Most people won’t spend their entire salary in the first 17 days of the month. Or eat and drink all their provisions in the first half of a long hike. Yet, this is exactly how we collectively use our planet’s biological resources. To keep Earth livable, we must change our ways.

Many European countries will have their Earth Overshoot Day in the coming weeks, several already did. If everyone in the world lived like we do in Europe, on that day everyone worldwide would have consumed as much biological resources as the earth yields in an entire year. We would need a little over 3 earths on average every year. And because we use more than the Earth can provide – called ‘overshoot’ –we are degrading our planet’s ecosystems and thus imperil future generations.

The later the better

Evaluating Overshoot Day at a global level is somewhat misleading. There is a vast inequality in the use per person of resources and energy, both between and within countries. The more sustainable and balanced a country’s consumption of resources is, the later in the year their overshoot day. Some countries, like Qatar and Luxembourg, hit their overshoot day as early as February, while Jamaica, Ecuador and Indonesia conserve their biological resource budget until as late as December.

The graph shows that the ‘overshoot date’ for various countries changed over time. The line indicates at what point in each year since 1960 each country exhausted their fair share of annual biological resources. If a country exhausts their annual budget within the first year, they are in overshoot. Its consumption requires more biological resources than sustainably available. This zone of ecological overshoot is marked red; everything later than that is not overshoot. The United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom have been overshooting their fair share of ecological resource use since the 1960s. The United States stand out as they have been overshooting most strongly throughout the whole period.

The other four countries – Spain, Brazil, India and China actually were not overshooting in 1960, but they all are now. Especially China’s date moved earlier rapidly as the country’s economy started requiring much more biological resources over the period. Overshoot day is earlier now than it was in 1960 for all countries, although there are differences since 2007. For most, the overshoot date is now more or less stable.

System change required

To safeguard a healthy ecology, in which all human life is ultimately embedded, the overshoot day should be pushed back towards December again and into the new year, which would make overshoot disappear. This means we must use much less resources, land and energy.

Achieving a sustainable level of resource use requires us to fundamentally rethink our economy. The ecological footprint clearly shows that living a truly sustainable life requires much more than switching to electric SUV’s, eating organic beef burgers and hitting the carbon neutral button when flying for a holiday. If we truly want to transition towards an ecologically sustainable way of living, we need to find ways of demanding much less from the planet’s natural resources. The challenge is to achieve sustainable wellbeing for the entire global population at levels of resource use that are much lower than now in countries where gross domestic product per capita is highest.

By far most people in western countries will be consuming resources at an unsustainable level. You can estimate an ecological footprint at an individual level via this link: Ecological Footprint Calculator. Through it, you will likely find that lifestyle choices can make a big difference to your environmental footprint. Yet, the fact that many people in these countries have an ‘overshoot day’ also has to do with for instance the resource use by the government and businesses, next to individual choices. This shows that reducing ecological footprints cannot only be a matter of individual action. A system change is required.

Moving the date

Triodos Investment Management is a driving force in the transformation towards a thriving planet, where the economy operates in harmony with nature and within planetary boundaries.

We finance companies and projects that have a positive impact on society and the environment, focusing on five interlinked transition themes: energy, food, resources, societal and wellbeing. At the same time, we work towards our ambition to reach net-zero emissions by 2035 at the latest. Three of these transitions as well as reaching net zero are directly linked to reducing the ecological footprint.

In addition to our activities as an impact investor, we exert our influence through engagement and advocacy. A recent example of such advocacy is our support for a global fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, to accelerate the phase-out of fossil fuels altogether.

Together with our community of like-minded individuals and organisations, we hope to contribute to a more sustainable society. If we manage to achieve these transitions with society as a whole, we can ban Overshoot Day to the history books together. Join us!