Earth Overshoot Day marks a point of no return. Like an account overdraft, it signals the full expenditure of natural resources that can be replenished in a single year. Anything used after that point is a withdrawal from the account of future generations.
In 2020, after months of lockdown had disrupted travel and crashed oil prices, Earth Overshoot Day landed on August 22. The year prior, it was observed on July 29.
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has relieved the strain on our planet by 9.3%, or less than a month.
Will we be able to keep it up?
According to Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network, this isn’t the question we should be asking. The delay of EOD is “not something to celebrate,” Wackernagel said in a virtual conference.
“It’s not done by design, it’s done by disaster,” he added.
Not accounting for 2020, EOD has been steadily creeping up since the 1970s, landing on the earliest day on record in 2019. It’s also gained some strident advocates from the US, UK, Brazil, China, Germany, India, and many other countries along the way.
“The earliest ever ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ is a stark reminder of how much we demand from our planet, and of the unprecedented energy transition required to combat global warming. Encouragingly, the public debate on climate change ― despite some discordant voices ― has begun to recognize this reality,” former secretary-general of NATO, Javier Solano wrote in a column for the Science Alert reports, EOD is calculated by weighing “all the human demands for food, energy, space for houses and roads and what would be needed to absorb global C02 emissions,” and weighting that against what is yet available, and what our planet can replenish.
By a rough estimate of our planetary resource expenditure we are using up 160% of our available renewable resources in a single year. As Science Alert describes the situation, that’s equivalent to 1.6 planets.
“It’s like with money. We can spend more than what we earned, but not forever,” Wackernagel said.
The 2020 EOD calculation indicates that pandemic disruption and other events in 2020 led to an 8.1% reduction in forest products.
“Assessment of the COVID-19 impact on the forest products Footprint draws on many data sources, including projections by the Canadian forest industry and data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, who tracks rates of deforestation in the Amazon, and from the Sinchi Institute,” Global Footprint Network reports.
Data from the International Energy Agency indicates that carbon emissions were reduced by 14.5% during the same time period. Meanwhile, the global food footprint remains unchanged.
“The pandemic has significantly disrupted the global food system, increasing both food waste and malnutrition among lowest income populations,” the EOD calculation page states.
No matter what country you may live in, there is likely a nationally-observed holiday or other cause for celebration on nearly every day of the year. Earth Overshoot Day may be no cause for celebration, but it is an important day to consider the effects of our consumption.
“The reductions that we have witnessed this year are on track with the yearly reductions we should see from now on,” Wackernagel said.
Though it is unfortunate that it took a global disaster to move EOD back a few weeks, there’s no reason to think this trend cannot continue if more environmentally conscious individuals get involved.
“If we do it by design, we could find the most comfortable path forward,” Wackernagel said.
Learn more about Earth Overshoot Day in the video below.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.