22 August 2020 is this year’s Earth Overshoot Day, an inauspicious annual milestone marking the date at which the planet overshot its ecological boundaries for the year. Put another way, we are currently using our natural resources 1.6 times faster than ecosystems can regenerate.
Nearly every calendar year, since the event has been marked, it has crept in earlier, reflecting the inexorable pressure that a growing economy and rising consumption levels – the ever greater demand for “stuff” – places on the planet. Until 2020, that is.
Last year’s Earth Overshoot Day occurred on 29 July, the earliest date ever. This year’s milestone occurs fully three weeks later, on 22 August.
While not entirely cause for celebration given the circumstances, it offers hope by demonstrating that the trajectory we’ve been on is reversible. It points to the opportunity we have to rebuild society with a greater focus on sustainability.
The three weeks of breathing space afforded to the planet this year has of course come at the expense of the economy and much else. The effective shutdown of the global economy, induced by the coronavirus pandemic, reduced humanity’s annual ecological footprint by 9.3%, according to estimates from the Global Footprint Network, which calculates the Earth Overshoot Day every year.
It is increasingly commonplace to talk about the ‘carbon budget’ we need to adhere to if we are to keep global temperature rises to well below the 2° C level at which, according to the United Nations (UN) ‘catastrophic and irreversible’ climate change becomes inevitable. The estimated limit is 450 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere, and we are currently at the record level of 417 ppm – and rising.
Earth Overshoot Day is important because it represents the broader ‘resource budget’ that we have left to spend, covering all the natural resources that we use up every year. This includes diminishing reserves of oil and gas, minerals like copper and iron ore, and productive land on which we can grow crops.
It also captures the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gas emissions, the ocean’s capacity to avoid dangerous acidification as it warms, the capacity of tropical rainforests – the ‘lungs of the earth’ – to cope with logging and exploitation of natural resources… and the list goes on.
Plastic pollution is one of the many symptoms of our overuse of natural resources. A recent study sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Systemiq1 suggests ocean plastic could triple by 2040 and recommends switching to biodegradable and compostable alternatives for certain packaging – supporting organic carbon replenishment. The world produces around 3592 million metric tons of plastic each year, with only around 9% of the total historical plastic production recycled3. Much of the rest leaks into the environment with the result that, by 2050, there is expected to be a greater weight of plastic in the ocean than fish.
On climate change, a landmark IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report from 2018 highlighted in stark terms that we have little more than 10 years to transform our industrial and energy systems, otherwise we will reach the limit of our ability to slow global heating in any meaningful way.
So what are the solutions?
What can we do every year from now on to #movethedate back towards December?
As individuals, there are steps we can all take – drive less, fly less, eat less meat, recycle more, and importantly use less stuff. We also need to waste less. Taking one example, 700 million people around the world are food insecure, and yet 30% of food production is wasted either in the agricultural process or by consumers4.
While consumer behaviour is crucial, business and investors also have role to play. As investors, we can look to companies that are providing the solutions to some of these challenges.
For example, a French engineering business combines world-leading energy technologies, real-time automation and pioneering software into integrated solutions to improve the efficiency and sustainability of homes, buildings, data centres, infrastructure and industries. The four key markets it serves consume 70% of the world’s energy. By making those areas operate more efficiently — using its technologies for buildings, industrial processes and electricity production — the company recognises it can be a huge part of the solution. Indeed the company is explicit about its strategy to ‘move humanity out of ecological overshoot’. According to their analysis in 2019, “by applying existing technology worldwide in these arenas alone, the energy retrofit and the decarbonization of electricity generation combined would move the date by 21 days.”
In the UK a paper and packaging business is demonstrating how the circular economy model can reduce the ecological footprint of industrial processes. According to the company’s sustainability report, the six million tonnes of recyclable material that it collected, sorted and reprocessed in 2019 outweighed the amount of packaging put on the market that year. The company has an established partnership with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation – the world’s leader in promoting circularity – and together they have announced a set of Circular Design Principles, highlighting how crucial sustainable design is in the battle to eliminate waste.
Grounds for optimism – and ambition
Companies like these highlight that ‘Earth Overshoot’ is not inevitable, and can be pushed back towards our ecological boundaries without leaving people worse off.
If we are to successfully embrace a more circular, more efficient and less wasteful economic model, there needs to be a system-level approach. The European Union’s Circular Economy action plan sets an example for others to follow, with policies supporting sustainable production, waste reduction and the decoupling of growth from resource extraction. At a city level, both Amsterdam and Copenhagen are adopting Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ model5 which focuses on ensuring social support for the population’s needs while not transgressing important environmental and ecological thresholds. It is a model for a more sustainable and regenerative economy, one which ascribes greater value to societal wellbeing and environmental resilience.
The most often quoted definition of sustainability comes from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Despite the encouraging fact that Earth Overshoot Day can move backwards in the year, that we are only in August is an urgent reminder of our failure to deliver on this societal pact with future generations, and with nature itself.
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