Earth Overshoot Day occurred yesterday – Monday, July 29 – the earliest to date, according to Global Footprint Network (GFN), a group that uses data from the United Nations to calculate when humanity’s demand for Earth’s resources exceeds what the planet can replenish in a calendar year.
In 1970, that day fell on December 29. Two decades ago, it was September 29. Now, it is July 29. If we continue at our current rate, it will take 1.75 Earths to sustain humanity this year.
"We have only got one Earth – this is the ultimately defining context for human existence. We can’t use 1.75 without destructive consequences," said Mathis Wackernagel, founder of GFN in a statement.
A global account of nature’s resource budget and human demand is a difficult task based only on available data, which doesn’t account for all of the destruction that happens to the planet. The team’s data crunching and visualizations have been praised by some, while others have noted that they may be underestimations. Michael Shellenberger in Forbes contends Overshoot Day is poor science, saying his team found that five of the six main measures used in the Ecological Footprint "were either in balance or surplus. The only thing out-of-balance were humankind's carbon emissions." The paper is published in PLOS ONE.
As always, it should be taken with a grain of salt as the task at hand is complex, with many moving factors woven into the web of humanity's supply and demand of Earth's resources.
"Overshoot is measured by comparing demand with availability. On the supply side, a country or region’s biocapacity is the measure of its biologically productive land and sea area, including forest lands, grazing lands, cropland, fishing grounds, and built-up land," the team note in a business case for one-planet prosperity.
"On the demand side, the Ecological Footprint measures a population’s demand for plant-based food and fiber products, livestock and fish products, timber and other forest products, space for urban infrastructure, and forest to absorb carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels."
Currently, they pin the largest contributor to humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning. By country, the United States receives the not-so-notable top podium as most resource-demanding, followed by Australia, Russia, and Germany. Population size, of course, plays a role in the ranking here.
If taken simply by countries reaching their own Overshoot Days, Qatar and Luxembourg would have reached their day two months into the year on February 11 and February 16, respectively. On the other hand, a handful of countries make it to December, including Indonesia (December 18), Ecuador (December 14), Iraq (December 7), Nicaragua (December 5), and Cuba (December 1).
Life on a spinning world that circles the Sun is a delicate balance. There are actions we can take now to push back the date, according to the team. For example, if 50 percent of meat consumption was swapped for a plant-based diet, the date would slide back 15 days. If we shrunk our carbon footprint by 50 percent, the date would fall back 93 days. If we move Overshoot Day back by five days each year going forward, we could reach a planet equilibrium by 2050.
The team propose further solutions here within five categories: cities, energy, food, planet, and population. To get a more thorough run down of how they reached their figures by country, check out the accounting data. The GFN have also provided a personal ecological footprint calculator to give a rough estimate of one’s own impact on the world. To read the counter-argument, check out Shellenberger's paper.
"Ultimately, human activity will be brought in balance with Earth’s ecological resources," said Wackernagel. "The question is whether we choose to get there by disaster or by design – one-planet misery or one-planet prosperity."