Andrew Collier speaks to Mathis Wackernagel of Global Footprint Network, the organisation behind Earth Overshoot Day 

In many ways, humanity’s relationship with the planet is like a marriage. We need to exist in close harmony with each other and if we constantly try to take more out of the relationship than it can sustain, huge damage is caused.

Sadly, when it comes to our common home, that’s exactly what we are doing. August 22 this year marks Earth Overshoot Day – the moment when our demand for ecological resources and services in 2020 exceeds what nature can regenerate this year.

Carbon emissions are, of course, partly responsible for this imbalance. But there are other factors too, such as population growth, non-sustainable fishing and the fact that about a third of the food produced annually for human consumption – 1.3 billion tonnes – gets lost or wasted.

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Earth Overshoot Day is a compelling way of demonstrating in simple and vivid terms how our lifestyles and interventions are damaging the planet and the critical importance of taking a new and more sustainable approach.

Outside of science, no-one can really calibrate what a tonne of carbon dioxide actually means or looks like. It simply isn’t something we can visualise. But calendars are something we can understand and when we hear that for the last 130 days of this year we are effectively stealing from the global ecosystem, it allows us to really comprehend the scale of the damage.

Much of this is environmental degradation taking place in the world’s cities. Up to 80 per cent of the global population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050, presenting sustainability strategists with a huge challenge.

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Mathis Wackernagel, the network’s Founder and President

The solution is likely to revolve around smart cities featuring energy-efficient buildings, integrated zoning, compact planning and effective options for people-powered and public transportation. The last of these is particularly important as cars account for 17 per cent of the world’s carbon footprint.

The concept of Earth Overshoot Day comes from the San Francisco-based Global Footprint Network, a sustainability research organisation whose executives were responsible for the development of the Ecological Footprint sustainability metric in the 1990s.

This not-for-profit body has partnered with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to promote this year’s event. “It’s an alignment of interests and a way of pushing forward SEPA’s own agenda”, says Mathis Wackernagel, the network’s Founder and President.

“SEPA also takes a unique approach to environmental regulation. Its attitude is that if it needs to punish people then it can do that to the worst offenders who don’t follow regulations, but also that it’s not just about punishing, but also encouraging the right behaviour.

“It has agreements with companies and cities, asking how it can help them in areas such as red tape and being easier on them if they show responsibility.

“I think that’s a wonderful approach as it looks at things from a one planet perspective. If you just regulate here and there then you’re actually missing the big challenge we are facing – that we are not fitting within nature’s budget.”

The aim is to hold a launch event for Earth Overshoot Day in Glasgow – which will place itself firmly on the global sustainability map by hosting the prestigious COP26 international environmental summit next year – on August 20.

“Because of Covid-19, we’re still working out the details, but it will probably involve local people attending, with video conferencing for others. We will interview people with different perspectives from around the world, perhaps editing these into a more compact format for viewing by the public.

“By doing that, we will help people to understand the story and that if governments look after their futures, then that’s good for the population. It will also help decision makers to determine their strategies.”

Wackernagel is effusive in his praise for Scotland and the enthusiasm with which it has adopted sustainability objectives. Born in Switzerland, his love affair with the country is near-lifelong. 

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“It was only the second foreign country I travelled to as a child and I really developed a warm affection for it. Its cultural symbols are really out there.”

He praises the fact that, despite a historic dependence on fossil fuel exploitation, Scotland has been a leader in recognising the need to decarbonise, with huge reductions in carbon emissions and an explosive growth in the generation of renewable energy.

“This recognises that our future depends on some level of resource security, and that in turn shows an insight that I’m sorry to report is still quite rare. I was astonished at how proactive Scotland has become around these issues.

“It’s also interesting that the economic advisers to the Scottish Government view resource as a significant ingredient. They see that they have skin in the game. They are asking ‘if we don’t do these things, how will we be able to live?’ That is healthy – it’s tackling the question of whether Scotland is destroying Scotland or building Scotland.”

Earth Overshoot Day is still a relatively new concept here, but it is establishing itself around the world  and particularly in France and Germany, where media interest has been intense. “The Pope talked about it in an interview and showed that he actually understood it better than many others.”

Ecological overshoot has been a reality since at least the 1970s, though carbon levels have been building up for more than 150 years. By using more renewable natural resources than the planet can regenerate, we are effectively drawing down the biosphere’s capital rather than living off its annual interest.

The consequences of this are sadly predictable. We are already seeing problems such as soil erosion, overgrazing, desertification, species extinction and reduced crop yields. If humanity continues to exploit the planet’s natural resources in this way, the result will be the further degradation and possibly collapse of ecosystems.

The message of Earth Overshoot day is a simple one, but it still faces challenges from sceptics who question its veracity. “Some people say it’s crazy because they’ll open their fridge on August 23 and there is still beer in it, so all this must be wrong,” Wackernagel says.  “Of course there will be beer in the fridge. In the same way, you can spend money and you will still have money. But if you spend more than you earn, it’s not something you can do forever. You just keep depleting your asset base, and that can’t go on.”


The world was ill-prepared for Covid. Will we allow ourselves to be so ill-prepared for the looming climate risk?

By Bob Downes, Chair of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)

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January 2020, a few short months ago, now seems a world away. Then, as every year, the World Economic Forum was meeting at DAVOS in Switzerland. Their focus was unequivocally on our environmental futures: ‘The top five risks facing the world are now all linked to the Climate Crisis’.

