Back in 1970, the earth’s biocapacity was more than enough to meet annual human demand for resources. But in the half century since, we have steadily outgrown our single planet. Humanity now consumes around 60% more than Earth can yield in a year, meaning we need 1.6 planets to sustain us.
In 2019, we had already spent our resource budget for the year by July 31, the earliest Earth Overshoot Day ever recorded by the Global Footprint Network, which has been calculating global and national ecological impacts for near three decades. In that time, humanity has overshot its biocapacity — defined as an “ecosystems’ capacity to produce biological materials used by people and to absorb waste material generated by humans” — by a few more days each year.
But due to the global coronavirus lockdown, 2020 has bucked the trend. This year, Earth Overshoot Day has moved back by more than three weeks to August 22.
Projections point to almost 15% reductions in CO2 emissions (around 60% of the total footprint) in 2020 as a result of the pandemic-related slowdown in fossil fuel use across the transport, power, industry, aviation and residential sectors. The global Earth Overshoot calculation, which uses data from the likes of the International Energy Agency, also includes forest production, which dipped nearly 9%, and our food footprint, which was steady.
One Planet Misery or Prosperity?
According to Mathis Wackernagel, founder and president of the Global Footprint Network, this year’s contraction is welcomed. But he says the fact that it is accidental means it is not sustainable.
“The tragedy of this year is that the reduction of carbon emissions is not based on a better infrastructure such as better electricity grids or more compact cities,” he told DW. “We need to move the date by design, not by disaster.”
To meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) targets to limit warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celcius, the current decline in the emissions curve would have to continue at the same rate for the next decade, Wackernagel points out. At present, however, this is being achieved through economic and social suffering.
“Not doing anything, being stuck at home. That’s not the kind of transformation we need. It’s not lasting,” Wackernagel said.
The goal must be to “systemically adjust to the physical budget we have available,” added the Swiss-born Global Footprint Network founder and 2018 World Sustainability Award winner. “Do you want one planet misery or one planet prosperity?”
Wackernagel argues that the coronavirus is itself a reflection of ecological stress. “These pressures that we see like pandemics, like famine, like climate change, like biodiversity loss, they’re all manifestations of an ecological imbalance,” he said.
Lowering Emissions for the Benefit of All
A key side effect of disaster-driven emission reductions is the fact that “the pain is going to be unevenly distributed,” according Wackernagel. Marginalised groups, especially people of color, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s “huge economic impacts,” said Sarah George, a senior reporter with Edie, a UK media company that promotes sustainable business practices.
Edie conducted its first Earth Overshoot webinar in 2019, with the aim of educating organizations to reduce their resource footprint through business models that are sustainable for everyone in the long-term.
George says this year’s webinar on August 22 will also address the misnomer spread by some climate skeptics that a green, low-consumption future is only possible under the deprivations of a lockdown.
“They have used the situation to say that lockdown is ‘what green campaigners want,’ and that we cannot enjoy things like international travel, economic growth, etc. in a green future,” George told DW.
But post-lockdown, George says the goal is to create a one planet model through which businesses can couple “better economic and social outcomes” with “lower emissions and air pollution.”