This year, Earth Overshoot Day will take place on July 28.
This day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what the Earth can regenerate in that year. Scientists estimate that we would need the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths to provide the ecological services we currently use.
The consequences of resource depletion and overuse are becoming all too evident. The increasing degradation of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, the accumulation of waste and the alarming increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are not only local problems but global emergencies. Five of the planetary boundaries have been exceeded: climate change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen and phosphorus loading, and Earth system change. However, for many poor countries, increasing levels of resource use and energy consumption are still needed to meet basic needs.
A crucial question is therefore the level of use of biophysical resources that would meet basic needs and how this could be extended to all peoples without exceeding critical planetary limits. There is now a large body of research that attempts to answer this question quantitatively for a range of ecological and social indicators.
Researchers from the University of Leeds as well as chapter 5 of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations emphasize the concept of sufficiency and degrowth. It is not just about doing more with less: sufficiency requires a paradigm shift towards “enough”, an economic model that revolves around equitable intra- and intergenerational shares of global resources. Sufficiency is a field of action that seeks to improve the material well-being of the world’s poorest while supporting a fairer distribution of the scarce resources provided by the Earth.
The IPCC 6th Assessment Report endorses some of these approaches, highlighting the potential for a transition based on modal shifts, plant-based diets and prioritizing ways in which decent living standards can be achieved. delivered in a way that provides multiple interactive benefits. But sufficiency is not just about reducing consumption. On the production side, business models will need to include creating value in new ways that support product longevity and sharing practices, as well as a fundamental shift in sales tactics and marketing. Fundamentally, however, sufficiency requires a shift towards limited or no growth in profits and GDP. [gross domestic product].
Conventional neoclassical economics argues that degrowth is unnecessary because GDP growth can be sustained if economic growth is “decoupled” from resource use, for example by improving energy efficiency, new technologies and renewable energies. But GDP growth makes climate action much, much more difficult because the scale effect of growth increases resource use.
Researcher Jason Hickel notes that an equity framework requires rich, high-emitting countries to commit to annual greenhouse gas reduction rates of around 13%. But this figure represents seven times the rates of decoupling (or efficiency improvement) between 1970 and 2013. According to him, it is not realistic for rich countries to rely on relative decoupling to achieve the objectives of Paris Agreement temperature. Absolute reductions in emissions and much lower levels of resource use will be needed in order to limit the possibility of rebound effects, when energy savings are absorbed by other activities.
Staying within planetary boundaries also requires a radical global redistribution of wealth from the rich north to the global south. As Hickel notes, this amounts to a fundamental shift in development theory from a primary focus on the deficiencies of poor countries to a focus on the excesses of rich countries, including Ireland. This could involve caps on resource use and pollution for key indicators so that we never extract more than the Earth can safely regenerate, and never pollute more than it can absorb.
For rich countries, an equitable global framework requires very deep reductions in material and ecological footprints per capita as well as drastic and lasting reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. However, many researchers argue that degrowth can be achieved without any loss of social welfare, and may even improve welfare if done fairly. Staying in the safe operating space for humanity, or donut, as Kate Raworth describes it, could be accomplished by shrinking environmentally destructive industries, while shortening the workweek, distributing income and resources more evenly existing ones through progressive taxation and reallocation to social spending. .
The general trend shows that the more a country reaches social thresholds, the more it transgresses biophysical borders, and vice versa. Breaking this vicious and inequitable cycle will require an entirely different model of progress and a new ethic that embraces both sufficiency and fairness.
- Sadhbh O’Neill is a senior lecturer in climate policy and a Fellow of the DCU Center for Climate and Society