Does something feel different about the world today? Is Mercury in retrograde? It’s not. Rather, it may be that you can sense that the world has outstripped its annual resources, well before the year is over. We’re now living on extra resources we can’t afford to lose.
Every year, the Global Footprint Network (GFN), a California research group, calculates how much “annual demand on nature exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.” And each year the news gets gloomier. Because the world is using more and more resources relative to the planet’s ability to replenish itself, Earth Overshoot Day–the point at which global demand exceeds global supply–is earlier and earlier. Last year, the day fell on August 8. This year, it fell on August 2. Twenty years ago, it was still in October.
In effect, the world needs 1.7 times its available annual resources to meet global demand–the definition of unsustainable. Developed countries are particularly out of whack. If everywhere lived like the United States, the world would require five whole Earths to sustain itself, GFN says. By contrast, India’s population uses far fewer resources, so if everywhere lived like India, we’d require only 0.6 Earths each year. The group blames carbon emissions from power generation and over-exploitation of forests and oceans, reducing the ability of both to renew themselves.
GFN has a more positive message in 2017, though. There are plenty of solutions already available that can help get Earth back in better balance, it argues. “If we moved Overshoot Day five days a year, we’d be back to one planet by 2050. And we have the solutions to do that,” Mathis Wackernagel, CEO of the GFN, tells Fast Company.
Better management of refrigerants would give us a total of 9.5 days by 2050, for instance. Aggressively adopting onshore wind turbines would offer another nine extra days. Reducing food waste would give us 7.5 days back. And greater adoption of plant-based diets, as opposed to resource-intensive meat-prevalent diets, would give us seven days by mid-century. Cutting CO2 emissions in half by the same date would deliver almost three months, putting Overshoot Day back to November–roughly where it was in the late-1970s.
GFN calculates the effect of these solutions using figures from Project Drawdown, a project led by the ecologist Paul Hawken (we covered that in detail here) and McKinsey, which has done similar work, with similar projections. Hawken ranks solutions according to their greenhouse gas impact, finding that the food sector is more important for reducing carbon emissions than energy and that replacing cooling chemicals in fridges and air conditioners could have dramatic results many times more important than reducing CO2. Deploying the top 80 solutions identified by Hawken would be enough to start drawdown–the point at which atmospheric greenhouse gases begin to subside–starting in 2020.
At the same time, GFN has also released a personal footprint calculator to show how individuals factor into the mix. Plugging in data on your house size and type, how much you use air travel and transit, and whether you run a car shows how many Earths are needed to support your lifestyle. I’m ashamed to say I needed at least eight Earths (if you fly, it bumps up the numbers a lot).
Given that Overshoot Day is getting earlier each year, you might expect Wackernagel to be pessimistic. But, despite Trump’s disavowal of climate science and environmental priorities in general, he’s more sanguine than when we spoke to him last year. He points for instance to how renewable energy is gaining price parity with fossil fuels in many places, how U.S. states and cities are taking up the environmental slack from the federal government, and how China is strongly committed to ecological remediation in its latest Five Year Plan. The world isn’t yet back to replenishment rate or anywhere near it. But that’s not an impossibility in the future, given the solutions available.