Carbon Footprint, Climate Action

August, 2nd 2017 – Earth Overshoot Day: Tilting the ecological debt balance through individual commitment and action

This article is written by Rachel Wu & Sofia Kabbej.

Image 1 (Overshoot Day)

From birthdays to historical milestones, international observances to the occasional solar eclipse, one can count on social media and globally integrated information feeds for the quipping reminder and comprehensive commemorative signposts. Earth Overshoot Day, which lands on the 2nd of August this year, might come to pass with a more muted buzz than that which might follow a total solar eclipse, but its collective significance is no less planetary and the date calls for its very own repertoire of action.

In effect, Overshoot Day marks a critical threshold in the demand-supply equilibrium between human resource consumption and the global ecosystem’s natural productivity — to put it another way, humanity would have expended more renewable resources than what the planet can regenerate in an entire year, just two-thirds across its orbit around the Sun.

At the same time, human activity is putting a strain on the regulative capacity of natural carbon sinks, and the overrunning of this core ecological service is a main contributing factor to increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and climate change as a whole. Since the early 1970s, where for the first time in human history our economies, cities and populations began to run on a global ecological overshoot, the dates have been consistently brought forward, and it is estimated in 2017 that we humans will have used up 1.7 times of Earth’s bio-capacity by the end of the year.

Image 2 (Overshoot Day)

Originally conceived by Andrew Simms during his time at the UK think tank New Economics Foundation, today it is the Global Footprint Network (GFN), an international research organization, that develops the methodological framework and databases that help compute Earth Overshoot Day. The formula used for calculating the estimated date from which humanity would be operating over budget makes use of 2 pre-existing metrics:

  1. Global bio-capacity — Earth’s biological productivity expressed in global hectares, the latter being defined by the GFN as “hectares of biologically productive land and sea area with world average productivity”, and
  2. The global Ecological Footprint, which measures the amount of biologically productive area needed to produce the resources the world population consumes and absorb the waste it generates.

The two indicators are derived annually from datasets called the National Footprint Accounts (2017 edition), which are based on UN statistics. While the computed date of Overshoot Day is only an estimate, the overall trend of the date progression points unequivocally towards the fact that mankind is faced with a compounding ecological liability.

Image 3 (Overshoot Day)

Needless to say, this persistent complacency with the level of ecological deficit comes at a hefty price — as the GFN puts it, the “interest” we incur on the increasing ecological debt is being paid off with devastating costs. Among the many adverse and potentially irreversible impacts of ecological overspending, we can cite accelerating species extinction, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, diminishing cropland productivity and the collapse of fisheries.

Image 4 (Overshoot Day)

How can we transform ecological liability into sustainable accountability? Gaining 5 days on the billing agenda each year is all it takes to bring human communities back into harmony with the biosphere by mid-century — and some of the most powerful sustainability levers can be wielded at the individual level, through everyday commitment and action. This year’s Overshoot Day campaign, urging citizens worldwide to #movethedate through individual pledges, highlights the role that each and everyone of us can play in shoring up the Earth’s budget, all while contributing to meet the objectives of several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For instance, in a perspective that links the individual pledge to reduce car dependency and SDG 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities, the GFN estimates that Earth Overshoot Day would move back 10 days if 50% of driving in cities worldwide was replaced by walking, biking, and public transit.

Considering that food demand alone accounts for 28% of the global Ecological Footprint (figures by GFN), reflecting on our daily food habits is one of the key steps we can take towards reversing environmental overshoot. The call to action resounds at each tier of the decision chain leading from food sourcing choices to managing one’s food waste. Individual commitment can take many forms depending on material context and personal choice, such as buying from local producers, integrating more vegetarian options into one’s diet, and cutting down the purchase of resource-intensive, highly-processed foods… Rewiring our reflexes when it comes to food waste can potentially have a pivotal impact on reducing the environmental debt: if humans were to collectively slash food waste by half, we stand to move Overshoot Day by 11 days. Translating this global onus into daily habits, tackling food waste comes down to simple actions such as rethinking the filtering of fresh produce based on cosmetic criteria, repurposing leftover scraps, and taking stock of concomitant food packaging waste, to name but a few.

The arrival of Earth Overshoot Day on the 2nd of August will most likely be a nondescript event — its many ramifications, however, only threaten to become increasingly visible and calamitous if collective action continues to stall. One personal commitment at a time, we can put an end to the dangerous drawing down of the planet’s bio-capacity and restore a world where both humanity and the ecosystem thrive side-by-side.


About the author : Rachel Wu is a final year undergraduate student in political studies. A member of the NegoTracking team, she hopes to combine her interest in human rights issues and sustainability by playing an active part in the think-tank’s advocacy projects.

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