You can be sure that the agenda for next year’s probable ‘virtual’ WEF forum will look very different. But should it be different? It is clear that COVID-19 is not a new risk. The world just missed treating it with the importance it deserved. We must not make the same mistake with climate change.

In the Financial Times, Tim Harford has queried why we fail to plan for these major risks. He quotes Bazerman and Watkins from their 2003 work “Predictable Surprises: The disasters you should have seen coming”. Harford concludes our problem is that faced with clear risks we still fail to act.

Nearly 19 years ago I attended an enthralling seminar in Philadelphia on futures scenarios which included environmental catastrophe, religious conflict, inequalities, mass migration, diseases and terrorism.

The seminar kicked off around 8am that morning. Some way through the presentation the Chairman took the floor. The date was 9th September 2001. Warning signs were there beforehand of what was about to happen, graphically depicted in Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower.

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Perhaps more hidden in plain sight were the seeds of COVID-19 in SARS, MERS and Ebola. It appears that we don’t like making investments in what might happen, because that would mean forgoing more immediate priorities.

The risk this time is that we will become pre-occupied with the need for stability, normality and most of all with personal economic security.

Climate change may not easily find space in the minds of citizens anywhere. If we are to win the hearts and minds for the battle against climate change, benefits must be clear to people and communities. The threat of what ‘might’ happen may not work.

According to a group of experts: ‘Even if the world agreed to maintain all the pandemic enforced restrictions on travel and consumption, the emissions saved would amount to almost nothing compared with what is needed to achieve the Paris Agreement climate target.’

The investment case must be an economic renewal plan which mitigates climate change while providing for the personal economic security and wellbeing we all desire. This will take systemic changes utilising our technological and innovative capacity in a reframed set of tools which assess public investment returns quite differently. It will need an accompanying fiscal and regulatory framework appropriately geared to longer term sustainability. Reshaping all these things can provide economic security through clever design.

Many businesses including investment institutions were onto this before COVID-19 hit. That momentum for change can be accommodated as we plan the future out of the current emergency. Nineteen years ago in Philadelphia the threats were clear. Each has come true – most dramatically the tragic attack on the Twin Towers.

The world was ill-prepared for COVID-19. Will we allow ourselves to be so ill-prepared for the looming climate risk?


We must choose our future by design ... not disaster

Mathis Wackernagel of Global Footprint Network on why we should take no comfort from the reduction in our global footprint caused by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Last year, our planet’s ecological budget only lasted till July 29th. For the rest of the year, humanity lived off depleting our planet, growing our ecological debt and with it, the fragility of our economies. This debt shows up as excessive greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, biodiversity loss, air pollution, groundwater depletion, and deforestation – among other impacts. 

This year has been different. The economic slowdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the global Ecological Footprint, pushing this year’s Earth Overshoot Day to August 22. That’s the latest we’ve seen since 2005.

This phenomenon demonstrates that shifting resource consumption patterns in a short timeframe is possible.

However, true sustainability that allows all to thrive within Earth’s ecological budget can only be achieved by design, not by disaster. 

This year’s reduction in Footprint does not come from intentional changes that decarbonised energy, made cities more resource efficient, or yielded a healthier and more resilient food system. 

It was paid for by imposed restraint, in some cases with significant human suffering. The sudden year-over-year Ecological Footprint contraction is a far cry from the systemic change which is required to achieve both ecological balance and people’s well-being, two inextricable components of a workable future.

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By choosing design over disaster, we can address this imbalance. In fact, it is the only sensible path forward, one that the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency calls “one-planet prosperity”. Because Earth’s ecological budget is not up for negotiation, the only choice before us is whether we build one-planet prosperity or one-planet misery.

Scotland’s COVID-19 recovery is an opportunity to choose. No society can shift overnight to a thriving economy in a world characterized by climate change, biological resource constraints, and phased-out fossil fuels. 

No country, city, or company can rebuild, retrofit or repurpose its infrastructure instantaneously. Clearly, those who plan ahead stand a far better chance to thrive than those who keep investing in the obsolete resource-intensive economy.

This foresight is emerging overwhelmingly from women, starting with the youth inspiring the Fridays4Future movement. Angela Merkel has pushed Germany’s energy transition for years.Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde advocate for Europe’s “Green New Deal”. 

Carolina Schmidt, the Chilean minister of environment presiding COP25, and Patricia Espinosa, who heads the UN’s climate convention, fight for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. 

Last but not least, Nicola Sturgeon has been championing and implementing one of the most rigorous and thoughtful decarbonisation strategies of any region in the world. 
We have learned from COVID-19 that protecting ourselves is the only effective way to protect others. The recovery is the opportunity to do just that: preparing ourselves so we can thrive in a predictably challenging future. 

While this is necessary for each community’s and company’s own benefit, it is also a most generous act because everyone investing in their own long-term success makes it more possible for others to succeed. Unlike a soccer championship, this is a positive sum game. 

To bridge the gap between the UN’s COP meetings – with the COP26 now postponed to November 2021 in Glasgow – and act on the urgent need to accelerate the transformation, Global Footprint Network will launch this year’s Earth Overshoot Day in Scotland.

With its newly launched recovery plan, Scotland’s statement to the world is clear: foresight and innovation are critical for one’s own future. 
Most importantly, as it thinks pro-actively about what its future needs to look like, Scotland is seizing the perfect opportunity to avoid going back to what was broken and to build a future worthy of its great past.