Every day is Earth Overshoot Day (but it doesn’t have to be)

Whenever you hear words like overcome, overjoyed or overwhelmed, the sense is about extremes: strong positive connotations or the exact opposite. Today is Earth Overshoot Day, the day in 2017 when collectively the world’s population have used up all the resources that nature can regenerate in one year. This overuse of resources falls firmly into that second camp: strong negative connotations.

The challenge of Earth Overshoot Day is that it is not really about the 2nd August 2017.  Over the years, this annual moment has shifted from the depths of winter into the summer months; a trajectory that sheds light on how our over consumption is still on an upward trend. Under business as usual, estimates suggest we’ll need the resources of two planets by 2030.

For high-income countries this is a reminder that our personal decisions and government policies need to address this overborrowing from the natural world. They need to be made with a long-term view in mind. Last week the UK government announced that from 2040 new petrol and diesel cars will no longer be sold in Britain as part of the UK’s Air Pollution Plan. This is a welcome policy direction in terms of reducing over-reliance on fossil fuels but there isn’t a carbon limit and hybrid vehicles could be included. There’s also a 23-year wait for it to be implemented. Longer-term should not be considered a synonym for ‘a long way off’.  This is a policy that the UK should aim to overachieve on and one where we can afford to be more ambitious.

For low-income countries, the challenge is different. Whilst on a global level the world’s resources are overexploited, the people in poverty that Tearfund works with require greater access to resources to meet their own basic needs. They need more jobs. They need better healthcare. They need safe drinking water. This comes back to our recent work on the circular economy as an alternative development pathway: the economic growth that communities need to lift themselves out of poverty is possible within these communities’ fair share of the earth’s capacity (even as we need to adjust to live within our fair share).

Ultimately, Earth Overshoot Day is a signal that balance needs to be restored to our overextended planet. Without wanting to oversimplify it, this means a world where all people can flourish within environmental limits. To achieve this, we need to act and call for a shift in the trajectory of the last few decades. I find myself returning to the vision that our team published in 2015 which recognised that this shift in direction begins with the changes that we each need to make in our own lives. At the moment, every day is Earth Overshoot Day. But I don’t think I’m being over-optimistic when I say it doesn’t have to be.

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