Today is Earth Overshoot Day and that’s worrying

This means that between January 1 and August 13, 2015, humanity has used as much from nature as the planet can renew in the entire year.

August 13, 2015 08:28 pm | Updated March 25, 2016 08:34 pm IST

We have no need for data and statistics to know what our experience already tells us. Recent deadly heat waves, cyclones and pollution peaks in India are enough for us to be aware that global warming, increasing intensity of disasters and unsustainable living are alarming trends indeed. This being said, data and statistics are crucial tools to understand clearly what the challenges are, and to make decisions to effectively address and remedy them.

So here is a data point you may want to consider: today, August 13th, is the day the world has exhausted nature’s budget for the entire year! Yes, today is Earth Overshoot Day. This means that between January 1 and August 13, 2015, humanity has used as much from nature as the planet can renew in the entire year of 2015. Earth Overshoot Day has been moving up each year; it fell in October in 2000. By 2030, we would have to mark Earth Overshoot Day in June if current trends don’t change, according to international think tank Global Footprint Network.

The climate agreement expected at the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) 21 this December will focus on maintaining global warming within the 2-degrees-Celsius range over pre-Industrial Revolution levels. This shared goal will require nations to implement policies to completely phase out fossil fuels by 2070, per the recommendations of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), directly impacting the Ecological Footprints of nations.

Assuming global carbon emissions are reduced by at least 30 percent below today’s levels by 2030, in keeping with the IPCC’s suggested scenario, Earth Overshoot Day could be moved back on the calendar to September 16, 2030 (assuming the rest of the Footprint would continue to expand at the current rate).

Indian Scenario

When the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), in partnership with Global Footprint Network, published the ‘India’s Ecological Footprint: A Business Perspective’ report in 2008, not many decision makers took sustainability options seriously. India is currently running feverishly in order to speed up its development and to make its economy more robust.

But such a race for fiscal and industrial growth is pointless in the absence of a thoughtful management of the very resources that India depends on — natural capital. Our business, manufacturing, food production and employment potential cannot grow if we have no water, food, electricity and energy.

Unfortunately, politicians and policy makers are busy tweaking words and phrases to paint an impressive picture while ignoring the capacity of India to support its development.

Let us consider some statistics. In order to sustain current consumption levels, India requires twice the amount of natural resources that it can regenerate. Though Indians consistently have one of the lowest per capita Ecological Footprints in the world, India has the third-largest share of the world’s overall Ecological Footprint because of its large population — trailing only China and the United States. At the same time, India has achieved a steady and quite rapid increase in the Human Development Index over the last 30 years.

Now, what do Footprint and biocapacity mean? Both developed by Global Footprint Network, they measure a population’s demand for, and ecosystems’ supply of, resources and services.

Think of it as a bank statement which tracks income against expenditures. On the supply side, a city, state or nation’s biocapacity represents its biologically productive land and sea area, including forest lands, grazing lands, cropland, fishing grounds, and built-up land. On the demand side, the Ecological Footprint measures a population’s demand for plant-based food and fiber products, livestock and fish products, timber and other forest products, space for urban infrastructure, and forest to absorb its carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. Biocapacity and Ecological Footprint are expressed in a unit called global hectare (gha).

Celebrating Earth Overshoot Day in the Future

Although we are aware that celebrating Earth Overshoot Day alongside Christmas is unlikely in the future, we must endeavor to push out the date as late in the year as possible. Sadly, we may have to celebrate it in May before long if our current carbon emission levels go unabated while we argue about who has to cut what and by how much.

The silver lining for India is that its current Ecological Footprint and biocapacity can be managed better by implementing three simple actions.

1. Undertake an ecological audit every year that combines data and information on actions and investments by the government, the private sector and the public. The outcomes of the audit should be used to help shape our industrial, environment and development policies. Though this was suggested in earnest by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in 2010, it was never taken seriously nor was any audit performed in India.

2. Ensure that the new Corporate Social Responsibility Law is used to support increasing the nation’s biocapacity, with an appropriate sharing of natural assets across the population, and decreasing the Ecological Footprint — all through measurable, long-term investments into ecosystem restoration, rehabilitation and management.

3. Improve the scope and depth of policy-making scenarios regarding environmental management and development, thanks to the input of scientists and local communities.

India’s GDP has tripled since 1961. But while some people enjoy a higher standard of living than before, a wide majority of individuals are deprived of the benefits of development and actually subsist on fewer natural resources than they used to.

What we need, in order to ensure that everyone in India has access to sufficient food, health, energy, sanitation and material goods, is to grow India’s Ecological Footprint per capita. Yet, given recent estimates that India will soon take over China as the most populous country in the world, the country is likely to face a widening ecological deficit even if current per-capita levels of resource consumption remain the same.

The conclusion is clear: managing our natural resources sustainably is crucial to our development as a nation and as a civilization. We can’t afford to wait any longer.

(Balakrishna Pisupati is the former Chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority, Government of India and currently Senior Adjunct Fellow of Research Information Systems for Developing Countries (RIS).

Mathis Wackernagel is the co-founder and president of Global Footprint Network, an international think tank that provides a menu of ecological accounting tools.)

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