Earth Overshoot Day: How businesses can ‘move the date’ to create a sustainable future

Today (1 August) marks Earth Overshoot Day, the date when humanity consumes more from nature than the planet can renew in a year. The urgent need to "move to the date" back is clear and edie explains how businesses can help by reinvigorating approaches to corporate sustainability.

As global megatrends such as population growth and climate change continue to add pressures to society and the world we operate in, Earth Overshoot Day has moved from late September in 1997 to early August 20 years later. In fact, August 1 is the earliest that Earth Overshoot Day has ever been recorded.

Stress on natural resources has been exacerbated by growing sustainability issues such as deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, fresh-water scarcity and the build-up of carbon emissions, researchers suggest. Humanity is now at a point where it consumes the resources of 1.7 Earths in a year – an inarguably unsustainable feat.

The Global Footprint Network, the research organisation tracking Earth Overshoot Day, predicts that Earth Overshoot Day will land halfway through the year – in June – by 2030, meaning it would require two entire Earths to sustain current consumption levels.

The message appears bleak and outcomes vary country by country. On a country-by-country basis, the UK’s Overshoot Day lands on May 8. However, GFN notes that nations can “move the date back” through various mechanisms. Notably, moving Earth Overshoot Day back by just 4.5 days every year would return humanity to using the resources of one planet, rather than 1.7, by 2050.

The organisation’s chief executive, Mathis Wackernagel, said that the onus is now on economies to stop “digging [humanity] deeper into ecological debt”, and that businesses must “leverage creativity and ingenuity to create a prosperous future free of fossil fuels and planetary destruction”.

So, how can businesses help to “move the date” and drive humanity towards a more sustainable future?

Solutions identified by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company and research coalition Project Drawdown – which has devised “the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming” – are now available in an open-data platform from GFN. Activist Paul Hawken, who founded Project Drawdown, discusses the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming in a recent episode of the Sustainable Business Covered podcast.

But for those with a little less time on their hands, edie has listed four key areas of focus to help “move the date”.

Lower emissions through clean energy

The Global Footprint Network claims that halving the carbon component of humanity’s ecological footprint would push the annual overshoot date back by a huge 93 days, returning it to 1970s levels – and estimates that 87% of humanity’s carbon footprint is caused by fossil fuel consumption.

The organisation notes that if all businesses, organisations and individuals committed to a science-based carbon reduction target in line with the Paris Agreement’s flagship commitment of limiting the global temperature rise to below 2C, humanity’s carbon footprint would become “close to zero” by 2050.

So far, more than 400 companies have applied to have their decarbonisation ambitions approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI), but only three corporations – namely BT, Carlsberg and Tesco – have set an approved aim in line with the stricter 1.5C trajectory.

Despite strong renewables pledges from businesses, the world currently obtains just 17.5% of its total final energy consumption from renewable sources, according to the latest data from the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD). Nonetheless, business and national efforts to ignite a global shift remain impressive.

Retrofit the built environment

In a bid to push the date back, Schneider Electric is calling on companies to retrofit buildings, offices and data centres with energy efficiency and renewable technologies. The company has partnered with international research organisation Global Footprint Network, to examine CO2 savings from the built environment.

Schneider Electric has calculated that if 100% of existing building, industry and data centre infrastructure was equipped with active energy efficiency technologies – ideally those utilising the Internet of Things – and the electric grid was upgraded with renewable capacities, the world could move the Earth Overshoot Day back by at least 21 days.

“Operating on a planet with finite resources requires creativity and innovation,” Schneider Electric’s senior vice president of global environment Xavier Houot said. “We team up with our customers and partners to unlock the potential to retrofit existing infrastructure, adopting circular business models, and we measure how much this helps save resources and CO2. We work to see our growth path through the lens of the growing need of living within the means of our one planet.”

The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) has called on the built environment sector to set ambitious targets that eliminate carbon emissions for building portfolios by 2030. An exclusive edie webinar, later this month, will explore how businesses can realise this ambition.

Commit to tackling food waste

Food is one of the key sustainability trends that needs addressing. As the population grows, climate change wreaks havoc with growing conditions and cultivation, intensive agriculture and deforestation reduce the amount of land to grow on, increasing access to food – while reducing wastage – requires transformational impacts.

The Barilla Centre for Food & Nutrition Foundation (BCFN) used the Food Sustainability Index (recently created in partnership with The Economist Intelligence Unit) to calculate how countries are losing farmland to pollution and desertification annually. In China, for example, nearly 8% of farmland is lost annually.

However, BCFN notes that reversing the trend is possible. Replacing meat consumption with plant foods, while wasting 50% less food, could push back Earth Overshoot back by 38 days. Improving the carbon impact of humanity’s ecological footprint by 50% would push the occasion back by 93 days.

Businesses joining the Champions 12.3 coalition have pledged to halve food waste by 2030. Utilising the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the coalition is attempting to create the economic case to act on food waste. A report from the coalition found that for every £1 spent on food loss mitigation, financial returns of around £10 can be generated.

Redefining and revaluing resources

Sometimes a mindset shift is all it takes to spark action. Organisations like the Ellen McArthur Foundation have been noting the need to redefine waste as a resource stream and champion the circular economy for some time.

The continuous barrage of plastic-related stories – in particular the amount of companies using post-consumer plastics in new products – has placed the spotlight firmly on closed-loop solutions. Up to 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120bn annually, is lost from the economy and businesses can reap economic gains by focusing on the resource revolution while reducing the amount of raw materials extracted from nature.

In fact, one way to re-examine the over-consumption of the natural environment is through natural capital. In some cases, placing an economic value on the air we breathe, the soil we use and the water we consume can catalyse the shift away from raw material extraction and focus on reusable materials.

Matt Mace & Sarah George

Comments (1)

  1. Patricia Prabhu says:

    So many of the products we buy have a "built in obsolescence". For example, an appliance that could be expected to last some time has a small weak spot, such as a small piece of fragile plastic that is easily broken. I have been told that this is deliberate policy by firms in order to force customers to buy a replacement.

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