There’s five months left of the year 2021, yet we’ve already used up our annual ecological budget—the amount of timber, food, forests to suck up CO2 and other resources we demand of our planet that it can regenerate within a year. Our Earth can only sustainably provide so much, and each year, Earth Overshoot Day marks the date by which we’ve used up that amount. After Earth Overshoot day, we go into a sort of ecological debt.
Earth Overshoot Day, calculated annually by the research group Global Footprint Network, has consistently come earlier and earlier every year since its inception, a sign of how we’ve continued to stress the planet’s natural resources. In 2000, it was in late September—which still wasn’t great, considering a year of resources should last a full calendar year, or more. In 2021, it’s on July 29.
Last year, pandemic lockdowns that curbed human activity pushed Earth Overshoot Day back three weeks, compared to the year prior, to August 22. But that reprieve came from disaster, not by design, Global Footprint Network founder Mathis Wackernagel noted. With the world beginning to open up, it’s clear those gains were short lived. “We know it was just behavior changes, not systemic changes,” he says. “And as a result, consumption is back to [largely] where it was before. …The pandemic resource reductions have not been sustained.”
While those reductions didn’t last, the pandemic did prove that Earth Overshoot Day could be moved in a positive direction. Now, the Global Footprint Network is sharing ways we can sustainably do so, without the pains of a pandemic, through a platform called 100 Days of Possibility. A joint project between Global Footprint Network, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and Schneider Electric, 100 Days of Possibility is like “an advent calendar,” Wackernagel says, “to help people see there’s so many possibilities to move the date, and they’re also financially viable.”
The 100 Days platform will count down to the UN’s Cop26 climate conference, which is being held in Glasgow this November. Each day the site will share actions we can take, and what impact they would make. Reducing food waste by 75%, for example, could move Earth Overshoot Day back eight days; moving to electric cars could move it back five; and adopting passive house standards across all buildings could shift it by 11 days, moving our annual use of resources closer in alignment with what the planet can provide us.
These steps aren’t just nice things we need to do for our planet; they’re things we must do to survive the reality of climate change. If we still rely on resources that the planet can’t keep providing, we won’t be ready for a future where those resources are gone. That’s true for individuals in terms of their own resource security, but also for cities, countries, and even companies. “If as a company you provide goods and services that help humanity succeed and thrive within planetary constraints, then that service or goods will be needed more and more in the future,” he says. “If you provide something that maintains business as usual, maintains an overshoot, and ultimately undermines us, your market may well shrivel away.”
The 100 Days of Possibility will remind people, Wackernagel hopes, that there’s so many steps we can take to move the Earth Overshoot date back, and doing so would not just be “a gift to the world,” he says. “It’s basically, what can you do to make yourself more resilient and robust, and at the same time move the date.”