PLANETARY LIMITS: EARTH OVERSHOOT DAY – A QUESTION OF INTERNATIONAL AND INTERGENERATIONAL EQUITY AND JUSTICE

The 22nd of August marks Earth Overshoot Day for 2020, the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the pattern for this year’s date the trend remains that each year we use the resources available faster and faster.

 

Earth Overshoot day calculates the date by which we used our available resources. If we used only the available resources in a sustainable way, then Earth Overshoot Day would be 31st December.

 

However, behind the international Earth Overshoot Day lies an even more complex picture of international and intergenerational equityⁱ.

 

International equity

 

There are significant differences around the world in how people consume resources, as a result the date of Earth Overshoot Day would be very different if we all consumed like people in a particular country. Indeed, for some countries, we wouldn’t overshoot our limits at all. For instance, if we all consumed the same volume of resource as people in:

 

*Nicaragua, then Earth Overshoot Day would be 5th December

*Colombia, then Earth Overshoot Day would be 17th October

*Brazil, 31st July

*Sweden, 2nd April

*USA, 14th March

 

Intergenerational equity

 

The volume of resources consumed has also shifted significantly over the past 50 years. In 1970 Earth Overshoot Day was 29th December – so we used almost the same amount of ecological resources as the Earth could regenerate that year. Since then, our generation has consumed significantly more of our planet’s resources than previous generations, a trend which is dangerous when extrapolated for a further 50 years to 2070.

 

 

If we continue at current consumption trajectories, by 2070:

 

*Water: A person will use 672M³ per year (equivalent to 1.8 swimming pools)

*Resources: A person will use 220 tonnes per year (equivalent to 5 lorries)

*GHG emissions: A person will generate 7 tonnes per year (equivalent to 10.5 flights from London to New York).

 

ARTICLE 13 VIEWPOINT

 

On one hand, it is very simple. If we continue to use resources at the current rate, we will breach our planetary limits resulting in irreversible impacts on our planet.

 

However, behind this statement of fact, lies a wicked problem:

 

1.We must ensure international equity – in which all people have access to basic social thresholds.

2. Yet, we must also ensure intergenerational equity – so that we do not further breach our environmental limits for future generationsᵛⁱⁱⁱ.

 

The solution lies in innovation. We must innovate to decouple the impact of achieving social thresholds from environmental impacts. We must also innovate in how we consider progress. GDP does not provide a valid picture of the state of our planet or our society.

 

The picture is stark, but it is not too late to avoid the worst. We live in a world in which we now know, with great accuracy, the status against our social thresholds and planetary boundaries. While there is always some uncertainty, there is no big mystery and no room for excuses. There can be no looking back and saying, ‘we didn’t know’.

 

We call on businesses and government to commit to measure our full impact on the planet’s resources and to base reduction targets on what the world needs them to do.

 

Article 13 helps organisations to assess their real impact on what the world needs to survive. We recently reviewed the sustainability targets set by 240 of the world’s largest companies, see a snapshot of our research findings here https://www.article13.com/copy-of-research.

 

References:

[1]https://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/country-overshoot-days/ Therefore, country overshoot days for 2020 are based on the 2019 edition

[2] U.S. Census Bureau, International Data Base

[3] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn1108-global-population-to-peak-in-2070/ and https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/17/worlds-population-is-projected-to-nearly-stop-growing-by-the-end-of-the-century/

[4] https://www.worldometers.info/water/

[5] http://hydro.iis.u-tokyo.ac.jp/~taikan/tmp/forWWDR/hysj.53.1.11.pdf

[6] https://theconversation.com/the-20th-century-saw-a-23-fold-increase-in-natural-resources-used-for-building-73057 [numbers calculated based on trends from 1970-2010]

[7] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data#:~:text=Global%20carbon%20emissions%20from%20fossil,increase%20from%201970%20to%202011.

[8] Watkins and Wilber (2015) Wicked & wise: How to solve the world's toughest problems.

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