Thursday, 26 August 2010

Earth overshoot day: 21 August 2010

Each year, Global Footprint Network calculates humanity’s Ecological Footprint. This is the amount of productive land and sea area required to produce the resources we consume, and absorb our waste, including CO2 emissions; this is compared with biocapacity, the ability of ecosystems to regenerate resources. A sustainable way of life for humanity would ensure that the resources we consume, both directly and indirectly, would not exceed the Earth's capacity to regenerate.

No surprise here: we regularly exceed this limit. Each year, we put the Earth into ecological deficit - we use more than the Earth can make - so we have a progressively degrading environment. We have been in 'overshoot' since the late 1980s.

Earth Overshoot Day (also known as 'ecological debt day'), a concept devised by UK-based New Economics Foundation, is calculated each year, from the most recently available complete data, which always lags three years behind, because of  the complexity of collecting and analysing all the information.

So the 2010 date is based on 2007 data, and projections are based on historical rates of growth in population and consumption, as well as the historical link between world GDP and resource demand.

Last year, Earth Overshoot Day was observed on September 25, 2009. This year's date, a month earlier in the year, is not due to a sudden change in human demand, though. Reporting this year's overshoot day, NEF posted on its website:
Ecological Debt Day comes a full month earlier than last year, reflecting not only greater consumption of resources on a global scale, despite the recession, but also improvements in data collection giving a more detailed analysis than ever before. The new research, for example, indicates that the world has less grazing land available than previously estimated.
Typically, the date changes by a few days year on year - but this time the big jump takes us to a more accurate baseline.

NEF adds:
A major part of the UK’s ecological footprint originates from our over consumption of fossil fuels, typified by some of the more bizarre goods that are both imported and exported. Last year:
  • We exported 131,000 tonnes of chewing gum to Spain and imported 125,00 tonnes back again
  • The UK exported 3,300 tonnes of soft toys to New Zealand, and then imported 2,400 tonnes back again.
  • We exported 43,000 tonnes of toffee to France while at the same time importing 39,000 tonnes from the French.
Global Footprint Network President, Mathis Wackernagel, said:
"We would expect our estimates of overshoot to be, if anything, conservative.We know we are far from living within the means of one planet. The good news is, much of the technology we have to begin to address this problem is available and it is open source: things like compact urban design, energy-efficient housing, ecological tax reform, removal of resource subsidies, safe and affordable family planning, bicycles, low-meat diets, and life-cycle costing."
The calculations can also look at different regions of the globe, or different countries, which will reach their local overshoot days at different times, as some regions of the world live off the resources of other regions. In a globalised market, almost nowhere is self-sufficient, but on aggregate some places are net exporters of resources and some are net importers.

For instance, Europe had used up its own fish stocks by June this year.

The global overshoot day also translates into 'how many planets' - 21 August is day 233 out of 365, giving us a ratio of about 1.6 planets being needed to support the human population. This overall average figure hides huge variation:

• United States - 4.6 Earths
• Canada - 3.4 Earths
• United Kingdom - 2.6 Earths
• Japan - 2.4 Earths
• German - 2.0 Earths
• Russi - 1.8 Earths
• Mexic - 1.6 Earths
• Costa Ric - 1.1 Earths
• India - 0.4 Earths

A ranking of the world's nations (not every country shown), based on 2002 figures, shows the highest footprint per person being in the United Arab Emirates, followed closely by the USA. At the bottom of the ranking are Senegal, Gambia, Nicaragua anbd Guatamala. Living at approximately one planet - what we all have to aim for - are Chile, Argentina, Romania, Uraguay and Brazil.

In 2009 it was calculated that the UK itself went into ecological debt on Easter Sunday.

United Nations business-as-usual projections show humanity requiring the equivalent resources of two planets by the early 2030s, around the time that children born today would be graduating from college. This would put Earth Overshoot Day on July 1, and means it would take two years for the planet to regenerate what we use in one year. Reaching this level ofecological deficit spending may turn out to be physically impossible (for details see Global Footprint Network and WWF’s Living Planet Report 2008).

Andrew Simms, policy director at NEF, and deviser of the concept of ecological debt day said:
"The banking crisis taught us the danger of a system that goads us to live beyond our means financially. A greater danger comes from a consumer culture and economic policy that pushes us to live beyond our means ecologically. From the 21st August, humanity will, in effect, start to overstretch and undermine its own life-support systems. While we tolerate huge changes to how we live in response to the crisis created by our reckless banking system, nothing is being done to prevent us going further into ecological debt. That's why we are calling for a 'Great Transition' to rebuild the economy, free us from the habits of over-consumption, and design a better system that can survive and thrive with the resources we have available."
For more about this, see Andrew's book, Ecological Debt: global warming and the wealth of nations, published by Pluto Press in 2009.

To calculate your own ecological footprint, there's a simple (so fairly rough-and-ready) version online, created by WWF.

Last year, the local climate change action group, in the town where I live, had an interactive exhibition and discussion space in a business fair held by and for local businesses. I spent about three hours there, helping visitors use this online calculator. The people who were ‘doing well’, being very close to ‘one planet living’  were the poor – people unemployed or on low incomes, with whole families living in small houses in what many of us would regard as overcrowded conditions. I was surprised at how low some of their footprints were, and it was another reminder that the environmental situation we find ourselves in is a consequence of affluence and luxury. I don’t regard my own home as luxurious, or my lifestyle as affluent – but on a global scale, they most certainly are.

If we have food to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over our heads and a bed to sleep in, we are better off than 75% of people on the planet. (Pachamama Alliance)
What do we have to do to approach one-planet living for ourselves? First and last: consume less - of everything.
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