York research calculates that humans have overshot sustainable use of Earth’s resources

Glass planet in the sunshine

As of this past Saturday, humanity has overdrawn its ecological account for the year. Known as Earth Overshoot Day, Aug. 22 marked the day when humans will have used as much from the Earth as the planet can renew in a year. York University produces the data that informs this calculation.

The good news is that Earth Overshoot Day this year arrived 21 days later than in 2019. Coronavirus-induced lockdowns around the world have reduced wood harvests and the burning of fossil fuels. Even so, the world will demand more from nature than can be renewed this year.

York University has partnered with the Global Footprint Network to calculate the ecological footprint and biocapacity of every nation on the planet. This data is needed to determine Earth Overshoot Day.

“At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the true scale of our global interconnectedness, we have an opportunity to leverage partnership and collaboration to overcome complex global challenges like inequality, COVID-19, and of course, climate change,” said President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton. “York is proud to provide leadership through an international research collaboration like the Ecological Footprint initiative that helps countries determine whether they are on track to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, and gives us the data to calculate Earth Overshoot Day.”

A message from Lenton for Earth Overshoot Day can be found on YouTube.

Eric Miller
Eric Miller

Eric Miller leads a team of researchers and graduate students in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies to produce the National Footprint Accounts for the Footprint Data Foundation, a Canadian not-for-profit organization.

Miller and his team measure the carbon footprint, the amount of built-up land or urban sprawl, how much forest is used for timber and paper, how much cropland and pasture is used to produce food and the amount of seafood fished every year. These all add up to humanity’s ecological footprint.

Since 1970, humanity’s ecological footprint has overshot the capacity of nature to sustain it. The resulting ecological debt has been an accumulation of carbon pollution in the atmosphere and declines in biodiversity.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, we must rebuild our economies for well-being and sustainability,” Miller said. “We need regenerative economies that use natural resources at rates that can be sustained.”

York’s measurement of the Ecological Footprint helps to inform individuals, communities, and governments to make better decisions on how to better manage resources, reduce economic risk and improve well-being.