Earth’s 2019 resources ‘budget’ already used

Parched: Global water demand is projected to increase as much as 55% by 2050.

Will it take a disaster to teach us to live within our means? As of today, humans have consumed more resources than Planet Earth can regenerate in a year — a worse record than last year.

It took just 209 days. By yesterday, the human race had devoured its way through all the food, fuel, water, land and timber that Earth can produce in a year.

From now until December, all the resources we continue to use will be unsustainable.

According to an annual study, 29 July marks “Earth Overshoot Day” — the day when we’ve used up nature’s resource budget for the year.

The study warns that we would need the equivalent of 1.75 Earths — that’s almost another planet on top of our own — to maintain our current levels of consumption. Researchers base the date on deforestation, intensive farming, fossil-fuel burning, mining and over-fishing. All of these processes are putting so much pressure on the planet that it can’t replenish itself quickly enough to keep up with our demands.

A year ago, The Day asked “How can we push back Earth Overshoot Day?” At the time, important steps included cutting emissions and switching to a vegetarian diet. Whilst these remain valid, more urgent responses have become necessary. Ideally, humans would need a whole other planet to keep up with our resource consumption — but that seems impossible considering we haven’t set foot on another planet since the last mission to the Moon in 1972.

Alarmingly, in 2019, we have arrived at Earth Overshoot Day three days earlier than we did last year. Before the 1970s, we lived within the boundaries of what our planet could produce. In fact, in 1961, we only used three-quarters of our annual resources! But since then, our consumption has spiralled out of control.

To replenish the resources humans use each year, we need to push Earth Overshoot Day back five days earlier, every year for the next 30 years. This would mean that the most developed countries — the biggest consumers — must alter their lifestyles. For example, cutting food waste by half across the world would move Earth Overshoot Day back by 10 days.

It may seem startling that after a year of climate crisis protests and international promises of bold carbon emission targets, we’re actaully going through the planet’s resources faster than ever before. Are we listening to the warnings? Have we made any progress? Will we use the Earth’s resources more quickly next year?

“Ultimately, human activity will be brought in balance with Earth’s ecological resources,” says Mathis Wackernagel. “The question is whether we choose to get there by disaster or by design — one-planet misery or one-planet prosperity.”

D-Day?

It’ll take a disaster, many think. Our ecological debt is too high and warnings are pointless — every week, there is another report and another temperature record is broken. Governments and people make empty promises and fail to make unrealistic targets. Only after disaster, will Earth’s resources return to balance — but at the cost of many lives.

Too pessimistic! We can get there by design, others say. We still have time to reduce our demands on Earth’s resources. Governments are acting and people are protesting in the streets — change is coming! The biggest impact will come from richer nations enforcing carbon-reducing legislation, while developing nations grow in sustainable ways.

You Decide

  1. Will humans ever be able to live within their means?
  2. How likely is it that Earth Overshoot Day can be reversed next year, by five days?

Activities

  1. Calculate your own Ecological Footprint by following the first link under Become An Expert. Is it higher or lower than you expected? Why do you think your score is as high or low as it is?
  2. Research resource consumption in the 1960s. How did people under-consume? What have been the biggest changes in lifestyles since then? Are you prepared to give up modern habits, such as frequent flying, to save our planet?

Some People Say...

“We can no longer save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change, and it has to start today.”

Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old climate activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Yesterday (29 July) was the earliest that Earth Overshoot Day has ever occurred. However, there have been some occasions when the date was moved back. For example, the fall in consumption that followed the financial crisis of 2007-08 saw it pushed back by five days. Qatar is currently the nation with the highest Ecological Footprint. Its citizens consume 9.2 times Earth’s biocapacity.
What do we not know?
How future demographic and economic changes will impact mankind’s ecological footprint. The United Nations predicts that the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, with Africa being the fastest growing region.

Word Watch

Devoured
To eat hungrily. In this case, we are hungrily using up Earth’s natural resources, which is called having an ecological footprint. For example, each time we fly or drive, our ecological footprint grows bigger because of the amount of land needed to make up for the resources we have consumed by flying or driving. Individuals and countries have ecological footprints.
Study
Conducted by Global Footprint Network every year since 1970.
Nature’s resource budget
The amount of natural resources (such as, water, soil, clean air) that Earth’s ecosystem can regenerate in a year. Currently, we are using 1.75 times more than the budget, which means that we are cutting more trees down than regrowing them.
Replenish
To fill up again, to recharge, to reload.
Carbon emission targets
In June 2019, the UK government committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. That means emissions from homes, transport, farming and industry will have to be avoided completely or — in the most difficult examples — offset by planting trees or sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Mathis Wackernagel
Swiss-born sustainability advocate, and chief executive and co-founder of Global Footprint Network.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.