THE BLOG
08/13/2015 09:37 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2016

Today, Humanity Has Spent Our Planet's Budget for the Entire Year

Citizens of the Planet/UIG via Getty Images

When a country plummets into a massive financial deficit, it attracts worldwide attention. Yet countries today are largely ignoring another form of overspending: their ecological deficits. This is putting economies and citizens alike at even more risk.

The consequences of a fiscal deficit can strike much more quickly than those of an ecological deficit. But the results of an ecological deficit -- including fisheries collapse, biodiversity loss and climate change, as well as economic instability -- are potentially much longer lasting and more difficult to reverse if not tackled early. This is because addressing resource constraints requires reshaping our use of resources like forests and energy, with profound effects on our infrastructure and lifestyles.

Recovery may even be impossible if ecological thresholds are exceeded. Exceeding ecological thresholds can result in swift and large-scale changes in the way ecosystems function, like in the case of the collapse of cod stocks in the North Atlantic as a result of overfishing -- and may be very difficult to reverse.

However, there is good news. This year, more than ever, the momentum is building quickly for us to address ecological deficits on a global scale.

A global ecological deficit is called overshoot, and today, August 13, is Earth Overshoot Day. Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity's demand on renewable natural resources exceeds the supply that our planet can regenerate. More simply, it's the date humanity has spent our planet's budget for the entire year. This year, that date arrives more than four months before the year ends. As recently as 2000, Earth Overshoot Day fell in October.

The world population now demands 62 percent more than what Earth's ecosystems can renew.

Ecological deficits vary dramatically by country, but cumulatively the world population now demands 62 percent more than what Earth's ecosystems can renew, based on research by the international think tank Global Footprint Network.
Humanity's fast-growing carbon footprint is the largest contribution to the widening gap between our demand on the planet and what the Earth can supply.

The Ecological Footprint accounting tool adds up all the demands for food, fiber timber and carbon sequestration. The carbon footprint is inextricably linked to the other components of Ecological Footprint -- cropland, grazing land, forests and productive land built over with buildings and roads, all competing for space on our planet. As demand for food and timber products increases, less area is available to absorb carbon from fossil fuel. This means carbon emissions accumulate in the atmosphere rather than being fully absorbed.

Consequently, the global climate talks in Paris in December are critically important to our planet's future and could go a long way in helping to significantly shrink the Ecological Footprint. The U.N.'s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has advised nations to completely phase out fossil fuels by 2070 to maintain global warming within the 2 degrees Celsius range. For every year we delay action, we need five more years in this century to be absolutely carbon free.

Dramatic cuts in fossil fuels are possible. Denmark has already proven that -- even as its GDP increased. Since the 1990s, the Danes have reduced their economy's carbon footprint by 33 percent. Had the rest of the world done the same, even without changing the rest of the Ecological Footprint, Earth Overshoot Day would be on October 3 this year.

Carbon emissions from the global energy sector stalled in 2014 for the first time in 40 years.

Indeed, as recent International Energy Agency data shows, carbon emissions from the global energy sector stalled in 2014 for the first time in 40 years. This is predominantly a result of positive shifts in China and Europe -- and should give us all hope that a greener cleaner future is not only possible but is becoming a reality.

By contrast, if we resist positive change and continue on the same path, we will be using the resources equivalent to two planets by 2030, with Earth Overshoot Day moving up on the calendar to the end of June.

Individual citizens and communities can and must help turn the tide. By favoring more resource-efficient travel options and shared transport to reduce carbon emissions, for example; by taking care to reduce consumption of natural resources; and by reusing and recycling as much as possible, everyone can play their part in pushing Earth Overshoot Day later on the calendar.

There are encouraging signs that action from world leaders is also possible this year. His Holiness Pope Francis' Encyclical, released in June, was a strong global call to action to people of all faiths to protect "our common home."

Meanwhile, renewable energy has taken off in many regions of the world. We are seeing cases in Africa demonstrating how these economies can leapfrog the carbon-based development model of the past by investing in renewables -- while also addressing poverty and social development, particularly in rural areas. In Latin America, Costa Rica has gone the extra mile. After decades of expanding its reliance on hydropower, the small tropical nation expects renewable energy to generate more than 95 percent of the total electricity consumed this year.

If we resist positive change and continue on the same path, we will be using the resources equivalent to two planets by 2030.

China, too, is making bold strides in shifting toward a green energy future. Its low-carbon growth strategy, based on the development of and investment in renewable energy sources, is exemplary. As the head of the Energy Agency recently pointed out, China is spending more on clean power than the U.S. and Europe put together and currently stands as the largest wind power market in the world.

Even the global finance industry is getting in on the act, as evidenced by the growing divestment movement. France's largest insurer, Axa, said in May it will sell off coal assets because of climate change concerns. Earlier in the year, the Bank of England -- one of Europe's oldest banks -- warned of coal, oil and gas assets becoming worthless by policy changes that limit fossil fuel use.

What does all this activity add up to? A perfect storm is brewing for 2015 to become the most exciting year to date for creating a more sustainable planet. Our vision of sustainability means that all people and species can live well within our planet's resource budget. Reducing the carbon footprint -- as nations are increasingly poised to commit to in Paris -- is paramount to achieving this vision.

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