The pandemic has slowed human consumption of Earth’s resources — for now

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Earth Overshoot Day: Measuring our consumption of natural resources
  • The property risk from U.S. wildfires
  • The push to save a rare ecosystem in Nova Scotia

Earth Overshoot Day: Measuring our consumption of natural resources

(Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Each year, the Global Footprint Network, an international non-profit organization that aims to draw attention to sustainability, releases an estimate on the day when humanity’s demand for ecological resources surpasses what the planet can regenerate in that year.

The calculations include things like carbon production, cropland and forests, among other types of land use.

Called Earth Overshoot Day, it has fallen earlier and earlier based on historical data going back to 1970. But this year, there was a bit of good news: the date moved ahead by three weeks, from July 29 (in 2019) to Aug. 22, owing to a 9.3 per cent reduction in the world’s ecological footprint. 

By this calculation, we are living as though we had the resources of 1.6 Earths.

To take a more local perspective, if everyone consumed resources at the rate of Canada, Earth Overshoot Day this year would be March 18. (Put another way, we would need 4.75 Earths in a year.) As a comparison, with a country like Mexico, Earth Overshoot Day would occur on Aug. 17.

According to the Global Footprint Network, Canada’s large ecological impact is because of our high land use, fuel consumption and production, as well as how much we import and export.

While the news for 2020 is more positive, the Global Footprint Network warns that it was largely because of the pandemic, which resulted in shutdowns around the world.

“Yes, we reduced our demand, but it is reduced by disaster, not by design,” said Mathis Wackernagel, CEO and founder of the Global Footprint Network. 

This isn’t without precedent. Similar trends have occurred at times of global crisis, such as the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the savings and loans crisis in the 1980s and the post-2008 global financial crisis. But every time, as governments try to stimulate the economy and thus increase the demand for resources, our ecological footprint eventually pushes that date earlier and earlier.

Some don’t entirely agree with Earth Overshoot Day, saying it doesn’t accurately take into account all metrics for measuring our environmental impact. But Wackernagel said that the overarching message is “to translate the numbers in a way that people can understand.”

Eric Miller, director of the Ecological Footprint Initiative at York University, which provides the Global Footprint Network with the data, said it is taken from official statistics, including ones provided to United Nations agencies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, and Comtrade, which collects international trade statistics.

“I would compare this to economic statistics about the world: how much stuff is produced and consumed. It’s all very similar.” 

Miller said Earth Overshoot Day is another way of looking at the big picture when it comes to trying to plan for sustainable practices. 

“The nice thing about the data is we can use it to answer all kinds of interesting questions, such as if we wanted to, let’s say, devote more of our lands to soaking up carbon emissions, what would that take?” he said. “And if we’re doing that, we can’t also at the same time use them for providing timber products … or we can’t also use them for providing housing and commercial areas and so on.”

That, he said, helps us look at the limits and trade-offs.

Wackernagel believes Earth Overshoot Day is an important part of looking at our planet and our consumption of finite resources.

“What we provide is a fuel gauge,” said Wackernagel. “A plane doesn’t only fly with a fuel gauge — but a plane without a fuel gauge is very dangerous.”

Nicole Mortillaro

Reader feedback

Dennis Nella wrote in with this thought:

“I try to minimize my footprint wherever I can, and encourage others to do the same. At the same time, I realize that my individual efforts, as well as those of like-minded individuals, won’t really ‘move the dial’ in any meaningful way without serious public policy. Public policy at the local, national and international levels that incentivizes sustainable choices while penalizing unsustainable ones is necessary to scale up the types of changes that are necessary. Otherwise, my actions, and those of others, might only amount to ‘window dressing’ to make ourselves feel good about how wonderful we are. As an example, my purchase of an electric car would mean little without a noticeable levy on the SUVs and pickups that clog our roads.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show! Make sure to listen to What on Earth every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m. in Newfoundland. This week, host Laura Lynch looks at what it would take to decarbonize Canada’s economy and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. You can also subscribe to What on Earth on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also listen anytime on CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Wildfire damage in the U.S.

It’s been a week of hellacious weather in the U.S. While the country is contending with Hurricane Laura on its southern coast, California is in the middle of another pitched battle with wildfires. It is estimated that 90 per cent of wildfires are caused by humans (either deliberately or through negligence), but scientists say that climate change tends to make them worse. While California has become synonymous with fires, it isn’t the only state with this problem. The graphic below shows the states with the highest susceptibility to wildfires — and how many homes are at risk of damage.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

The push to save a rare ecosystem in Nova Scotia

(Moira Donovan/CBC)

Just outside Kingston, N.S., biologist Sherman Boates crouches over a yellow flower growing out of the sand. “Watch your feet,” he says. “It’s an endangered species.” 

The flower, known as rock rose or Canada frostweed, isn’t all that’s facing extinction along this stretch of highway. So is its entire habitat, a globally rare ecosystem known as the Annapolis Valley sand barrens. 

The area is “very rare in terms of North America, but many of us locally don’t really know that it exists, or how interesting and how important it is,” said Boates. 

Over hundreds of years, human activity has reduced the sand barrens to roughly three per cent of their original size. Now, scientists and a community organization called Clean Annapolis River Project are trying to build awareness about the ecosystem to stem further decline.

The Annapolis Valley sand barrens — “barren” because there are few trees and vegetation is low to the ground — are formed by ancient sand deposits running from roughly Kentville to Middleton. “It’s quite a big ecosystem,” said Boates, but much of it has been destroyed or degraded by activities such as agriculture. 

He said that for decades, scientists had resigned themselves to the disappearance of the habitat. But that’s changed thanks to measures such as federal funding aimed at identifying places important for species at risk.

A project aimed at protecting the sand barrens, run by Clean Annapolis River Project, has set out to identify the threats and develop ways to address them. 

While all levels of government have potential roles in the project, community members have a particularly important part to play, said Katie McLean, CARP’s communications and outreach co-ordinator. 

“If people can recognize maybe three of these plants that we see covering the ground around us, they’re going to start to recognize if they’re recreating or if they’re living in sand barrens,” said McLean.

With that recognition, they may start to take steps to preserve this ecosystem, MacLean said.

In its initial stages, the project is asking people to get involved by helping to document some of the species found in the sand barrens. In future years, the organization hopes to expand to restoration efforts, by encouraging people to change how they manage their land to include more plants that grow naturally in the ecosystem.

The sand barrens wouldn’t support growth of Kentucky bluegrass lawns, “but a lot of people want their lawns to look like that,” said McLean. “Unfortunately, [sand barrens] has a bad reputation. I recall one person kind of lamenting … ‘How do we get rid of it?’ So there’s still that work to do to help people understand that this is something we should be excited to see and celebrate.”

In the long term, McLean said the work CARP is doing now could help make a case for designating the sand barrens as an entire ecosystem in need of protection. Sherman Boates agrees.

“Just like we don’t want to see the piping plover disappear, we don’t want to see the Annapolis Valley sand barrens get smaller and smaller, and more and more degraded, and blink out before we even know.”

Moira Donovan

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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