Every year – on a date that gets earlier and earlier due to the expanding ecological impact of humanity – the Global Footprint Network (GFN) commemorates Earth Overshoot Day to shed light on the planet’s dwindling resources.
In 2019, the partner organisation of British think-tank New Economics Foundation chose July 29 as the illustrative day by which total resource consumption for the calendar year has already surpassed the Earth’s capacity to regenerate itself.
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When the international research group first began calculating the day in 1970, annual yearly consumption by humans did not exceed nature’s ability to replenish the environment – a threshold known as biocapacity.
To advance the science of sustainability, the network hopes that publishing a measure of natural resource mismanagement will help to reverse increasingly negative statistics.
In the five decades that the GFN has tracked figures, the world population has more than doubled, and now some 60 percent of our collective ecological toll is from carbon.
Put another way, 1.75 planet Earths would be necessary to support humanity’s demand on the globe’s ecosystems.
“We have only got one Earth – this is the ultimately defining context for human existence,” says GFN founder Mathis Wackernagel. “We can’t use 1.75 without destructive consequences.”
Wackernagel’s group says that overshoot happens because humans are depleting natural capital due to deforestation, soil erosion, declining biodiversity and the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
He says that overshoot can only be temporary, arguing that humanity’s ecological budget will eventually be forced to operate within the Earth’s means. According to Wackernagel, balance will be restored, whether by disaster or by design.
“Companies and countries that understand and manage the reality of operating in a one-planet context are in a far better position to navigate the challenges of the 21st century,” Wackernagel notes in his recent book, Ecological Footprint: Managing Our Biocapacity Budget.
“Avoiding ecological bankruptcy requires rigorous resource accounting – a challenging task, but doable with the right tools,” Wackernagel adds, referring to the economic idea of environmental “deficit spending”.
His organisation estimates that pushing Earth Overshoot Day forward by five days each year could re-establish “one-planet compatibility” by 2050. Drastic action could be needed to prevent widespread species loss, severe climate emergency, unstable commodities prices and political unrest.
Current trends can be turned around through technological innovation and economic foresight. Solutions consist of more efficient urban planning, the transition to renewable energy, increased local food production, habitat preservation, and better family planning.
“With Earth Overshoot Day occurring ever-earlier in the year – and a big part of it being the growing amounts of CO2 emissions – the importance of decisive action is becoming ever more evident,” says Maria Carolina Schmidt Zaldivar, Chile’s minister of the environment and chairperson of the United Nations’ COP25 climate conference, scheduled to take place in December in Santiago.