Our planet has a finite amount of resources, and they only renew so quickly—trees only grow so fast, you can only mine so many metals, there is only so much carbon that can be sequestered by our oceans. We are exhausting these resources before they can be replenished. Each year, the research group Global Footprint Network quantifies this by calculating Earth Overshoot Day, the date by which our demand on nature matches the amount that our ecosystems can renew in an entire year. It’s the day when we’ve used up our annual allotment of Earth’s resources—and it usually comes well before December 31.
This year, Earth Overshoot Day falls on August 22. That’s not great, considering we want a year of resources to last a full calendar year—or ideally more, so we’re not continually going into “debt.” But it is an improvement over 2019, when Earth Overshoot Day landed on July 29. That means we’ve pushed the date back three weeks, and it was thanks to the COVID-19 lockdowns, which at least temporarily reduced emissions.
That’s encouraging, in that it shows it is possible to move Earth Overshoot Day back, but lockdowns are not an ideal or sustainable way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. “The goal is to move the date by design, and not by disaster,” says Global Footprint Network founder Mathis Wackernagel. “We don’t want to have more moves by disaster because that’s painful.”
Historically, Earth Overshoot Day has come earlier and earlier every year. In 2016, it was around August 8; 2017, August 2, in 2018, July 31. In 2000, it was in late September. This isn’t the first time it has moved back, but “never has it moved back that much,” Wackernagel says. The 1980 oil crisis and the 2009 recession each pushed the date back, for example, but only by a few days at most. For the first three months of 2020, there was a 3.8% drop in energy consumption and a 5% drop in emissions, according to International Energy Agency data. Factoring in the full carbon cycle—land use change, carbon sequestration, and so on—Global Footprint Network estimates that from January 1, 2020, to August 22, our total carbon footprint dropped 14.5%. The economic slowdown also eased our demand for forest products. The Canadian forest industry reports that the lumber harvest is being reduced by about 60% this year compared to the year prior.
To meet the Paris climate goals, those emissions reductions and deforestation slowdowns will have to continue . “The reductions that we have witnessed this year are on track with the yearly reductions we should see from now on,” Wackernagel says. That may be hard to imagine, since this progress came with devastating economic and health impacts. You may be thinking, as Wackernagel puts it, “Oh my god, so much suffering to just have this reduction and we should do the same level reduction next year…how is that possible? Is it worth it?” But that’s because we’ve achieved this decrease through a disaster, not by design. “If we do it by design, we could find the most comfortable path forward.”