We don’t have a backup planet.
That’s the simple message the nonprofit Global Footprint Network wants to send through its annual survey of humanity’s use of Earth’s resources.
And this year marks the group’s bleakest assessment yet.
On Aug. 1, “Earth Overshoot Day” will arrive, the point in the calendar year when humanity’s exploitation of biological resources exceeds the planet’s ability to regenerate those resources. That means that the rest of the year, all resources consumed will be unsustainable. In fact, to meet the current demand for resources, humanity would need 1.7 Earths.
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“As we mark Earth Overshoot Day, today may seem no different from yesterday — you still have the same food in your refrigerator,” said Global Footprint Network CEO Mathis Wackernagel in a press release. “But fires are raging in the Western United States. On the other side of the world, residents in Cape Town have had to slash water consumption in half since 2015. These are consequences of busting the ecological budget of our one and only planet.”
Earth Overshoot Day is determined by calculating humanity’s ecological footprint. The Global Footprint Network looks at how much food is being consumed, how many trees are being cut down, how much fossil fuel is being burned, how many buildings are being constructed, and many other factors to get an approximation of overall resource use.
The group then divides the estimated biological capacity of Earth by this number and multiplies the outcome by 365.
The resulting figure is the overshoot date, and it’s been arriving earlier most years for the past few decades. Last year, Earth Overshoot Day came Aug. 3; in 2000, the date was in October.
“Our economies are running a Ponzi scheme with our planet,” Wackernagel said. “We are using the Earth’s future resources to operate in the present and digging ourselves deeper into ecological debt. It’s time to end this ecological Ponzi scheme and leverage our creativity and ingenuity to create a prosperous future free of fossil fuels and planetary destruction.”
The organization’s analysis lines up with news in recent years of widespread ecological decline. Water shortages are becoming more common, animal and plant species are declining, and the oceans are acidifying.
Responsibility for Earth Overshoot Day is not evenly shared around the world. The most resource-intensive country is the United States, and if the entire world lived like the average US citizen, humanity would need five Earths to meet resource demand.
Australia is the second-most destructive country, followed South Korea, Russia, and Germany.
If India were setting the standard, however, the world would need just 0.7 planets to get by.
But this is where the overshoot analysis gets tricky. India has the world’s second-highest rate of extreme poverty — when a person has a severe lack of resources — so its ecological footprint is artificially low.
Eliminating extreme poverty is a primary objective of the United Nations’ Global Goals, but so is the responsible stewardship of the environment.
For India and other countries to eliminate poverty without adding to the ecological deficit, a sustainable model of development has to be pursued.
That’s ultimately the goal of Global Footprint Network, and there are signs that this is happening. The ecological footprint of people in high-income countries has declined by 12.9% since 2000.
There are lots of easy ways ordinary people can make Earth Overshoot Day a thing of the past, according to the group, including driving less, switching to plant-based diets, and having fewer children.
The most effective solution, however, would be for countries to invest in renewable sources of energy.