Jul 23, 2021 ESG

Living beyond our means

There are several ways to express that humans are living way beyond Earth's means. The bill has arrived and will keep on coming.

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July 29 | Earth Overshoot Day

July 29 marks Earth Overshoot Day, the point in the calendar when human consumption of ecological services, such as water provision and carbon storage, passes the point at which the earth can replenish these services in any given year. In the early 1970s, the planet passed into a worrying disequilibrium as humanity's demand for ecological resources was estimated to be exactly what could be regenerated in a year.[1] Since then world population has doubled[2] and gross domestic product (GDP) has increased fourfold.[3] It now takes less than eight months for human's to consume what can be regenerated in a year.[4]

Witness to this rising burden of humans can be seen on the stress being placed on our land and seas. For example, since the 1970 one third of the world's topsoil has been degraded and roughly a third of the world's forested areas have been destroyed.[5] One third of fish stocks are overfished5 and freshwater species populations have dropped by 84% since 1970, compared to a 68% fall across all species.[6]

According to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which tracks the nine planetary boundaries[7], many are either being approached or have already been breached such as those relating to climate change, biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle causing the pollution of waterways and coastal zones.[8]

60 companies have signed up to the G7 Fashion Pact

Efforts among companies and investors to address the challenge have appeared over recent years.

For example, more than 60 companies have signed up to the G7 Fashion Pact to do more to stop global warming, restore biodiversity and protect the oceans.[9] Some 57 institutional investors with assets totaling 6.3 trillion U.S. dollars have asked all soy trading companies to commit to eliminating deforestation.[10] In addition, 62 investment organizations (managing almost 8 trillion U.S. dollars) are calling for the palm oil industry to implement "No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation" policies.[11]

But more needs to be done, with governments leading the way. For example, when dramatic evidence[12] of stratospheric ozone depletion appeared during the 1980s, governments were swift to ban the culprits including chlorofluorocarbons.[13] Of the nine planetary boundaries, ozone depletion is today the one where the projections imply we can live safely within our limits. Do we dare to dream we can achieve the same with the other eight?

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1. National Footprinting and Biocapacity Accounts 2021 Edition

2. United Nations World Population Prospects 2021

3. IMF WEO Database

4. Global Footprint Network (2021). Estimating the date of Earth Overshoot Day 2021

5. IPBES (2019). Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services

6. WWF (2020). Living planet report

7. The planetary boundaries identify the nine processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth’s system. Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.

8. Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Steffen et al

9. The Fashion Pact (2020) First steps to transform our industry

10. Ceres (March 2019)

11. PRI (April 2019). Investor expectations statement on sustainable palm oil

12. New York Times (October 1995). Nobel Prize for work on threat to ozone

13. UNEP FI website. The Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer

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