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The history of Earth Overshoot Day

22 August marked a pivotal moment for our planet – the annual Earth Overshoot Day (EOD). It’s the point where scientists say that we’ve used up all the ecological resources the planet can produce in 12 months, and now every resource we consume is being taken from the future. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the date back this year, the fact of the matter is the EOD is getting earlier, and a global campaign has been launched to tackle this. What exactly is EOD, and how can we push the date further into the year?

   To calculate the date of EOD for a year, the Global Footprint Network (GFN) looks at the number of days that year that the planet’s biocapacity suffices to provide for humanity’s ecological footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to any global overshoot. By dividing the Earth’s biocapacity with humanity’s impact on the planet and multiplying it by 365, we can estimate when the EOD falls in the year. And, since the first EOD in 2006, it’s not been a pretty picture – the date is generally shifting earlier each year.

The 22nd of August marked a pivotal moment for our planet – the annual Earth Overshoot Day

   Mathis Wackernagel, founder of the GFN, described it like this: “Everything we use puts a demand on nature in terms of space; the potato that takes space, I want milk from the cow, it takes space, to absorb the extra CO2 from burning fossil fuels takes space. All these things that take space we can add up and then we can compare how much is our demand compared to how much is available.”

   It’s an indicator that we aren’t using Earth in a sustainable way, and our actions now are eating into the future. This year’s calculation estimates that, even with the pandemic, we have exceeded demand by 56% – now, we’re maintaining our ecological deficit by running down local resource stocks and accumulating CO2 in the atmosphere. Some countries are better than others in the green stakes, and looking at how they live could help us readjust our lifestyles. According to the GFN, if we all lived like those in Qatar, then the EOD would come on 11 February – their analysis put Indonesia as the most sustainable country, with an EOD of 18 December. The UK EOD is 16 May, ahead of much-vaunted green countries like Canada (18 March) and Sweden (2 April).

   Faced with an ever-earlier EOD, this year has seen the launch of the #MoveTheDate campaign, which encourages individuals and governments to make eco-conscious changes to our lifestyles. Terry A’Hearn, head of the Scottish environmental regulator Sepa, which backs the campaign, said: “Regulators are set up basically to stop bad stuff from happening – to stop factories from polluting, to stop farmers having run-off from their farms into rivers. We absolutely need to keep doing that but it just isn’t enough. We also have to be a force for helping make good things happen.”

Faced with an ever-earlier EOD, this year has seen the launch of the #MoveTheDate campaign

   Lockdown has, to an extent, helped – according to survey results from Triodos, around a third of Brits have focused on making green lifestyle changes to be more sustainable. There is also a general feeling that companies are starting to recognise their ecological responsibility, and that the pursuit of profits and exponential growth can often be at odds with their green role. According to John Elkington, founder of Volans: “One of the things that’s been very striking just in the last 18 months to two years is that a growing number of business leaders around the world have been standing up and saying capitalism is no longer working.”

   The question is not whether this is an individual, business or governmental responsibility, but more how we can each play our part. People are reducing their waste, recycling and trying to walk or cycle, and it’s a good start, but environmental science professor Jaime Toney says we need to do more: “I think it’s going to require huge changes and huge commitments in terms of the way that we live. We do recycle and things like that, but there are certain practices such as eating meat, for example, or at least eating meat that’s imported from very long distances. We should be thinking about switching to vegetarian diets, thinking about how wasteful we are in terms of energy.”

EOD is a warning about how we use our planet, but it’s also a target that is easy to understand and possible to build on

   That’s our micro-responsibility, but businesses and governments need to work together on the macro-level. Incorporating green practices into product production, and reducing factory and packaging waste, are necessary moves by companies. Governments could incentivise this, and global movements such as the Paris Climate Accords would signal a willingness to work with other countries to tackle a genuine planetary crisis.

   EOD is a warning about how we use our planet, but it’s also a target that is easy to understand and possible to build on. As Wackernagel says, “we will live within the means of nature. The only question is whether we do it by disaster or by design”. It’s not a given that EOD will continue to fall earlier each year, and a genuine effort across society can help prevent that.

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