Opinion

Walking into an ecological wilderness

BALAKRISHNA PISUPATI MATHISWACKERNAGEL | Updated on January 17, 2018

Burning away: That’s our future

By not balancing the use of renewable resources with what is generated, the world, India included, is bartering away its future

Today is a troubling date. It marks the day when, according to the Global Footprint Network, humanity has already used up all of the renewable natural resources that the planet can replenish this year.

Worryingly, this year’s milestone, which is known as Earth Overshoot Day, has been coming around earlier and earlier each year, a sign that humanity’s consumption of renewable natural resources continues to rise.

Mind the gap

If by today humanity’s demand on Earth’s biocapacity so far this year, has started to exceed what the planet can renew in the entire year, then from tomorrow onwards we will have already begun to eat into the resources earmarked for 2017.

Currently, humanity demands 64 per cent more from nature than the Earth can renew. We make up for this gap by depleting our planet’s natural capital, for instance through overfishing, overharvesting forests and emitting more carbon into our atmosphere than can be absorbed.

We can measure the scale of our ecological overshoot by comparing humanity’s “ecological footprint” (our demand for renewable natural resources) to the planet’s biocapacity (nature’s ability to regenerate these resources).

India has the third-largest ecological footprint in the world, trailing only China and the US. It would take 2.6 Indias to support the population’s current demand on nature. Yet, at the same time, India has the 25th lowest ecological footprint per person.

In line with global trends, India’s expanding ecological footprint is driven in large part by the burning of fossil fuels. As the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the US, India’s rising consumption of fossil fuels accounts for 53 per cent of the country’s demand for natural resources and is a major factor behind the 100-per cent increase of India’s ecological footprint between 1961 and 2012.

One of the greatest success stories in India’s modern history is that the national supply of biological resources has remained relatively constant. Agricultural productivity has increased almost in lockstep with the country’s booming population.

However, this has not prevented India from operating at an increasing ecological deficit. The main culprit is the country’s carbon footprint because other demands on nature can be mostly met and supported by the natural ecosystems that exist within India’s boundaries.

Not forever

Globally, the longer we go on pretending that natural resources are unlimited. Crises around the world have often been framed as ethnic or religious conflicts, but frequently the cause has been an erosion of resource security followed by economic, then social and political hardship. It is not too late to recognise these patterns and take effective preventive action.

Thankfully, change is afoot. The Sustainable Development Goals adopted in New York last September and the Paris Climate Agreement signed last December have given us the best reason for hope to date. If we are to adhere to the Paris climate goals adopted by nearly 200 countries, then carbon emissions will need to gradually fall to zero by 2050.

Change we must

The Paris Accord calls for a new way of living on the only planet we have. Fortunately, current technology already makes this new path possible. And economic analysis suggests that the overall benefits of this new path exceed the costs involved as emerging sectors like renewable energy are stimulated and the risks and costs associated with stranded assets are reduced.

Finally, we may bemoan the hesitations of politicians, at home and around the world, and their seeming lack of follow-through. But let’s bear in mind that the future that we want is not the responsibility of governments alone.

Balancing how much renewable natural resources we use with how much is generated is paramount if humanity is to thrive on our beautiful planet. Each of us has the opportunity to participate: the choices we make every day in our personal lives and as citizens actively contribute to the world that we will leave future generations.

Building a sustainable world will take nothing less than transforming our individual and collective mindsets and setting our imaginations free.

Pisupati works at the UNEP and Wackernagel is co-founder and CEO of Global Footprint Network. The views are personal

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Published on August 07, 2016
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