Tuesday, Aug. 20, was Earth Overshoot Day – the day when humanity used as much of the world’s renewable natural resources as the planet can generate in one year. For the next four months, we’re running in the red.
The concept and science behind Earth Overshoot Day was developed by the Global Footprint Network, an international group with offices in Oakland, Geneva and Brussels, and the new economics foundation (lower case intentional), a British think tank. The methodology, as explained on the group’s website, looks to be pretty complex, encompassing “over 6,000 data points for each country, each year, derived from internationally recognized sources to determine the area required to produce the biological resources a country uses and to absorb its wastes, and to compare this with the area available.”
Thus, as seen in the chart to the right, China is in major overdraft at the moment, using two and half times the resources it should to support its development. The U.S. is using close to twice the amount of resources it should per year, while Japan is at 7.1 and the earth as a whole is using the equivalent of 1.5 earths per year.
By mid-century, Global Footprint predicts, our natural resource use could rise to two earths per year.
“The fact that we are using, or ‘spending,’ our natural capital faster than it can replenish is similar to having expenditures that continuously exceed income. In planetary terms, the costs of our ecological overspending are becoming more evident by the day. Climate change—a result of greenhouse gases being emitted faster than they can be absorbed by forests and oceans—is the most obvious and arguably pressing result. But there are others—shrinking forests, species loss, fisheries collapse, higher commodity prices and civil unrest, to name a few. The environmental and economic crises we are experiencing are symptoms of looming catastrophe. Humanity is simply using more than what the planet can provide.”
Not all countries are in overdraft. Canada for example is an ecological creditor, with its ecological footprint about half of its biological capacity. Global Footprint has a cool map — click here — where you can see which countries are in the green, creditors, and which are in the red, debtors.
Earlier this year, Global Footprint did its first state footprint for California and the news is not good. As of 2008, our biocapacity, 36.2 million global hectares, is only 23 percent of our ecological footprint. (Global hectares are a measure, in hectares, of all biologically productive land in the world in a given year.)
Despite our agriculture, we still import 52 percent of crop products, fish production accounts for only 27 percent of consumption and forest production comes in at 32 percent of consumption. The only sector where we’re in the red is in the export of grazing land products. Meanwhile 73 percent of our ecological footprint comes from carbon. There’s a good graphic with more details on all this here.
Global Footprint does not have any easy answers on what to do about these figures — just more questions. How much nature does it take to produce the state’s gross domestic product? And to what extent are we losing ecological capital — ground water, soils, rain — to maintain high productivity?