Updated: Sep 25
On Saturday the 22nd of August, humanity consumed the resources that the Earth can offer for a year, and will therefore live on credit. This "overshoot day" is on the wane this year, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, not due to systemic change.
TLDR: The covid-19 epidemic and the containment of populations have set back Earth Overshoot Day by 3 weeks. However, systemic changes are needed to sustain this improvement in the coming years.
What is this day?
The Overshoot Day has been calculated since 2003 by the American NGO Global Footprint Network, and aims to illustrate the ever faster consumption of a growing human population on a limited planet. To put it in graphic terms, 1.6 Earths would be needed this year to sustainably provide for the world's population.
The date is calculated by cross-referencing the ecological footprint of human activities (the land and sea surface area needed to produce the resources consumed and to absorb the population's waste) and the Earth's bio-capacity (the capacity of ecosystems to regenerate and absorb the waste produced by mankind, including CO2 sequestration).
The Global Fooprint Network released a map showing the gap in the deadline between different countries:
Pandemic setback of three weeks
The overshoot occurs when human pressure exceeds the regeneration capacities of natural ecosystems and, according to the NGO, has been increasing for the last 50 years. Last year it fell on 29 July. 2020, but this year, the Global Footprint Network has estimated that the measures taken to deal with the Covid-19 health crisis and their effects (containment, economic slowdown, etc.) have pushed back the date by three weeks, with a reduction in the global carbon footprint of 14.5% linked to a drop in fossil fuel consumption in several sectors: transport, industry, electricity, residential, etc.
There is nothing to be happy about because it comes with suffering. Instead of happening on purpose, it happened by disaster.
In 2020, humanity will live four months on credit
From August 22nd, we will be living on credit on natural resources. That's four months in the red for humanity! The three-week setback on the overtaking is to be taken with caution. It is ephemeral. The effect of an exceptional health crisis has forced the slowing down of an unsustainable model based on fossil fuels and the withdrawal of natural resources out of control.
As stimulus packages are being prepared around the world, governments have the opportunity to turn the corner and change the model through green stimulus packages that will benefit transition and sustainable jobs.
Systemic changes needed
The behaviours that the day of the overshoot brings into question and their consequences are in fact widely documented by scientists, from climate disruption to the catastrophic disappearance of species and ecosystems. And the latest reports by UN experts clearly identify the directions to be followed: reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, a move away from fossil fuels, drastic changes in the food production model, etc.
To meet the 2015 Paris agreement targets and keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and if possible 1.5°C, greenhouse gas emissions would have to fall by 7.6% annually, according to the UN.
However, according to a study published in early August by the journal Nature Climate Change, the unprecedented drop in greenhouse gas emissions during containment due to Covid-19 (which could reach 8% according to this study, more than 10% according to Global Footprint) will do nothing to slow global warming unless there is a systemic change in energy and food.
Global Footprint Network is pushing this point, notably through the #movethedate campaign, ensuring that reducing CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion by 50% would delay the date by more than 90 days, or halve the consumption of animal protein by 15 days.
Let's hope that after Covid-19, and the reflections it has triggered on models of society, humans will be able to learn lessons from what this pandemic has brought to light: the unsustainable, wasteful and destructive relationship we have with nature and the planet.