So over overshoot — let’s change the narrative

Written by Olivia Nater | Published: August 2, 2023

Marking the day on which humanity has used up all the natural resources that the Earth can renew in one year, Earth Overshoot Day has been falling ever earlier due to growing population and consumption. It is one of the starkest annual reminders of how unsustainable our human enterprise is. Can we get back within planetary boundaries?

Lack of progress

This year it falls on August 2 — five days later than last year, but unfortunately four of those days are due to methodological improvements, rather than an overshoot reduction, according to the Global Footprint Network (GFN), which calculates the day. In the organization’s press release, GFN notes that the trend does seem to have flattened over the past five years, but that it is unclear how much of this is driven by (unintentional) economic slow-down versus deliberate policy efforts. It is also vastly insufficient to meet environmental targets:

“To reach the UN’s IPCC target of reducing carbon emissions 43% worldwide by 2030 compared to 2010 would require moving Earth Overshoot Day 19 days annually for the next seven years.”

Most of world unsustainable

GFN also demonstrates the vast differences between different countries’ footprints. If everyone lived like the average American, Overshoot Day would fall as early as March 13. If we all consumed at the level of Qatar, we would only make it to February 10 before exceeding our resource budget for the year. Benin has the latest Overshoot Day, on December 26, almost reaching the end of the year. Just over 50 countries, including Afghanistan, Kenya, India, and Honduras, don’t have an Overshoot Day, meaning that if we all adopted the average lifestyle in these countries, we would live within planetary boundaries.

As well as overconsuming resources, we are overproducing waste. For the first time, sustainability researchers have announced Plastic Overshoot Day, which fell on July 28 this year. It symbolizes the day on which plastic waste generation exceeds the capacity of waste management, leading to plastic pollution.

It is rather discouraging that we’re barely making it through just over half the year before entering overshoot, but we have the solutions to push back the date.

Getting out of overshoot

The country overshoot days mentioned above highlight how difficult it would be to achieve both sustainability and a good quality of life for our population of 8 billion and counting. One powerful way to push back Overshoot Day is to invest in empowering efforts to slow population growth. GFN calculated that if the global fertility rate dropped to 1.8 live births per woman (compared to today’s 2.3), and the average age of motherhood was delayed by two years, there would be two billion fewer people on Earth by 2050 (7.7 billion instead of 9.7 billion), which would postpone Overshoot Day by 49 days. This makes it their second most powerful proposed solution.

While slowing population growth is key to achieving sustainability (and would likely save millions of lives), it can’t happen rapidly enough to achieve significant emissions reductions by 2030, which is of vital importance to prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We need to implement all available solutions to decarbonize our societies and shrink our ecological footprints.

GFN’s other recommended actions include implementing carbon taxes, rolling out an ambitious “Green New Deal” in half the world’s countries, redesigning cities, ending food waste, and many more. Taken all together, these solutions would eliminate overshoot. Other respected research organizations, such as Project Drawdown, have proposed similar available solutions.

What you can do

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in light of the massive changes we need to collectively implement to get on track for a sustainable future, but there are many things each of us can do. One of the most important actions individuals can take is to vote for politicians who support environmental policies and reproductive rights. Governments have the power to regulate damaging industries, facilitate behavior change, and ensure everyone has the power to choose their family size.

All of us can create meaningful change in our own homes too. For example, 61 percent of global food waste is generated at the household level — if everyone made an effort to stop wasting food, we would fix almost two-thirds of the problem! Switching to a plant-based diet is another extremely powerful way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, water use, and habitat destruction.

It is also incredibly helpful to talk to loved ones about what you are doing to try to limit your own footprint. By discussing our environmental problems and solutions, we can help inspire each other to take action and foster a new sense of hope and community.

Articles about Earth Overshoot Day don’t always have to be about “too little too late.” How encouraging would it be to see headlines announcing Overshoot Day has been postponed by 10, 20, 30 days? We can make that happen.