Earth Overshoot Day 2020: Have COVID-19 lockdowns made a difference?

When I was young, my brother and I would get a quota of chocolates to eat every day. Our parents would replenish the stock of chocolates based on that calculation.

But a 13-year-old and a 9-year-old don’t understand self-control when they get hooked on something as yummy as chocolate. We discreetly started exceeding the quota, thinking there would be no repercussions.

But there were repercussions. CRUEL repercussions.

When our parents noticed that the chocolates were getting over before they were scheduled to go buy more, they realized what we were doing. They didn’t scold us; they didn’t smack us. They said they won’t buy more chocolates for the next one month.

Oh, and no pocket money, so we don’t get to go buy them for ourselves either.

Humans love getting more of what we like, and this is encouraged by a system that rides these over-consumptive tendencies.

But can our “parent”, the Earth, provide an unlimited stock of “chocolates”? No.

The Earth produces a finite amount of resources every year—wood, air, water, space, energy—through its processes. Ideally, we would take a year to use up these resources. But we are far from ideal.

Every year, we use up one year’s worth of resources sooner and sooner. Will there be consequences for overusing the available resources? Eventually. Almost certainly. The day we finish one year’s worth of resources is called the Earth Overshoot Day.

In 2020, the Earth Overshoot Day falls on August 22.

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Is there something special about this year?

…..

No. Everything’s fine!

Uncomfortable smile

Over the last 10 years, the Earth Overshoot Day has steadily gotten closer to January 1 of the year, as we used up one year’s resources faster and faster. But this year, lockdowns across the world in response the COVID-19 pandemic have paused our relentless overconsumption.

The result?

Earth Overshoot Day has come 3 weeks later than it did last year—22 August as compared to July 29. If historical trends continued, we might have seen 2020’s Earth Overshoot Day sometime in the 3rd week of July.

Earth Overshoot Day 1970 to 2020
Source: prnewswire

Does that seem significant to you?

It might or it might not. On the one hand, it gives us hope. If we can put our head down and consume fewer resources, we can find a balance between what we need and what the Earth can give us.

On the other hand, it is a bit depressing to think that 5 months of reduced economic activity, including an almost complete lockdown for a few weeks in several major economies, has only shifted the date by 3-4 weeks. We will still end up using 1.6 times the annual resource production of Earth—called biocapacity—this year.

I can see why the shift has been so short…

We have reduced our consumption in some parts of our lives—like clothing and furniture and fuel for travel—but in other areas, like medicine and hygiene, our consumption has shot up.

The analysis for this year’s Earth Overshoot Day concurs. Most of the drop has come from reduced use of forest products, which fell 8.4% from last year and reduced carbon emissions, clocking a 14.5% reduction from last year. But our food intake has remained the same. (Or even increased in the case of some people. Oh, not you, I’m sure.)

I still see this as a sign of hope. If we can put our heads down and take large-scale action quickly like we’ve done for this pandemic, much of our natural resource degradation can be reduced and restored.

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What can you do?

We obviously cannot rely on a lockdown every year to ensure we #pushthedate closer and closer to December. In 2018, I suggested several steps you can take in your lives to get better with your consumption practices. They are still relevant today.

There are some more steps we can take, given the lockdown. I’ll highlight just one. As schools and offices reopen, people are stressing the need to use disposable cups, plates, and lunchboxes to reduce the COVID risks. Reusables are just as effective as disposables, and come with a lower ecological footprint. Elaine from Living Lightly in Ireland makes a strong case for resuable wares as we slowly get back to work. I strongly urge you to give this a read.

Let us work together, and push the date as far down the calendar as possible.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

10 thoughts

    1. Thanks a lot Preeti!
      Biodegradable is a very ambiguous term. Some that are “biodegradable” require specific conditions to biodegrade; otherwise it acts pretty much like any plastic material.
      Leaf plates are also considered a better alternative, but if overused, large areas of trees are just left bare. That’s not eco-friendly at all!
      I will share some links with you regarding the biodegradability question 🙂

      Like

    1. Thanks a lot! Yes, it’s something worth keeping in mind. This is a very clear indication that overconsumption (or the lack of recycling/remanufacturing) is perhaps a bigger reasons for environmental degradation than overpopulation. What do you think?

      Like

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