The World is Getting Greener

Saturday will be Earth Overshoot Day 2020. This year it lands on August 22, more than three weeks later than in 2019, according to Global Footprint Network. The date reflects the 9.3% reduction of humanity’s Ecological Footprint from January 1st to Earth Overshoot Day compared to the same period last year, which is a direct consequence of the coronavirus-induced lockdowns around the world. The world is getting greener thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Decreases in wood harvest and CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion are the major drivers behind the historic shift in the long-term growth of humanity’s Ecological Footprint.

The sudden year-over-year Ecological Footprint contraction, however, is a far cry from the intentional change which is required to achieve both ecological balance and people’s well-being, two inextricable components of sustainability. At Global Footprint Network, we envision a world where humanity lives on our planet’s ecological budget by design rather than by disaster, so that all thrive within the means of Earth.

“Humanity has been united by the common experience of the pandemic and shown how intertwined our lives are. At the same time, we cannot ignore the deep unevenness of our experiences nor the social, economic, and political tensions which have been exacerbated by this global disaster,” said Global Footprint Network CEO Laurel Hanscom. “Making regeneration central to our rebuilding and recovery efforts has the potential to address the imbalances both in human society and in our relationship with the Earth.”

Past Earth Overshoot Days chart

Each year, Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity has used all the biological resources that Earth can renew during the entire year. Humanity currently uses 60% more than what can be renewed – or as much as if we lived on 1.6 planet. From Earth Overshoot Day until the end of the year, humanity grows the ecological deficit which has been increasing steadily since the world fell in ecological overshoot in the early 1970s, according to the National Footprint & Biocapacity Accounts (NFA) based on UN datasets (with 15,000 data points per country per year). Since UN data only stretches to 2016, the global results for 2020 have been assessed using complementary data.

To determine the impact of the pandemic on the carbon Footprint (14.5% decrease), the period from January 1st to Earth Overshoot Day was divided into three segments: January-March, for which the International Energy Agency (IEA) released an analysis of energy and emissions reductions; April-May, when the most restrictive lockdowns occurred; and June-Earth Overshoot Day, during which the gradual loosening of confinement policies is expected.

The forest products Footprint (8.4% decrease) is strongly affected by demand forecasts which, in turn, determines wood harvest. Even though construction has been ongoing during the pandemic, the forestry industry predicted lower demand going forward and quickly reduced harvest rates.

The global food system suffered significant disruptions such as the temporary shutdown of food services and the impossibility for migrant farm workers to cross borders. From farm to table, access both to market and to food has been compromised, increasing food waste and malnutrition simultaneously. Nevertheless, the food Footprint overall seems to have been unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lessons carrying us forward

This year more than ever, Earth Overshoot Day provides an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the future we want. Efforts to respond to COVID-19 have demonstrated that shifting ecological resource consumption trends in a short timeframe is possible. As we emerge out of the public health crisis and focus on rebuilding our economies and our lives, strategies informed by biological resource security and 1-planet prosperity are far more likely to bring about the positive outcomes that decision makers seek.

Already, powerful lessons can be drawn from the collective experience of the pandemic:

  • Governments are capable of acting swiftly, both in terms of regulations and spending, when they put human lives above all else;
  • Humanity is one biology and is stronger when we act together:
    • Businesses – including our partner Schneider Electric – and individuals alike can effectively align and collaborate in the pursuit of a shared goal when people recognize that their own lives, and that of the people they love, may be at risk.
    • The necessary actions required to protect oneself, one’s household, and one’s community also protect others; one’s decisions at all levels have consequences for all.

By now, we have witnessed what is possible when humanity comes together to pursue a shared outcome. What shared outcome could be more important than our long-term success on our finite planet?