We’ve exhausted a year’s worth of Earth’s resources in seven months. Now what?

As the constant forward creep of Earth Overshoot Day illustrates, government, mayors and CEOs need to move faster and deeper

Net Hero Podcast

Every year, the world stands by for Earth Overshoot Day, which signifies the day when humanity has used up all the ecological resources our planet regenerates during the entire year. This year, Earth Overshoot Day was marked on July 29. Meaning, just seven months into 2021 we’ve lived well beyond our ecological means, spending far more than we earn.

In October, representatives of governments from around the world will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, to try to agree on effective global actions to combat climate change. Should the 26th annual UN Climate Conference (COP26) – and a host of other events aimed at protecting our planet’s environment and biodiversity – succeed, humanity will be better equipped to prepare for a predictable future of climate change and resource constraints.

But time is of the essence; it’s a luxury we just don’t have anymore. In Canada, we are seeing the occurrence, frequency and nature of wildland fires change, causing devastating, widespread impact. This is just one example of the complicated influences of climate change. But the race against climate change is not just a Canadian problem. After all, economies, cities and companies around the globe are exposed to growing risks from climate change, pollution and environmental degradation, to water, food and energy shortages. At this point, not preparing ourselves for this future is to everyone’s disadvantage.

To weather the storm, simply telling others to repair their boat is no longer enough. All our boats require more comprehensive re-engineering: our mindsets need to change.

For a start, we need to recognize that climate change, biodiversity loss, and resource and energy shortages are not separate phenomena: they are interlinked. Viewing them together makes it possible to address them together, rather than trying to solve them in isolation, or even at the expense of one another. Determined climate action is necessary for building a sustainable future. All of us – be it government leaders, mayors or CEOs – will benefit from moving not just faster, but also deeper and as a collective.

The “faster” is obvious. As the constant forward creep of Earth Overshoot Day illustrates, the pace of action needs to accelerate. In 1990, Earth Overshoot Day was October 10. By 2000, it had moved to September 22. In 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic dampened global economic activity, the date was July 26. Last year, COVID-induced restrictions around the world pushed it to August 22. But this year, we’ve slipped back again, sharply. We can’t afford to delay action another month, let alone a decade.

The “deeper” is about adopting more of the solutions that help us reduce our impact and augment our resource security. A plethora of effective, scalable and affordable solutions already exist in all sectors of the economy. And as the 100 Days of Possibility initiative demonstrates, many more are coming to market every day. Named for the number of days until the start of COP26, the initiative (led by Global Footprint Network) is highlighting the various ways we can move Earth Overshoot Day back. The most obvious include renewable energy and electric transportation. But physical and digital technologies that allow homes, hospitals, factories, data centres, shopping malls and airport terminals to conserve energy also have huge potential to lower our collective carbon emissions. So does the electrification of heating, which in many buildings around the globe still comes in the form of fossil fuels.

Lastly, climate action needs to be “collective.” It isn’t enough for a company, for example, to just improve the environmental credentials of its own operations. We have to help our suppliers, business partners and customers achieve their sustainability goals, too. Likewise, public–private partnerships, and knowledge-sharing collaborations with NGOs, think tanks and academic institutions can be instrumental in taking climate-friendly initiatives and technologies to the next level.

We can weather the gathering storm. We have the tools and the knowledge. But Earth Overshoot Day makes it very clear that simply replacing the sails or cleaning the decks is not enough. We need a major overhaul of the hull, keel and engines. We need bold decisions, and to leave business-as-usual behind. That goes for the policy-makers meeting in Glasgow in November – and it goes for all of us, here and now.

Olivier Blum is the chief strategy and sustainability officer at Schneider Electric, and Mathis Wackernagel is the president of Global Footprint Network.