gets lost or wasted. If we reduced the food we waste by 50%, we would push back the Overshoot Day by 11 days.
Population – Family size is a significant driver of long-term carbon emissions and resource demand. If more people invested in smaller families, and every second family has on average one child less, there would be one billion fewer of us in the world than the 9.7 billion forecast by 2050, and four billion fewer by the end of the century. If every other family in the world had one less child, we would push back Overshoot Day by 30 days by 2050.
Cities – Around three-quarters of the total population will live in urban areas by 2050. How we choose to live in these urban environments will determine whether or not the Overshoot Day will be pushed back at all. In addition to our empowering ourselves with renewable energy and being infinitely more resourceful in what we consume and reuse, it matters how we choose to move around, as personal transportation makes up 14% of the global ecological footprint. City planning plays a major role in shaping our need for cars; we play a major role in switching from cars wherever possible. If we reduced driving by 50%, and replaced one-third of the car miles by public transport and two-thirds by biking and walking, we would push back the Overshoot Day by 12 days.
Unfortunately, pushing back the Overshoot Day and regenerating our ecological resources are two very different things. The distinction between a flow and a stock is very significant. Our ecological footprint is a flow – it measures how much time it takes before we use up our entire life-supporting natural capital for the year. The underlying natural capital is a stock of natural resources that is used up to generate that flow. If the flow is steady and the Overshoot Day does not move from one year to the next, the underlying stock of ecological assets is decreasing. Even if we push back the date to later in the year, the underlying stock of ecological assets is still decreasing. The stock of natural capital will only stop decreasing when Earth Overshoot Day is on December 31. On that date, it will be a Happy New Year for everyone.
(Data sourced from Global Footprint Network.)