IN many ways, humanity’s relationship with the planet is like a marriage. We need to exist in close harmony with each other and if we constantly try to take more out of the relationship than it can sustain, huge damage is caused.
Sadly, when it comes to our common home, that’s exactly what we are doing. August 22 this year marks Earth Overshoot Day – the moment when our demand for ecological resources and services in 2020 exceeds what nature can regenerate this year. Carbon emissions are, of course, partly responsible for this imbalance. But there are other factors too, such as population growth, non-sustainable fishing and the fact that about a third of the food produced annually for human consumption – 1.3 billion tonnes – gets lost or wasted.
Earth Overshoot Day is a compelling way of demonstrating in simple and vivid terms how our lifestyles and interventions are damaging the planet and the critical importance of taking a new and more sustainable approach.
Outside of science, no-one can really calibrate what a tonne of carbon dioxide actually means or looks like. It simply isn’t something we can visualise. But calendars are something we can understand and when we hear that for the last 130 days of this year we are effectively stealing from the global ecosystem, it allows us to really comprehend the scale of the damage.
Much of this is environmental degradation taking place in the world’s cities. Up to 80 per cent of the global population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050, presenting sustainability strategists with a huge challenge.
The solution is likely to revolve around smart cities featuring energy-efficient buildings, integrated zoning, compact planning and effective options for people-powered and public transportation.
The last of these is particularly important as cars account for 17 per cent of the world’s carbon footprint.
The concept of Earth Overshoot Day comes from the San Francisco-based Global Footprint Network, a sustainability research organisation whose executives were responsible for the development of the Ecological Footprint sustainability metric in the 1990s.
This not-for-profit body has partnered with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to promote this year’s event. “It’s an alignment of interests and a way of pushing forward SEPA’s own agenda”, says Mathis Wackernagel, the network’s Founder and President. “SEPA also takes a unique approach to environmental regulation. Its attitude is that if it needs to punish people then it can do that to the worst offenders who don’t follow regulations, but also that it’s not just about punishing, but also encouraging the right behaviour. “It has agreements with companies and cities, asking how it can help them in areas such as red tape and being easier on them if they show responsibility. “I think that’s a wonderful approach as it looks at things from a one planet perspective. If you just regulate here and there then you’re actually missing the big challenge we are facing – that we are not fitting within nature’s budget.”
The aim is to hold a launch event for Earth Overshoot Day in Glasgow – which will place itself firmly on the global sustainability map by hosting the prestigious COP26 international environmental summit next year – on August 20. “Because of Covid-19, we’re still working out the details, but it will probably involve local people attending, with video conferencing for others. We will interview people with different perspectives from around the world, perhaps editing these into a more compact format for viewing by the public. “By doing that, we will help people to understand the story and that if governments look after their futures, then that’s good for the population. It will also help decision makers to determine their strategies.”
Wackernagel is effusive in his praise for Scotland and the enthusiasm with which it has adopted sustainability objectives. Born in Switzerland, his love affair with the country is near-lifelong. “It was only the second foreign country I travelled to as a child and I really developed a warm affection for it. Its cultural symbols are really out there.”
He praises the fact that, despite a historic dependence on fossil fuel exploitation, Scotland has been a leader in recognising the need to decarbonise, with huge reductions in carbon emissions and an explosive growth in the generation of renewable energy. “This recognises that our future depends on some level of resource security, and that in turn shows an insight that I’m sorry to report is still quite rare. I was astonished at how proactive Scotland has become around these issues. “It’s also interesting that the economic advisers to the Scottish Government view resource as a significant ingredient. They see that they have skin in the game. They are asking ‘if we don’t do these things, how will we be able to live?’ That is healthy – it’s tackling the question of whether Scotland is destroying Scotland or building Scotland.”
Earth Overshoot Day is still a relatively new concept here, but it is establishing itself around the world and particularly in France and Germany, where media interest has been intense. “The Pope talked about it in an interview and showed that he actually understood it better than many others.”
Ecological overshoot has been a reality since at least the 1970s, though carbon levels have been building up for more than 150 years. By using more renewable natural resources than the planet can regenerate, we are effectively drawing down the biosphere’s capital rather than living off its annual interest.
The consequences of this are sadly predictable. We are already seeing problems such as soil erosion, overgrazing, desertification, species extinction and reduced crop yields. If humanity continues to exploit the planet’s natural resources in this way, the result will be the further degradation and possibly collapse of ecosystems.
The message of Earth Overshoot day is a simple one, but it still faces challenges from sceptics who question its veracity. “Some people say it’s crazy because they’ll open their fridge on August 23 and there is still beer in it, so all this must be wrong,”
Wackernagel says. “Of course there will be beer in the fridge. In the same way, you can spend money and you will still have money. But if you spend more than you earn, it’s not something you can do forever. You just keep depleting your asset base, and that can’t go on.”
For more information on how to participate in this year’s event, you can visit www.overshootday.org
The Herald is supporting Earth Overshoot Day 2020, publishing a report every Saturday in the run up to the 22nd August Date. Our future topics are How we power ourselves, How we produce, distribute, and consume food, How we help nature thrive and How many of us there are.
To participate please contact Stephen Mctaggart on 07788 367 461 EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org