The 2nd of August has gone unnoticed: a pity, because it has brought the planet eleven days closer to Armageddon. This day was World Overshoot Day or Ecological Debt Day. It marks that day in the calendar year when we have used up all the natural resources generated by the planet for that year: From now till 31 December 2017, we shall be on an ecological overdraft, eating into our capital.
The alarming fact is that this day is coming earlier each year: 1969 was the last good year when we did not overshoot; since then we have, every year, been consuming more than what the earth can produce, on an accelerating scale. In 1993, the day was on October 21, in 2003 it came on September 22, and in 2015 it arrived on August 13. We are running out of time, fast.
There is another way to compute our environmental profligacy—ecological footprint: the productive natural area required to fuel our consumption and absorb our wastes. The global average footprint in 2012 was 2.84 hectares per person (cumulative global total 20.1 billion hectares). The available total biocapacity was only 12.2 billion hectares or a per capita of only 1.73 hectares. The per person deficit was 1.1 hectares and the global deficit was 7.8 billion hectares. This has only increased in the last five years with population increase and another 50 million hectares of forests disappearing. We are also running out of land, fast.
No one should be surprised. The suicidal obsession with GDP and rampant materialism is driving a consumer frenzy that has assumed a carcinogenic shape and feeds upon itself.
Just ponder over some figures before you order the next Mac Meal from McDonalds. We eat 100 million animals every year, not including 120 million tonnes of fish. There are 1 billion cars today, there will be 2 billion by 2050 and fuel consumption will triple to about 250 million barrels per day. The USA wastes 40 per cent of its food, enough to feed the entire sub-Saharan Africa.
We generate 60 million tonnes of packaging waste every year, and the world’s oceans already contain 86 million tonnes of plastic, destroying marine life, corals and reefs. There are 1,02,470 flights every day to 49,871 destinations (2014 figures, incidentally). Just remember, each minute of these cumulative flights means a consumption of 5 billion litres of fuel and emission of one billion kg of carbon dioxide every year.
This reckless consumerism is taking a heavy toll on the planet’s resources. According to IUCN, 21,000 of the world’s 70,000 species of plants and animals face extinction. Around 75 per cent of the fishing grounds are exhausted;
34 per cent of the world’s conifers face extinction; 13 million hectares of forests disappear each year; 30 per cent of the Amazon rain forests are gone. One out of ten major rivers no longer flows into the sea for most of the year; most of the rest are polluted beyond measure. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was 315 ppm in 1958, increasing at a modest 0.7 ppm each year. In 2013 it was 400 ppm, and going up at 2.1 ppm per year.
The tipping point is 450 ppm—at this level, the damage is irreversible. Global temperatures have gone up by 0.85 degree Celsius since 1880 and the rate of warming is accelerating. The Arctic will lose its summer ice cap completely by 2040; if Greenland follows, as it must, sea levels will rise by 7 meters, affecting 70 per cent of the world’s population and 11 of its largest 15 cities. Whole nations will go under to join the Atlantis.
It is not the lifestyle of the average global citizen which is causing this depredation: 80 per cent of the world’s natural resources are consumed by only 20 per cent of the population, an imbalance which the COP 21 in Paris failed to address. Its almost exclusive focus on carbon dioxide emissions was also misplaced—even if we restrict global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius by 2100 and carbon dioxide concentrations to below 450 ppm, but destroy the planet’s forests, rivers, oceans and its plants and animals, the planet will become unliveable.
The process has already started: According to the Journal Of Science, most of South Asia will become unliveable by 2100 because of soaring temperatures, shrinking forests, lack of water, devastated agriculture, commodity prices and civil unrest. A preview of the emerging catastrophe is available in India in the escalating number of farmer suicides, the USD 10 billion loss to agriculture by Extreme Weather Events (Government’s Economic Survey 2017), the 650,000 deaths caused annually by outdoor pollution, recurring floods and the increasing social turmoil.
Governments and economists have to step back and take a hard look at their policies. “Ease of doing business “ has to give way to “easing of consumption” (as tiny Bhutan has shown). We need to adopt simpler lifestyles and consume for livelihoods, not for self-indulgence. Concern for the natural environment has to be embedded at the heart of every development and economic policy, and not be seen as an impediment to progress.
There has to be more equity in the consumption of natural resources: The rich cannot be allowed to corner them exclusively just because they can afford it. We have to change our lifestyles and consumption patterns, consume less of everything: water, fuel, food, energy, meat, travel, paper, clothes, cosmetics, wood, everything. Only then can we give a fair opportunity to the planet to renew itself. We still have a chance- barely—to make the right choices; by 2100, we will have run out of time. Not all of us can escape to Mars. Keep track of World Overshoot Day next year.
served in the IAS for 35 years and retired as Additional Chief Secretary of Himachal Pradesh