The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the global Ecological Footprint to shrink, demonstrating how rapid changes in the consumption patterns of natural resources are possible.
The coronavirus is causing a lot of suffering and as such we would all have wished that showing us more sustainable models would not be a disaster of this magnitude. However, since the same depends on how man exploits the planet's natural resources, it is definitely worth learning from what we are experiencing to improve a possible future, which can also prevent future pandemics.
When it comes to Overshoot for the planet, it's a bit like opening the fridge and realizing that you've run out of everything. No food and no drinks. But the supermarket doesn't open for several months. Every year what is officially the point of no return for the planet's renewable resources is calculated. Those, to be clear, that the Earth is able to self-regenerate in a solar year.
According to the Global Footprint Network (GFN), the world's population is currently consuming resources for an average of 1.6 planets Earth, with a current trend forecast for 2 entire planets by 2030. In the case of Europe, it is as if it takes 2 , 8 planets Earth. Except that we, on the planet, have only one available.
Earth Overshoot Day 2020 falls on August 22, three weeks later than in 2019, according to the Global Footprint Network. The date reflects a 9.3% reduction in humanity's Ecological Footprint between January 1 and Earth Overshoot Day compared to the previous year. This is a direct result of the containment measures put in place around the world in response to the pandemic. The reduction of timber harvesting and CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are the two main factors underlying the historical inversion of the long-term trend of the global Ecological Footprint.
However, this sudden and unexpected reduction of the Ecological Footprint should not be interpreted as an intentional turnaround, necessary to achieve both ecological balance and the well-being of populations, two inextricable components of sustainable development.
Humanity found itself united by the common experience of the pandemic, realizing how interconnected our lives are. However, we cannot ignore the profound inequality of our societies nor the social, economic and political tensions that have been exacerbated by this global disaster, says Laurel Hanscom, CEO at Global Footprint Network. Putting the concept of resource regeneration by the planet at the center of our reconstruction and recovery efforts can help correct both imbalances in human society and in our relationship with the planet.
From the Day of Earth Overexploitation until the end of the year, humanity will increase its ecological deficit with the Earth; this deficit has steadily increased since ecological overexploitation began in the early 1970s, according to the National Footprint & Biocapacity Accounts (NFA) based on the United Nations database (with 15,000 data per country per year). Since the most recent UN data extends only to 2016, the results of the global Ecological Footprint for 2020 were evaluated using complementary data.
To determine the impact of the pandemic on the carbon footprint - which decreased by 14.5% - the period from January 1 to Earth Overshoot Day was divided into three segments: January-March, for which the Agency International for Energy (AIE) has already released an analysis on the reduction of energy consumption and emissions; April-May, the period in which containment measures around the world have been most severe: and finally the period from June to Earth Overshoot Day, during which a gradual easing of confinement policies is expected in most Countries affected by the pandemic.
The footprint due to the consumption of forest products - decreased by 8.4% - is strongly influenced by the forecasts of the demand for timber which, in turn, determine the forest harvest. Although construction continued during the pandemic, the forestry industry predicted a drop in demand in the near future, thus opting for a rapid reduction in timber harvesting.
The world food system has suffered serious disturbances, such as the temporary suspension of food services and the inability for migrant agricultural workers to cross borders. From farm to fork, the distribution network has been compromised in many places, increasing both food waste and malnutrition at the same time. Nonetheless, the overall food footprint appears not to have been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What can we learn from this:
This year more than ever, Earth Overexploitation Day offers us an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the future we want to create. The efforts made around the world to respond to COVID-19 have shown how it is possible to change our lifestyle and the levels of consumption of ecological resources in a short period of time. As we emerge from the public health crisis and turn our attention to rebuilding the economy and our societies, those development strategies based on the security of resources and the pursuit of prosperity in harmony with the planet's ecological budget will be much more likely to produce those positive (i.e. sustainable) results that decision makers seek.
We can already draw some important lessons from our collective experience of a global pandemic:
- When human life is put first, governments are able to move quickly, both in terms of regulation and spending;
- Humanity is a single body and we are stronger when we are united:
- Businesses and individuals can effectively align and collaborate to pursue a common goal, especially when they recognize that their lives, and those of those they love, are at risk.
- The actions required to protect ourselves, our homes and our communities also protect others; decisions made at all levels have ramifications that go far beyond the network of immediate influence.
We are now witnesses of what humanity can do in pursuing a common goal. What common goal could be more important than our long-term success in operating within the limits of our planet?
Because as an old Indian proverb states: We have the land, not inherited from parents, but rented from children.