Overconsumption: How long can humans now live on ecological credit?

The planet has hit Earth Overshoot Day, meaning that humanity has used more resources than it can regenerate this year.   

Published : Aug 03, 2023 13:03 IST - 5 MINS READ

Mannequins displaying women’s clothing in the window of the Christian Dior SE luxury boutique on Parizska Street in Prague, Czech Republic.

Mannequins displaying women’s clothing in the window of the Christian Dior SE luxury boutique on Parizska Street in Prague, Czech Republic. | Photo Credit: MILAN JAROS/BLOOMBERG

The world has overreached its sustainable biological limits for 2023, according to the US-based environment NGO Global Footprint Network. Humanity now needs about 1.7 planets to maintain its consumption.

The ecological overshoot trend has “flattened” over the past five years, according to the NGO. But it is difficult to discern whether that is “driven by economic slowdown or deliberate decarbonization efforts”.

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Either way, curbing humanity’s overuse of Earth’s resources is happening much too slowly, the NGO added. According to its calculations, Earth Overshoot Day would have to occur 19 days earlier each year for the next seven years to reach global targets for cutting climate-wrecking greenhouse gas emissions.

Global Footprint Network CEO Steven Tebbe linked the depletion of Earth’s resources, from cutting down forests to burning fossil fuels, to deadly extreme weather.

“Persistent overshoot leads to ever more prominent symptoms, including unusual heat waves, forest fires, droughts, and floods, with the risk of compromising food production,” Tebbe said in a statement.

Back in 1970, the Earth’s biocapacity—defined as “ecosystems’ capacity to produce biological materials used by people and to absorb waste material generated by humans”—was more than enough to meet annual human demand for resources. But, in the half-century since, we have steadily outgrown our single planet.

Inequality around globe

The NGO also estimates individual countries’ overshoot days. Germany’s came on May 4, meaning that, if the whole world lived like the country, humanity would need three planets to sustain itself in a year. The United States and the United Arab Emirates, which will hosting this year’s UN Climate Conference, reached theirs on March 13.

The global south will bear much of the cost of the environmental destruction wrought by resource overuse—as will future generations, suffering through a climate crisis now being fuelled by overconsumption.

Countries such as Indonesia and Ecuador do not overshoot until December and are close to living within their means. But they are the target of resource exploitation by richer nations like Germany.

“Germany is the fifth-biggest consumer of raw materials in the world, and is importing up to 99 per cent of minerals and metals from countries in the global south,” said Lara Louisa Siever, senior policy advisor for resource justice at the German development network, INKOTA, in 2022.

In 2023, Qatar was the worst overshoot culprit, using up its renewable resources by February 10.

Germany must shift from logic of endless growth

But Germany, like most developed nations, is still high on the list—France, Greece, the UK, and Japan all also reached their Overshoot Days in May.

“The big problem we have in Germany, that we have in general in the global north, is that we have not yet understood that resources are finite,” said Viola Wohlgemuth, circular economy and toxics campaigner at Greenpeace Germany.

She refers to World Resources Institute data showing that 90 per cent of biodiversity loss is due to “resource exploitation and conversion to products”, and that this production also accounts for 50 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite this “enormous resource crisis”, nations like Germany “have not learned”, Wohlgemuth said.

In the past, Germany has been held up “as a paragon of climate virtue”, noted Berlin-based climate activist, Tadzio Müller. “The reason for this myth of Germany as eco champion ironically has nothing to do with Germany’s industrial policy or its political strategies at a governmental level, but has everything to do with powerful social movements,” Müller said.

He refers to the anti-nuclear movement that rose up in the 1970s and ‘80s and long pushed for a nuclear energy phase out; the rise of German renewable energy ingenuity in small and medium-sized companies; and more recent successful demands for a fossil fuel exit by young climate protesters.

But the driving principle of endless growth that underpins German economic policy must fundamentally shift if climate change and the “extremely grave problem of biodiversity loss“ linked to overconsumption is to be addressed, Müller said.

This extends to the idea of “green growth”, or what he calls “electric car capitalism”, which is also based on the massive expansion of resource consumption—especially for minerals and rare earths.

Circular economy vital to #MoveTheDate

Germany’s federal government is currently debating a new national circular economy strategy in an effort to reduce resource use—even if the same growth model is to remain, notes Müller.

For Viola Wohlgemuth, a holistic circular economy is vital to move back the Earth Overshoot date. “We must change our business models so that products are truly recyclable,” she said, referring also to the principles of reduce, reuse, and recycle at the heart of the European Green Deal’s Circular Economy Action Plan. Wohlgemuth also calls for an absolute limit on resource use in Germany.

Such limits need to encompass energy use. Only one quarter of German gas supplies are used for heating or cooking, according to the Greenpeace campaigner, with much of high-carbon fossil fuel powering unsustainable production.

Germany must rapidly accelerate emission cuts

Greenhouse gas emissions are a direct consequence of over-production and -consumption, and need to be rapidly cut if Germany is to reduce its overshoot, according to Christoph Bals, political director of the non-profit environment organisation, Germanwatch.

“CO2 emissions in Germany would have to fall three times as fast as they do now,” he said.

Improved access to high-speed, low-emission rail transport and curtailment of air travel are among Germanwatch’s suggested means to reduce these emissions.

But without first dealing with overconsumption, Germany will fail to live within its means.

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“We look at all the problems in separate ways—climate change or biodiversity loss or food shortage—as if they were occurring independently,” noted Global Footprint Network founder and president, Mathis Wackernagel.

“But they’re all symptoms of the same underlying theme: that our collective metabolism, the amount of things that humanity uses, has become very big compared to what Earth can renew.”

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