Lockdowns deliver respite for our overshooting planet
For 50 years we’ve been blowing the world’s ecological budget, causing Overshoot Day (the date when humanity will have used earth’s renewable ecological budget for the entire year) to move inexorably forward. In 2019, it arrived on 29 July. But this year it has moved back substantially for the first time, to Saturday 22 August.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced our ecological footprint (the global consumption of renewable resources) by about 10%, as lockdowns, travel restrictions and construction slowdowns significantly reduce human activity.
We can benefit from some powerful lessons: that we are one biology and our fates are interwoven; that in the face of crisis we can take collective protective action; and that humanity has the capacity to reverse the course of its ever-growing resource consumption.
While all our attention and efforts are geared towards recovery, this is our chance to make our economies compatible with the fact that we only have one planet. We can do this by making resource regeneration, biodiversity, circularity and climate central to our decision-making.
Overshoot Day is calculated by international sustainability think tank the Global Footprint Network with the aim of helping move the date back to 31 December or beyond as we acknowledge we only have one planet. According to the Network’s calculations, the main culprits are fossil fuels, inefficient energy use, deforestation, depletion of soils and water, and inappropriate resource extraction.
Despite the date’s move backwards, it still means that by Saturday we will have harvested more trees than forests can renew, caught more fish than the ocean can replenish and emitted more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than ecosystems can absorb over the entire year. This year’s resource-consumption reduction was sudden, unexpected, enforced and, unless we take conscious action, transitory.
There is an urgent imperative for business and government to work together. We can all contribute by making clear commitments to environmental targets, more efficient use of energy, quicker adoption of renewables, significant cuts to waste and pollution and creating a circular economy.
Decarbonising the economy is the most powerful lever to reduce our abuse of the world’s resources. Cutting global carbon emissions in half would move the overshoot date by three months.
This year’s carbon emissions dropped 14.5%, with travel restrictions and reduced fuel usage having a significant impact. At least some of those gains could be retained, with many business practices such as business travel unlikely to go back to pre-COVID-19 levels.
Greenhouse gas emission levels have been tightly correlated to human and industry activities — through travel, transportation, manufacturing, consumption practices and energy generation.
We can weaken this link through digitisation. With the right digital tools, data can be used in ways that lead to better decisions, more efficient resource use and more significant achievements.
Digital buildings can reduce energy consumption, increase building resilience, and improve their occupants’ comfort. Key to this is remote monitoring and operations, predictive and preventive maintenance, and advanced design. We can build better, and retrofit existing buildings for significant reductions in energy usage.
Researchers from Global Footprint Network and Schneider Electric have estimated that off-the-shelf, commercial technologies for buildings, industrial processes and electricity production alone could move Earth Overshoot Day by at least 21 days, without any loss in productivity or comfort.
By addressing energy efficiency, data collection and management, and carbon reduction in the supply chain, companies can realise significant environmental impact while improving the reliability of the goods and services needed for sustained growth.
Schneider Electric’s dual commitment to digitisation and decarbonisation translates to achieving a world that operates within planetary budgets, through deliberate circularity and massive efficiency gains.
Leading organisations now find themselves uniquely positioned to become heroes of disruption. Some have called the COVID-19 crisis the ‘trial’ for future climate crises; the steps that companies take in the coming months have the power to transform the long-term health and resilience of their business.
Already 155 companies, with a combined market capitalisation of over $3 trillion, representing over 5 million employees, have signed a statement from the Science Based Targets initiative urging governments to align their COVID-19 economic aid and recovery efforts with the latest climate science.
Together we can move from the COVID-19 crisis to a future that is resilient and workable for all, by design. If we shift the sustainability conversation from being noble to fundamentally necessary, we have an opportunity to focus on building the future we want, one where humanity thrives within the means of our only planet.
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