Towards a Sustainable Future

by Alexis S.

Applied Learning Global Development Studies

Sometimes I think that we, the people of the earth, don't understand the basic concept of numbers. There are moments when I think people don't understand that 1 or 2 or 3 aren't the same number and they think those single digits that differentiate between the integers don't matter. They do. We have 1 earth. Not 4 or 5 or 6. One.

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. In other words, it's the day where we use our one earth for the year. It's the day where we start tapping into resources from our “earths” of the future. We reach this date by completely liquidating stocks of ecological resources and accumulating waste, such as carbon dioxide, to the point where the earth can no longer regenerate or combat what we used or produced that year. Simply put, Earth Overshoot Day is calculated by dividing the planet’s biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth can generate that year) by humanity’s Ecological Footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year.

In 2019, Earth Overshoot Day was July 29, meaning at the end of the year we used over 1.6 earths in terms of the resources we extracted. This is appalling when you compare Earth Overshoot Day in 1970, which was December 29. In less than 50 years, we went from using the equivalent of one earth's resources per year, to over 1.5 earths per year. But what about 2020? This year’s Earth Overshoot Day got pushed back 3 weeks to August 22. While on the outside this may seem like sustainable success, the reality is that this was almost all the result of the Coronavirus pandemic. While Covid-19 has caused a reduction in humanity's ecological footprint, as the Global Footprint Network explains, “True sustainability that allows all to thrive on earth can only be achieved by design, not disaster.”

The Global Footprint Network explains the solutions to the goal of #movethedate in 5 simple categories: planet, cities, energy, food, and population.

First, addressing the planet. Because of the abuse of the planet’s biological resources, our economies are now limited by the availability of the earth’s biocapacity. To ensure we have a healthy planet that can support us now and in the future, we must reduce human demand and maintain our planet’s life-support system.

Next, cities. This is arguably the most important category to focus on for not only us who live in Shanghai but most other humans, as it is estimated that between 70% and 80% of all people are expected to live in urban areas by 2050. This links directly back to UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #11 (sustainable cities and communities), which strives to reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, provide sustainable transport systems for all, and enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization without exceeding our planet’s resource budget. Overall, with such a large global population estimated to be living in cities in the next 30 years, the entire global campaign for sustainability will be won or lost in cities.

Furthermore, the next category that needs to be addressed when moving towards our goal of #movethedate is energy. Working towards decarbonizing the economy is our best possible chance of improving the balance between our ecological footprint and the planet’s renewable resources. The Global Footprint Network states that reducing the carbon component of humanity’s ecological footprint by 50% would reduce our annual consumption to an equivalent of 1.1 Earths. This corresponds to moving the date of Overshoot Day by 93 days, or about three months. We can do this by working towards UN SDG #7 (affordable and clean energy), which calls for substantially increasing the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.

Continuing on, food. Food is something that is a part of each of our lives. Half of the earth's biocapacity is used to feed us. Yet, in the United States an estimated 40% of food goes to waste. That’s the equivalent of the total ecological footprint of Sweden and Colombia combined, or the total biocapacity of Bolivia. If we reduce food waste, eat more plant-based foods, and choose foods grown with regenerative practices, we could move Earth Overshoot Day by 32 days.

Lastly, the population. The United Nations projects that between 7.3 to 15.6 billion people will be living on Earth by 2100. Despite the large variation in our respective footprints, as our population increases, so does our impact on the planet, for better or for worse. As the population continues to grow, we need to grow ourselves as individuals by putting our selfishness behind us and being more conscious of the decisions we are making. We need to stop living like there are multiple earths just waiting in the wings, available for expendable use by humans.

We have one earth, let's start acting like it.

The video below by Applied Learning Global Development Studies student Selena M highlights more information about our resource consumption, as well as ways to embrace a more sustainable way of living.