Today is Earth Overshoot Day, the date on which humanity has used up all the natural resources the Earth can regenerate within a year. Despite urgent calls to avoid a return to our destructive pre-pandemic status quo, we are still hurtling in the wrong direction. It is high time for those in power to confront the uncomfortable truth, explains Population Matters’ Senior Communications Officer, Olivia Nater.
A short-lived reprieve
Earth Overshoot Day, calculated by the Global Footprint Network, is a stark annual reminder of how our relationship with nature is fundamentally broken. This year it falls on 29 July and since the first Overshoot Day on 30 December 1970, the date has fallen ever earlier pretty consistently, reflecting our growing population and consumption levels.
Last year was an outlier, however. With the global-scale decrease in human activity due to COVID-19 offering a temporary reprieve for nature, Overshoot Day was on 22 August 2020 – almost a month later compared to 2019, meaning we briefly, and inadvertently, moved a little closer to living within our planetary boundaries.
Despite all the calls from the environmental movement to seize this key opportunity to “build back better” we have sadly, yet predictably, gone back to moving further into the red. This is particularly ironic when you consider that the way we treat nature is the reason we ended up with such a disastrous pandemic in the first place.
With COVID-19 still rampaging around the world, not everything has returned to ‘business-as-usual’. According to the Global Footprint Network, CO2 emissions from air travel and road transport are expected to remain below 2019 levels. Energy-related CO2 emissions, however, are projected to grow this year due to governments’ efforts to boost hard-hit economies.
The hard truth
Another way of thinking of Overshoot Day is in terms of how many Planet Earths we would need if we wanted to keep using resources at the current rate without destroying nature. The answer is 1.7 – we essentially need two planets to sustain humanity in its current state. If we continue on our current trajectory, we would need three planets by 2050.
Despite some megalomaniac tech billionaires’ obsession with the idea of colonising new planets, there is no other capable of supporting Terrans (Earth’s inhabitants) within any reasonable distance of our solar system, if at all.
The only true – yet unpalatable to our growth-obsessed society – solution is to cut back. When we entered overshoot in 1970, our population was less than half as big as it is today, and average consumption levels were significantly lower. Meeting the crucial Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty will mean consumption in large parts of the world needs to increase. Returning to sustainability therefore requires ending and reversing population growth as soon as possible, and dramatically changing the way we live in overconsuming wealthy nations. The latter includes redesigning cities and downsizing homes, reducing meat and energy consumption, flying and driving less, and buying less stuff. Industry needs to play its part too, by decarbonising, reducing pollutants and improving efficiency.
Giving up things we take for granted now is not popular, and politicians are therefore loath to confront the necessary changes. The population issue is unfortunately also widely avoided, despite the available positive and highly effective solutions that people actually want and that benefit everyone, especially the empowerment of women and girls (also a Sustainable Development Goal). When women are free to use contraception and pursue quality education and a life of their choosing, they have fewer children. Despite the tremendous knock-on benefits of advancing women’s rights, this crucial step is horribly neglected and underfunded. According to the UN, only 16% of the funding needed to end the worst gender inequalities – including child marriage, gender-based violence and the unmet need for family planning – has been pledged.
The missing amount is $222 billion USD, which sounds like a lot, but is less than a sixth of annual global military spending and close to Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos’ net worth (who just spent $5.5 billion on a casual 4-minute space flight).
It’s time for the people in power to step up and help make Earth Overshoot Day history. There is no Plan(et) B.