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In debt towards the Planet

The debit and credit rules applied to the Earth's resources in order to preserve their survival.

by Media Duemila
21 October 2020
4 min read
by Media Duemila
21 October 2020
4 min read

Coronavirus bought the planet a month... it's the result of a study into the availability of Earth's resources. Since 2003, the Global Footprint Network –an international research centre founded by Swiss environmentalist Mathis Accourage– has been doing an annual assessment of the resources we consume during the calendar year, compared to what the planet can actually provide. The study takes into account various factors and covers both human exploitation and the Earth's ability to reabsorb and process the waste generated by our impact on ecosystems. The result is a sort of limit or point of equilibrium between what is available and what is used up. The day when we exceed this limit is called Earth Overshoot Day and this year, according to GFN researchers, it fell on 22 August.

We used to call it Ecological Debt Day, a watershed moment between the natural resources available on Earth and those consumed by humankind. Past that point, the planet can no longer support the demands we place on it to live, eat, produce energy and absorb the polluting gases that we produce. After that, the resources we use are in debt, meaning they are not available in future. In other words, what Earth’s ecosystems can produce, absorb and regenerate in a year is insufficient to meet our needs. The Global Footprint Network finds where the balance lies between resource supply and demand: anything beyond that is going to result in depletion. It is almost as if every year, after a certain amount of time, we go overdrawn on an imaginary current account and don’t pay anything more in.

The Earth gains one month

The last time Earth Overshoot Day fell so late was 2005, when it came on 25 August. In 2019, for example, it was 19 July – more than a month earlier than in 2020. The GFN’s studies have shown how the lockdowns imposed in various countries due to the pandemic had a major impact on cutting demand and energy consumption and especially on CO2 emissions, extending the life of our planet by about a month. But while that’s definitely a good thing, it does not signify a radical change in lifestyles, nor an improvement in resource management or energy supply. It is just the immediate effect of the pandemic, which reduced humans’ impact on the climate by 9.3%, lowering carbon emissions by 14.5% compared to last year. The researchers say this is the most significant decline since the 1970s.

The Earth currently takes a year and eight months to regenerate the resources we consume in 365 days, or 60% more than can be renewed within the same year. In other words, we consume the resources of 1.6 planet Earths every year. This year’s later Earth Overshoot Day might only be a brief pause, as many studies already predict a surge in consumption and emissions next year. These include the Italy for Climate (I4C) study by the Italian Fondazione per lo sviluppo sostenibile. This research says that if you look at economic crises in previous decades, the subsequent recovery always causes fresh growth in emissions –often exceeding pre-crisis levels.

"Unless policies strongly geared towards green and low-carbon criteria are put in place, 2021 will see a growth in greenhouse gas emissions unprecedented in the post-war period," the I4C report says. "In March and April 2020, we produced over 20 million tonnes of CO2 less than the previous year. Yet the effects of this crisis could actually take us further away from the Paris climate stabilisation objectives, for at least two reasons: the reductions are not due to positive structural changes to production and consumption processes.”

An irreversible change of course

As such, the post-pandemic period could lead to a temptation to focus on inefficient and carbon-intensive environmental activities and processes. We need a committed and structural paradigm shift, a collective effort to reduce our carbon footprint –the sum of greenhouse gas emissions caused by products, services, individuals and, ultimately, by all of us. The only answer is decarbonization and the transition to renewable energy sources, as well as recycling and reuse, essentially meaning the widespread adoption of circular economy practices. The only answer is decarbonization and the transition to renewable energy sources, as well as recycling and reuse, essentially meaning the widespread adoption of circular economy practices. Researchers at the Global Footprint Network have predicted that by halving our carbon footprint, we could consume the resources of just 1.1 Earths, pushing back Earth Overshoot Day by 93 days.