Earlier this month, the Global Footprint Network, in partnership with Schneider Electric, released an updated e-book that includes several powerful themes for business and governments: “Strategies for one-planet prosperity: How to build lasting success.”
Roughly six months into serious reductions in business operations across the globe from the Covid-19 pandemic, and in concert with Earth Overshoot Day, the e-book comes at a particularly relevant time.
To start, let’s review the “overshoot” concept. Earth Overshoot Day is the point in the year where humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services – everything that we rely on for our existence — exceeds what the Earth can regenerate in that year.
This year, Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 22nd, which tells us that we are exceeding planetary capacity just two-thirds of the way through the year – a serious alarm bell for the need to change the way that we interact with Nature.
Overshoot is manifested by the liquidation of resources and the accumulation of waste in the environment – such as plastics in landfills and oceans and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The August date indicates that we are effectively running a substantial deficit with Nature. In our personal lives, we sometimes run a temporary financial deficit by spending more than we earn, knowing that there is a cost to that behavior. We can’t operate in that fashion forever.
Similarly, our linear production systems and wasteful consumer lifestyles have externalized costs and resulted in humanity’s deficit (i.e. overshoot) condition with Nature. And given that we only have one planet to drawn on for our life needs, we certainly can’t run a deficit for long. That is the essential meaning of the statement “there is no Planet B.”
In fact, we’re getting continual signals of the seriousness of our overshoot condition in terms of land degradation, deforestation, water shortages, rising global temperature, and more.
The Global Footprint Network measures overshoot, determining the appropriate point on the calendar in which we’ve entered our deficit condition with Nature (Earth Overshoot Day) and alerting the world to the trend. Of great concern is the fact that Earth Overshoot Day has steadily moved forward on the calendar, going all the way from December 29th in 1970 to July 29th in 2019 – clearly showing humanity’s negative impact on our ecosystem and leading to the global call to #movethedate.
And yet in 2020, the Global Footprint Network reported a positive change, as Earth Overshoot Day suddenly moved backward by about three weeks to August 22nd – a level not seen since between 2005 and 2006.
The unfortunate point is that this positive decline did not result from a concerted, collaborative global effort to reduce the negative impact of our economic systems. Instead, it came from the sharp global economic slowdown created by Covid-19 – and that’s not a cause for celebration. An article released in May in Nature Climate Change noted a 17% decline in daily global CO2 emissions by April 2020 compared to mean 2019 levels. Time provided more historical context, charting the drop in emissions since 1900 following several global crises like the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, and the end of World War II military production. The authors noted that if there is a lesson to be gleaned from those prior declines, it is that they are unsustainable – in each case the world “squandered the gains made in reducing emissions” and increased production of CO2 to even higher levels afterwards.
The key, of course, is that we need to make these reductions in greenhouse gas emissions enduring. The authors point out the scope of the challenge: even if we were to maintain emissions at current Covid-reduced levels, we still need to reduce them by 50% by 2030 if we are to stop global temperatures from rising above the targeted 1.5°C level.
And right now, global business organizations, along with consumers, are desperate to return to some form of pre-pandemic normalcy. Changing operations and behavior to reduce environmental externalities may not be the first thing on the minds of business leaders as they pivot to adapt to the post-Covid world – and yet it must be. We are truly at an inflection point; this is a critical time for humanity and the planet. Sustainability must be core to business strategy going forward as part of a commitment to creating shared value for people and planet – for business organizations cannot exist without the services of Nature, and yet we are depleting the ability of Nature to provide those services at runaway speed.
The pandemic is a critical signal of the need for change – for our current systems and operating modes are driving biodiversity loss and deforestation while accelerating climate change – and in the process are accelerating the very drivers of pandemics.
The Global Footprint Network and Schneider Electric have provided a framework for business organizations to embrace the needed change: the case for one-planet prosperity. Linked to that frame is the need to move the date of Earth Overshoot back on the calendar, as close to December 31st as possible.
Significantly, the e-book notes that companies who prepare for a one-planet economy are better positioned to build and maintain competitive advantage. Thus, incorporating sustainability into core strategy shouldn’t be viewed as a noble effort, but a necessary one. And with humanity’s Ecological Footprint running 60% over what the Earth’s ecosystem can renew, businesses have no choice but to quickly change to ensure their own survival or risk depletion of the very resources and ecological services that enable their existence. In so doing, they can simultaneously contribute to humanity’s survival.
The e-book also provides a frame for measuring one-planet prosperity, plotting the Human Development Index (x-axis) with the Ecological Footprint (y-axis). The Human Development Index is a summary measure incorporating three dimensions: life expectancy, access to education, and standard of living. The Ecological Footprint compares human demand on ecological services to the capacity of the Earth to renew that demand (in terms of “number of Earths”).
Optimally, the world would exist in the lower right corner of the graph – with a high Human Development Index (close to 1) and a low Ecological Footprint (close to 0).
Achieving that combination means achieving one-planet prosperity, and global business has a critical and essential role to play in getting us there. And as the e-book notes, by pursuing a twin-strategy of accelerating resource optimization and enabling lasting well-being, business organizations can lead the needed transformation of our economic systems while building competitive advantage and resilience – because “when our ecosystems thrive, we thrive.”
To conclude, Covid-19 is a signal. It has highlighted the fact that reducing global emissions is possible, and hugely beneficial. But this year’s decline in emissions has come from economic decline – by disaster, not by design.
We’ve temporarily moved in the right direction, but for the wrong reason. We need economic systems that work in concert with Nature, and not against it.
The harsh reality of climate change is that we will get to 1.5°C either by design or disaster, with prosperity or misery.
Much better to get there through design, enhancing prosperity for all in the process.