There is no Planet B: we have only one planet!

29th July 2019. Why is this date so important? Don’t worry, it was neither the deadline to apply for your master of science, nor to choose your electives, it was “just” the Earth Overshoot Date. On that day, humankind has used up all the share of annual natural resources available and for the rest of the year is stealing from future generations. Basically, it is as if from that day we are experiencing an ecological bankruptcy with the Earth. Indeed, with the current consumption pattern, we are exploiting natural resources at 1.75 times the rate our planet’s ecosystem can regenerate and we are using 1.75 planets Earth. The problem is not only that we have only one Earth, but most importantly this date occurs earlier year by year.  Earth Overshoot Date has moved up two months over the past two decades, leading to enormous global ecological overspending which is increasingly evident in the form of biodiversity loss, deforestation, soil erosion and increased amount of carbon dioxide, thus leading to faster climate change and increasingly frequent natural catastrophes. However, this can’t continue forever and decisive actions must be taken to restore the “operating in one planet” context, by placing biological resource management at the center of the decision-making process. According to the estimates of the Global Footprint Network, managing to postpone the Earth Overshoot Date by five days every year, would allow to reach the one-planet compatibility before 2050. But how can we do so? There are five major areas from which the solutions can come by rethinking the way we consume resources: cities, energy, food, planet and population.

Smart city planning and urban development strategies are instrumental to win (or lose) the global campaign for sustainability since they play a major role in shaping the needs for cars, which accounts for one-fifth of the carbon footprint. Examples include energy-efficient buildings, integrated zoning, compact cities and effective options for people-powered and public transportation.

With regard to energy, the ultimate goal is to phase out fossil fuels by 2050. Although achieving this objective seems a mirage, it is both technically feasible and financially advantageous since there will be immediate economic benefits. For example, researches highlighted that if the existing buildings and industry infrastructures were equipped with renewable energy technologies, the date of the Earth Overshoot Date would move back by at least three weeks, an important improvement considering that there won’t be any loss in human comfort or economic productivity. Overall, actions to half the carbon component of humanity’s ecological footprint will yield the greatest benefits, by postponing the Earth Overshoot Date by almost three months.

When looking at food, which accounts for one-quarter of the global ecological footprint, studies have shown that meat production is more resource-intensive than plant production. What strikes is that the healthier the food, the lower its ecological impact, so that consuming healthy food has a twofold advantage, both for our health and our planet. Moreover, food waste at the retailer and consumer level represents another problem both for developed and developing countries, so actions aimed at reducing waste would diminish at the same time world hunger and emissions.

Our quality of life and even survival depends on the health of our planet’s biological resources: clean air and water, fertile soil and unspoiled natural eco-systems are all crucial for keeping our planet alive, regulating the climate and producing the food we need. Although at present the massive overuse of biological resources is compromising our future, luckily solutions to boost the health of our planet exist. Among them, reforestation of tropical forests has numerous advantages as they reduce CO2 emissions, increase biodiversity and act as flood barriers in case of violent thunderstorms or hurricanes. Also regenerative agriculture has positive effects, as well as sustainable fishing which besides ensuring that fish will be available for future generations, helps slowing down the acidification process.

Last but not least, the larger the world’s population, the fewer resources are available per person. The problem with a spike increase in population is largely driven by developing countries. However, if policies are undertaken by governments to engage in effective family planning in order to reduce the average family size, that is, if every second family has, on average, one child less, the Earth Overshoot Date would move back by one month. This solution would carry additional social benefits for families in terms of access to better education and health.   

As you can see, effective solutions already exist and they are not even too burdensome but the speed with which they will be implemented is crucial. Therefore, what you can do is spread knowledge about this topic among your friends and family and reconsider starting from the smallest things how you can reduce your own individual impact on the planet. 

Written by Giulia De Gregorio