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By Sophia Matthews and Jane Fiona Cumming

Overshoot Day: What it is and Why it’s Important

Today, May 19th, is the UK’s 2021 Overshoot Day. Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demands on the planet in a given year exceed what the Earth can regenerate in the same year. In other words, the UK will surpass our annual budget for spending the Earth’s resources in 2021 today on the 19th May. [1]

Country-specific and worldwide Earth Overshoot Days are calculated by the Global Footprint Network. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s biocapacity – the resources the Earth can generate in a year – by humanity’s ecological footprint – our demand – and multiplying it by 365.

The UK shares its 2021 Earth Overshoot Day with Belarus. Other rich nations similarly fall into overdraft relatively early in the calendar year: Canada and the US both fell on March 14, Australia on March 22, all of Scandinavia between the last week of March and mid-April, Japan on May 6, China on June 7, and so on. The country with the earliest Overshoot Day in 2021 is Qatar, overshooting a 365-day budget in just 40 days. On the other end of the spectrum, Sao Tome e Principe won’t overshoot until December 27. [1]

What Earth Overshoot Day Leaves Out: Comparing the UK and Qatar

Earth Overshoot Day provides a telling picture of a country’s environmental performance. It’s a very useful framework that uses a rhetoric anyone with a bank account can relate to – we mustn’t reach into overdraft, we shouldn’t dip into our savings account – and it helps us understand our nation’s relative ecological footprint. Rationalising our natural resources in the same manner we do our financial ones isn’t always wise, but it does make complex scientific problems palatable to a wider audience.

Much like some economic indicators, however, the snapshot Overshoot Day provides is limited. We use GDP to understand a state’s wealth relative to its peers, but we don’t expect GDP to reflect domestic wealth inequality, social mobility, or even the financial security of the average citizen. GDP gives you only a high-level understanding with little nuance. [2] Something similar can be said for Overshoot Day. Consider Qatar and the UK, with Overshoot Days in February and May respectively. This high-level understanding of each nation’s ecological performance obscures some important differences between the two countries. In 2019, for example, the UK consumed 4.8 times as much energy as Qatar. [3] Similarly, the UK emitted 3.4 times more carbon than Qatar in the same year – 4.71% of cumulative global emissions compared to Qatar’s meagre 0.12%. [4]

To arrive at a truly thorough understanding of the UK and Qatar’s ecological ‘budgets’, one would have to consider dozens upon dozens of factors – consumption versus production, availability of renewables, historical use, accessibility of technology, and so on. This does not mean that one should discredit Earth Overshoot Day as an environmental indicator. Instead, we should understand it much like we do GDP: it’s story-telling abilities are limited, but it nevertheless provides us with a useful, scientific tool to understand the big-picture. Luckily, the big-picture is quite clear: across all nations, we must work to push Earth Overshoot Day back.

The Bottom Line: How We Can #MoveTheDate

Those at have categorised solutions to push Overshoot Day back, or, #MoveTheDate, into five categories: planet, cities, energy, food, and population. As consumers, it is our responsibility to pressure our governments to take science-driven, goal-oriented climate action: civic engagement can affect all five of these categories. If you live in the UK, here is an environmental policy tracker that will help you understand the UK’s climate policy after Brexit, and here is a brief to help you understand the UK’s progress towards its 2050 Net Zero ambition so far.

Further, one of the most significant ways the average consumer can #MoveTheDate is through consumption habits. If we reduced global meat consumption by 50%, we could move the date by 17 days. A further 13 days could be gained by cutting food waste in half. [5] The clothing we purchase and the decisions we make about transportation also have great impacts on the climate – if we replace 1/3 of car miles with public transport and 1/6 with walking or biking, we could move Earth Overshoot Day back by 13 days. There are plenty of solutions listed on the Earth Overshoot Day website, as well as communities you can join to find strength in numbers. Read more about what you can do here.

Article 13 Perspective

In terms of a more granular analysis of our natural resource ‘budget’, Article 13’s annual practitioner research examines the corporate impact on planetary limits. Planetary limits, or planetary boundaries, can likewise be understood as budgets; they represent nine quantitative limits for the planet, covering climate change and carbon emissions, biodiversity, biogeochemical flows, ocean acidification, land use, freshwater, ozone depletion, air pollution, and novel entities or waste. Crossing any of the boundaries increases the risk of large-scale, possibly abrupt or irreversible environmental change. In 2020, Europe had already overshot four planetary limits. You can read Article 13’s analysis of Europe’s performance here.

By segregating the concept of ‘environmental performance’ into nine distinct indicators with specialised, quantitative targets, the planetary limits framework provides a more detailed picture of our natural resource ‘budgets’. Article 13’s research into over 200 of the world’s largest companies provides a granular view of corporate performance on these limits. Earth Overshoot Day provides a bigger-picture analysis of countries’ environmental profiles. Together, these resources can help you arrive at an holistic understanding of our progress as a planet on mitigating climate change – and what still needs to be done.

For the full summary of Article 13’s findings on planetary limits – and social thresholds – browse Article 13’s latest research here.



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