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The Earth is exhausted

Anne-Sophie Brändlin
August 2, 2017

We've already used up more resources this year than our planet can regenerate. That's bad news for our climate and for poorer countries in the Global South, which stand to lose out the most. Anne-Sophie Brändlin reports.

Symbolbild Globalisierung
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

As of Wednesday, we have officially used up all of the Earth's resources for 2017, and it's only the beginning of August.

Back in 1987, Earth Overshoot Day - the date when humanity as a whole has used up the resources needed to live sustainably for a year - fell on December 9.

Ever since, we've been increasingly overshooting the planet's annual natural budget and the day has been creeping up the calendar, landing on August 8 last year and August 2 this year.

"We consume our natural sources as if it were a product that we can just buy when it runs out and consume as much of it as we want," Lena Michelsen, policy adviser for food and agriculture at the German development network INKOTA, told DW in an interview.

"We cannot continue like this."

Infografik Earth Overshoot Day ENG

According to sustainability experts, we currently need 1.7 planets to support humanity's demand on Earth's ecosystems.

"Our collective consumption currently exceeds by 70 percent what our planet Earth can renew," Mathis Wackernagel of the Global Footprint Network, who developed the concept of the ecological footprint, told DW in an interview. 

The exact date of Earth Overshoot Day is declared every year by the Global Footprint Network, a non-profit research group that takes the planet's biocapacity - the amount of natural resources that are available - and divides it by the amount of resources we've used up - humanity's ecological footprint. This number is then multiplied by the days in a year.  

High-income countries live at the cost of low-income nations

The Global Footprint Network doesn't just look at the global ecological footprint but also calculates each country's individual use of resources. Not surprisingly, high-income countries like Luxembourg, Qatar, Australia and the United States use far more resources per year than low-income countries such as Eritrea, Haiti, Burundi and Pakistan.

Sri Lanka - Überschwemmung
Climate change affects developing nations the most - weather disasters are more likely on a warmer planetImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Jaywardena

"We do not only live at the cost of future generations. Countries in the Global North also live at the cost of poorer countries in the Global South," said Michelsen, who is responsible for organizing a protest in Berlin for this year's Earth Overshoot Day.

Take Germany for example. The global demand for resources is currently so high that we'd need 1.7 Earths to meet it. But Germany is way above this average.

"If the whole population of the world lived like Germany, we would need 3.2 Earths to feed our hunger for consumption," Michelsen said.

"In comparison, if everyone in this world lived like the people in Mozambique, we would need less than half a planet a year." 

Carbon emissions major contributor to ecological footprint

China Kohlegrupe in Shanxi
Carbon emissions currently make up 60 percent of humanity's ecological footprint.Image: Getty Images/K. Frayer

One reason for this overconsumption of resources, according to Wackernagel, is that our population is increasing every year. What's more, incomes are rising as well, which increases demand and makes people want to consume more.

But one of the main culprits for overshooting the planet's natural budget is carbon emissions. In fact, they currently make up 60 percent of humanity's ecological footprint. If we were to cut our global carbon emissions in half, the date of Earth Overshoot Day would be pushed back by about three months.

That's why sticking to the Paris Agreement and investing in renewable energy is ever more important. If we were able to live up to the targets set at the Paris Climate Conference, we would be able to live within the means of our planet's resources by 2050, according to Wackernagel.

"This is totally possible but not very likely at this point. The trends that we see are not yet pointing in this direction."

What needs to change

BdW Global Ideas Bild der Woche KW 34/2016 Deutschland Massentierhaltung
Industrial agriculture is a climate killer and is responsible for a third of global CO2 emissionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Büttner

According to Michelsen, there are three big factors we need to work on: energy production, industrial agriculture, and mobility.

"A complete coal exit is absolutely essential. We need to invest in renewable energy and Germany isn't doing enough in this respect. We are far from a real energy transition," Michelsen said.

"The second big step is introducing ecological practices in agriculture. Industrial agriculture is a major climate killer. Worldwide, agriculture is responsible for a third of all CO2 emissions."

The third step, Michelsen says, is greening our means of transportation. Driving and flying both emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases.

Global decision-makers need to do more

USA Proteste gegen Trumps Rucktritt vom Pariser Abkommen
It's important for individuals to raise their voices and hold their political leaders accountable, says MichelsenImage: Picture alliance/AP Images/S. Walsh

In order to push next year's Earth Overshoot Day back, global decision-makers need to adjust their priorities, says Wackernagel.

Every year, the World Economic Forum conducts a Risk Report, asking experts and global decision-makers what they see as the most significant long-term risks worldwide. Last year, six out of the 10 key risks were all environmentally oriented, including water shortages, climate change and resource issues.

At the same time, the Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum lists 114 indicators that make a country strong. Not a single one touched on resources, environmental issues or climate change last year.

"It's puzzling to me how we can pretend that the resource risks we're clearly aware of will never touch us," Wackernagel said.

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