Earth Overshoot Day 2020: the beginning of long-term change?

Earth Overshoot Day becomes a buzzword in the sustainable development community every year in mid-to-late summer. In case you are new to it, this term refers to the date by which humanity uses all the natural resources that can be replenished within one year. This means that from this date until the end of the year, we are consuming more than what our planet can sustainably replenish. How is this date calculated to best reflect the impact of our current consumption on the environment? First, the Global Footprint Network estimates how much of the resources our Earth produces can regenerate in the given year, based on continuing trends from previous years. Then, a prediction for how much impact our different actions have on the environment is used including our carbon footprint, food demand, forest harvest and others, to ultimately find out the date at which we use up all the resources.

The history of Earth Overshoot Day

The first use of the term Earth Overshoot Day dates back only to the year 2006 when the UK think tank New Economics Foundation and the Global Footprint Network partnered to launch the first Earth Overshoot Day campaign, aimed at increasing awareness of our consumption and the effort to move the date as late into the year as possible.

Even though the term itself is quite new, the date has been calculated back decades. According to this data, the first Earth Overshoot Day happened in the year 1970. Following a negative trend through the rest of the 80s, 90s and the beginning of the 21st century, Earth Overshoot Day fell somewhere at the beginning of August for most of the past decade, with the date falling on July 29th in 2019.

What's up with Earth Overshoot Day in 2020?

In contrast with last year’s date, this year’s Earth Overshoot Day was the 22nd of August, which is more than 3 weeks later. Have we truly improved by almost 10% in just one year?

As any person living in the year 2020 may know, this environmental improvement might be due to something other than our efforts and progresses towards sustainable development. In the past, improvements to Earth Overshoot Day have correlated with times of economic crises and recession, such as in 2008. That is more true than ever with the impact of Covid-19, not only on the global economy but also on our movement, shopping habits and carbon emissions as most countries implemented lock-down measures.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Earth Overshoot Day

So, what exactly was the impact of the pandemic on our sustainability? The Earth Overshoot Day calculation considers a range of different areas which contribute towards our overall impact on the planet. This year, a few of those areas saw some substantial changes while one, surprisingly, did not.

Our overall carbon footprint has decreased by nearly 15% this year, mostly due to decreased travel and many countries closing down their borders. While most of the countries of the world were in full lockdown, our consumption of energy went down by as much as 25%! Many businesses got heavily affected by the situation, as our consumption of new products drastically decreased and moved online. The forestry and woodworking sector was among those, with the environmental footprint of forest products decreasing by 8.4% this year.

While this is not mentioned directly by the Global Footprint Network, the garment industry supply chains, were also heavily affected. As stores were shut down, clothing sales have decreased dramatically and factories were forced to limit their production or shut down, too. While this undeniably negatively affected many industry workers who lost their jobs, the impact of the fashion industry on our environment has temporarily decreased. On the other hand, since many large manufacturers follow fashion trends which change with the seasons, this has undeniably resulted in fabrics and other stock going to waste – unlike in other industries such as forestry where the rotation is not as rapid. There is a lack of data available online regarding this, since most sources tend to focus on the humanitarian issues resulting from decreased garment production, but it is indeed an interesting area we should not be forgetting about. The question remains: how has this affected the overall sustainability of garment production in 2020?

What comes as quite a surprise to somebody who saw others bulk-buying an excess of groceries at the beginning of lockdown is that our food footprint has remained more or less unchanged. However, the pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted the global food supply system. According to the Global Footprint Network, the lack of change in this area was likely due to restaurants partially shutting down and the increase of home cooking. Restaurants tend to be less efficient with their food supply than people cooking at home, which is why their partial shutdown balanced the food wastage households generated.

Is this the beginning of a change?

Is the environmental improvement made in 2020 the beginning of long-term change or just a short-term consequence of the current situation?

The opinions on this are mixed: some say that the current limitations are likely to cause even more spending, traveling and wastage once the precautions are fully lifted, while others are more optimistic. What remains true is that we saw how much we can improve on our carbon footprint or consumption and progress towards sustainable development when we need to. Perhaps we could carry one lesson with us – we can drastically change our impact on the environment when we have to.

The climate change crisis, ocean plastic pollution and many other pressing issues are undeniably serious – so if we can improve our impact by limiting ourselves in some actions, if even a little, why wouldn’t we? This does not mean that we need to stay shut in our homes for weeks if we hope to improve. However, there are a few habits we cultivated in 2020 that we could all carry forward to support sustainable development:

  • Taking local vacations – as we were limited by travel restrictions, many of us had to cancel trips overseas and instead explore our local nature. This helped decrease our carbon footprint, so let’s keep this habit up and explore our surrounding destinations!
  • Supporting local businesses on and offline – the sense of community kicked in and many of us ordered from local and small businesses to help them through the tough situation. This can help with our carbon footprint, as local businesses usually source locally and tend to have a lower overall impact on the environment.
  • Ordering online with green delivery options — Large retail stores take a lot of energy and resources to run and can be physically further away from your home. Shopping online could actually help #MoveTheDate next year!
  • Voting in your local elections — Our small steps towards sustainability only work if government policy follows suit. We encourage you to register to vote and inform yourself on environmental policy that can help create a sustainable future and thriving circular economy.

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