Climate change is not the problem. It is merely the most dramatic symptom of a major challenge that humanity is reluctant to acknowledge: We use more goods and services from nature than ecosystems can sustainably renew.
More precisely, we use as much as if we lived on 1.74 Earths, according to the latest edition of the National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts, produced by the Footprint Data Foundation with York University in Toronto, as was highlighted two months ago on Earth Overshoot Day 2021, July 29.
In particular, we are responsible for more carbon emissions than all the oceans, seas and forests of the planet are capable of absorbing. (Carbon makes up 61 percent of the total Ecological Footprint.) We also catch more fish than can be sustainably replenished and we force agricultural yields way beyond what the soil can sustainably provide by using chemical inputs that lead to topsoil depletion. Those are only some examples of how humanity erodes Earth’s natural capital.
When will we know we have come close to stopping the destruction of these resources?
We are responsible for more carbon emissions than all the oceans, seas and forests of the planet are capable of absorbing.
A simple benchmark is the date of Earth Overshoot Day: When it lands each year on Dec. 31 or jumps to the following year, it will reflect the reality, as captured in U.N. data, that humanity’s demand on nature is in balance with what the natural ecosystems of the planet can provide. The date will need to be much later, even, if we are to follow the call of naturalist E.O. Wilson to protect half of the Earth as habitat to reverse the species extinction crisis and ensure the long-term health of our planet.
Phasing out fossil fuels to lower carbon emissions is an essential lever to move the date of Earth Overshoot Day later in the year. Researchers at Global Footprint Network have calculated that reducing the carbon component of humanity’s Ecological Footprint by half would move Earth Overshoot Day by 93 days, or roughly three months. Improved energy efficiency, electrification, decarbonization of transportation and power, together with the acceleration of renewables, all contribute to achieving net-zero emissions by the second half of the century.
Existing technologies already make it possible to achieve this goal. For example, Global Footprint Network and Schneider Electric calculated that the date of Earth Overshoot Day could be pushed out by at least 21 days if existing buildings, industrial processes and electricity production were retrofitted, without any loss in human comfort or economic productivity, using existing off-the-shelf, commercial technologies.
Since July 29, we have been living off the depletion of our natural capital and will keep growing our ecological debt until the end of the year. Rather than a single-bullet solution, however, transitioning toward living in balance with the resources that Earth can sustainably renew — measured in terms of days we #MoveTheDate of Earth Overshoot Day — will require embracing a mosaic of solutions.
A representation of this mosaic is shaping up through the 100 Days of Possibility initiative that spans from Earth Overshoot Day to COP26 in November, with one solution featured daily. Whether it helps to #MoveTheDate of Earth Overshoot Day by half a day or two weeks, each solution is essential to improving resilience and building the future we want — one where all thrive within the means of nature.
Here are six examples of solutions to be implemented at the city level through local policies, mandates and regulations, and through innovations from the private sector. Click on each link to read more detail about the solution, its scalability and how it delays Earth Overshoot Day.
- Reforming how space for parking is allocated in cities: #MoveThe Date 10 days
- Replacing the use of conventional concrete with already-existing resource-efficient concrete: #MoveThe Date 2.4 days
- Covering half of existing buildings with green roofs: #MoveThe Date 1.6 days
- Better, safer bicycle infrastructure could increase the proportion of bicycle trips up to 35 percent of all trips: #MoveThe Date 9 days
- Carefully managing the use and disposal of fluorinated gases, the principal refrigerant used in refrigerators and air conditioners: #MoveThe Date 6 days
- Municipal Footprint-driven development strategies: variable — the historic city that is the birthplace of Portugal is pioneering a sustainable development strategy driven by data, supported by tools to educate and enroll citizens, and designed to include all stakeholders.
In reality, there are more than enough effective and affordable solutions readily available to address the challenges any one municipal government chooses to tackle. Accelerating their adoption, however, still hinges upon the commitment to departing from business-as-usual and enrolling multi-stakeholders in a shared vision of the resilient community they choose to build together.