Today is Earth Overshoot Day, a date that marks the true extent of our unsustainable depletion of the planet's natural resources. Andrew Collier looks at how Scotland is taking a leading role in efforts to forge a more sustainable future

Two years ago – it feels a lot longer – Greta Thunberg began her first solo school strike to save the Earth’s climate. Since then, she has become an icon of the environmental movement, bringing millions onto the streets and forcing the issue to the top of the global agenda.

Sadly, though, we have not yet heeded her warnings. Since Thunberg’s campaign began in 2018, humankind has emitted another 80 billion plus tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The ice continues to melt; natural disasters continue to happen. The need for dramatic change has never been more urgent.

Today marks another sombre moment in our misuse of our common natural resources.

It is officially designated Earth Overshoot Day (EOD)  – the moment in the year when our demand for ecological resources and services exceeds what nature is able to regenerate.

For the 130 days that make up the rest of 2020, we will be draining the planet, living off its capital rather than taking the natural yield. To put it bluntly, we are about to steal from the ecosystem.

As the Earth heads downhill towards climate disaster, Scotland at least is trying to put on the brakes. We have taken a leadership position in decarbonising and have some of the most ambitious climate-change targets in the world. And we have practised what we have preached: our greenhouse gas emissions have halved since 1990.

These successes present a positive backdrop for Glasgow’s hosting of the planned COP26 climate change summit next year, an event which will involve world leaders and attract global attention.

An area of particular success in Scotland has been renewable energy, which should prove invaluable in the Scottish Government’s aim of achieving a net-zero economy by 2045. 

We can take particular advantage of being the windiest country in Europe. This is the cheapest form of green power generation, and onshore turbines currently provide more than 70% – 8357 megawatts (MW) – of Scotland’s renewable energy capacity.

It provides jobs too – 5,400 of them – across some of our most remote communities.
Solar and marine power projects are also at an exciting stage, with 382MW of solar in development and 350MW of wave and tidal projects either already consented or in planning.

Scotland has a profound advantage over other countries in that it is already perceived globally as being clean, empty, unspoiled and green. Our food, whisky and tourism sectors leverage off this, so it is hugely in our economic interest to maintain our eco-friendly credentials.

With annual earnings of £15 billion, the food and drink industry is our largest manufacturing sector, so it needs to be supported by a real commitment to sustainable practices, agriculture and land use. 

That means promoting traceability, local buying – something that has become more popular during the Covid-19 pandemic – and innovative, green-friendly marketing.
There is no shortage of commitment and imaginative thinking. Scotland’s aquaculture sector, now worth some £1.8billion annually, has been working to build up its sustainability credentials.

Once again, the jobs in this sector are particularly important as many of them are in rural areas.

In the whisky industry, the drinks giant Diageo has created the world’s first-ever plastic-free spirits bottle, made entirely from sustainably sourced wood and available in the marketplace from early next year. 

With concern over plastic microparticles in the ocean and elsewhere, including our bodies, this breakthrough could be hugely significant. 

Awareness of the importance of the marine environment is also demonstrated through Edinburgh University’s role in co-ordinating the EU-funded iAtlantic project, a huge programme which will assess ocean health as well as mapping uncharted parts and assessing the effects of climate change.

The Scottish Government published its own environment strategy earlier this year, recognising that while this change was a key driver in loss of diversity, natural habitats play a hugely important role in extracting carbon from the atmosphere.
The challenges are deeply significant – in Scotland, agriculture and its associated industries are the second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases behind transport – but there is a major focus on proactively addressing the issues. 

Forestry provides one of main carbon sinks, removing it from the environment, and woodland creation schemes are being implemented. 

The farming sector is also working to become more efficient and peatlands, which are also highly effective in removing carbon, are being restored.

These projects and others are all laudable, but dealing with carbon change needs a joined-up, strategic and forward-thinking approach. Bruce Wilson, public affairs manager at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, is among the many environmentalists recognising this. “You really can’t do anything about climate change without some form of land use planning,” he says.  

“We need to address the biodiversity decline, and that means a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach. We can’t tackle the loss just on isolated patches such as wildlife reserves.”

Changes we need to make go far beyond the natural environment. In transport, the move away from car-clogged towns and cities towards walking, cycling and using public transport needs to be stepped up, as does use of electric vehicles (EVs).

Scotland is not facing the rapid growth in population anticipated in many developing countries – numbers will rise only slightly in coming decades and then level off – but it does have to deal with other problems such as ever-growing levels of waste.
Here, too, though, work on creating a circular economy that encourages an extension in the life cycle of products through sharing, refurbishment and remanufacturing initiatives is under way.

The Scottish Government published its own vision for this, titled Making Things Last, in 2016, and Zero Waste Scotland took this further through its own study in June.
The Herald, too, has been making its own contribution to the debate and to Earth Overshoot Day by hosting  an online conference earlier this month discussing the environmental challenges we currently face.

The event was held in association with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and the California-based Global Footprint Network, the not-for-profit sustainability research organisation responsible for developing the Earth Overshoot Day concept.
Global Footprint Network’s president, Mathis Wackernagel, who was a panel member at the conference, said that by choosing design over disaster we could begin to redress the ecological imbalance of our consumption versus what the Earth can regenerate.

He added: “It is the only sensible path forward 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.”

Wackernagel is something of an evangelist for the proactive approach Scotland has taken towards addressing climate change.

“There is a recognition 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 quite astonished at how proactive Scotland has become around these issues."