By Dave Sanderson
The first of three guest blogs this week to mark World Overshoot Day, 8 August 2016
Every year, the Global Footprint Network calculates Earth Overshoot Day: the day when humanity’s use of ecological resources exceeds what the earth can regenerate that year. This year Earth Overshoot Day is on the 8th of August, the earliest it has ever been, because of a combination of rising consumption and rising population.
Earth Overshoot Day can be thought of like a profit and loss account: on the expenses side we have the area of land and water needed to produce the resources we consume and absorb our waste. On the revenue side, we have biocapacity, which is the amount of cropland, forests, fresh water etc that the earth can regenerate each year.
Earth Overshoot Day happens because we use more resources than the earth can produce — meaning that, in ecological terms, we are running at a loss. Not just a small loss, either; in fact, we would need the equivalent of 1.6 planet earths to support our existing level of consumption.
Some positive action has been taken in this regard, for example with the signing of the COP21 Paris Agreement, where signatories pledged to reduce emissions to keep climate change below two degrees Celsius.
At current levels of consumption, there are 2.7 billion people more than the earth can sustainably support; a number that will increase as world population continues to rise by around 80 million per year from its current level of 7.3bn.
UN population growth scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one. The result is collapsing fisheries, diminishing forest cover, depletion of fresh water systems and the build up of carbon dioxide emissions, which creates problems like global climate change.
Overshoot also contributes to resource conflicts and wars, mass migrations, famine, disease and other human tragedies—and tends to have a disproportionate impact on the poor, who cannot buy their way out of the problem by getting resources from somewhere else. The USA is only 46% self-sufficient, China only 28%, India 39%, the EU 48.5% and the UK 27%.
Putting it another way, Australia is the most overshot nation, because if everyone on earth lived like Australians, we would need 5.4 earths to sustain us. Americans would need 4.8, Russia 3.3, Germany 3.1, Britain 2.9, China 2.0 and India 0.7 earths. Altogether 114 countries are in overshoot out of 187 listed. There is thus a significant risk to the economies of overshot nations as they assume they will always be able to import what they require from elsewhere…and that may not continue to be the case.
From this it can be seen that overshoot needs to be tackled in two ways: the first way is by moving towards more sustainable lifestyles to reduce our per capita consumption. The second way is to tackle population growth so that there is a larger share of biocapacity for each of us. Ideally we need the global population to stabilise then gradually reduce as people freely choose to have smaller families.
There are those who say that population is not an issue, it is the level of consumption that is the problem. As already explained, global levels of consumption / resource use are unsustainable, so on the face of it, that is true. Theoretically, a much more equitable distribution of wealth and resources would enable the current population to survive if a much more meagre lifestyle was also adopted but that is very unlikely to occur. Even very poor people do have an environmental impact; they still need land for housing, fuel for cooking, clear the bush for growing food and hunt bush meat if they can…and clearly, the population still could not grow to infinity. So, with just one planet, the choice is between a small population of high consuming people or a larger number of low consuming people.
All the pointers indicate that voluntary population management could be achieved, if certain conditions are met. Women everywhere need to have control over their own fertility, which implies equality for women, not currently accepted in some societies. There needs to be improved education and employment prospects for women, also opposed in some places and cultures.
The use and availability of a variety of forms of contraception needs to be promoted, at low or no cost. It is estimated that globally more than 200m women do not have access to contraception, with an estimated 38% of all pregnancies worldwide being unintended. These unwanted pregnancies must be reduced, via better education / information for the young in particular and the availability of stigma-free, safe, post-conception treatments, such as the morning-after pill.
Population needs to become an issue everyone feels happy to discuss, with the advantages of stable and slowly shrinking populations clearly established. Finally, we should stop providing incentives to have children; instead set out the real financial and emotional costs of having a family and provide incentives to have a maximum of two children.
Dave Sanderson is a retired economic development professional, active in many areas of sustainability. He is deeply involved with Greater Manchester TreeStation, is on the Board of the Woodland Trust’s Smithill Enterprise Hub, helped found the Saddleworth Hydro Scheme, acts as a Woodland Creation Champion, monitors bird populations for the RSPB and BTO and is an active member of the charity Population Matters. To find out more about how population growth and sustainability impact the planet, visit www.populationmatters.com and get involved.