A milestone was passed on Thursday, though many people did not hear about it and many who did in all likelihood shrugged their shoulders and thought: “But what can I do?”
Thursday was Earth Overshoot day, the day each year by when it is estimated that Earth’s annual supply of renewable natural resources have been used up and the planet has reached its capacity to absorb carbon — in simpler terms, the day when demands on resources surpass nature’s ability to produce them.
That means that for the rest of the year, humanity is driving the Earth into the red, with the planet unable to absorb the carbon dioxide and other wastes produced. We are ecologically bankrupt.
The idea of an “Earth overshoot day,” or “ecological debt day” was conceived by Andrew Simms when he was working for the British think tank the New Economics Foundation. To determine when the day will arrive each year, the multinational Global Footprint Network think tank compares the demands made on global resources with the planet’s ability to replenish those resources and absorb the wastes produced.
It divides the Earth’s biocapacity — the amount of land and water that can produce renewable resources and absorb carbon dioxide emissions — by its so-called “ecological footprint” — the amount of land and water needed to meet the demand for resources and waste disposal — and then multiplies that number by the number of days in a calendar year, 365.
The first time the world became an ecological debtor was Dec. 29, 1970. However, since 2001, our overdraft rate has been increasing by two to three days a year, meaning that each year overshoot day comes earlier than the year before. It takes the Earth a year-and-a-half to regenerate what is used up in a year.
According to the network’s estimates, more than 80 percent of people live in countries that use up more resources than their ecosystems can renew. Some of the biggest overspenders identified by the network come as no surprise — the US and China, but others do — Japan and Qatar. It takes the equivalent of two USs to sustain the US’ annual ecological footprint, and two-and-a-half Chinas to support that nation. It takes more than seven Japans to support Japan and almost six Qatars to support itself, while the UK needs three-and-a-half UKs and Italy requires four of itself. If everyone in the world consumed like the US population, it would take four Earths’ worth of resources to support us every year.
Unfortunately, as with many global surveys, Taiwan is not included in the Global Footprint Network’s calculations, but that does not mean we should not be thinking of ways to reduce our ecological footprint. We have seen the devastation that can be caused by typhoons and tropical storms when deforestation robs mountainsides of their ability to absorb water; in recent years water shortages have led to restrictions for farmers, industries and households. Kinmen’s water shortage is growing so acute that a pipeline from China has been seriously considered, though the more we learn about the conditions of China’s water resources, the less appealing that idea should be.
We are aware of what happens if we spend more than we earn — both as individuals and as nations. The media have been filled for many months about the financial crises in Greece and elsewhere. Taiwan’s fiscal problems are not on that scale, but they are increasing. Earlier this month the Cabinet released its preliminary budget proposal for next year that would see a shortfall of NT$273.9 billion (US$9.15 billion), almost 26 percent more than this year’s deficit.
Just as individuals and governments must learn to live within their means, the same is true for our ecological budget on an individual and national level. We must use efficiently the resources we have and stop drawing more from Earth’s bank than we can afford.