Did you think Europe was doing relatively well, environmentally speaking? EU Overshoot Day is your reality check. The EU elections and the response of EU leaders will be crucial to turn the tide, writes Ester Asin.
Ester Asin is the director of the WWF’s European Policy Office.
The concept of Earth Overshoot Day is not new: it describes the day on which humanity has depleted as many natural resources as the Earth can reproduce in an entire year. After that date (1 August in 2018), humans are building up an ecological deficit, or living in ‘overshoot’. Basically, this means that we are overspending the Earth’s natural capital, thereby creating more carbon emissions than the planet can absorb, destroying more forests and depleting more fishing grounds than nature can regenerate, eroding soils, and wiping out biodiversity.
Just earlier this week, the world’s leading scientists have warned that human activities are causing a sixth mass extinction, that we’re losing natural ecosystems at an unprecedented rate, and that this bears massive risks for humanity. We can no longer ignore this evidence, and it is clear that the global community must act urgently to avert ecological collapse.
But what about Europe? Our environmental standards are relatively high, right? We’re a leader on climate action, more aware of sustainable lifestyles than other regions, and looking after the nature we have left on our continent? I hate to disappoint.
The new report published by WWF together with Global Footprint Network shows that in fact, the EU is among the worst offenders when it comes to overuse of natural resources. EU Overshoot Day this year occurs already today – on 10 May.
This means that, if everybody on Earth lived, consumed, and polluted like EU citizens, we would now start running up a deficit in terms of the natural resources we use – a mere 129 days into the year! With just 7% of the world’s population, we are using almost 20% of its ‘biocapacity’, and 2.8 planets would be needed to sustain our lifestyle. Clearly, there is something seriously wrong here.
Of course, the picture within the EU is not homogenous, with Overshoot Days ranging from 16 February (Luxembourg) to 12 July (Romania), but they all fall well before the global average (with the great majority in April or May). Not a single EU country stays within the planetary boundaries.
The costs of this ‘overshoot’ are substantial, both for our economies and our health. Extreme weather events have cost the European economy €450 billion since 1980, and air pollution causes 430,000 premature deaths in Europe every year. The degradation of our soils, the pollution of our rivers and lakes, the mass dying of our pollinators and other insects – all these costs have to be born by society, ultimately. We are borrowing from the next generation, leaving our children to deal with the consequences of a depleted planet, jeopardising their health and wellbeing. They are starting to protest against this massive generational injustice, and they are right.
And yet, we also know that the solutions to tackle the twin crises of nature loss and climate change are within reach. Numerous examples show that it is possible to move towards a climate neutral society which is respectful of nature, and these are driven by progressive businesses, forward-looking local and regional governments, and innovative grassroots initiatives all over Europe. It is possible to make the right choices, but it requires political will and a true understanding of the emergency we are facing.
How national and European decision-makers respond to the elections results two weeks from now – the priorities they set for the next five years, the alliances they forge, and the EU top jobs they create and fill – will all determine whether we have a shot at a prosperous future for Europe.
Yesterday’s Sibiu Summit unfortunately did not give us the impetus we were hoping to see, with a handful of countries still resisting urgent action. This must be rectified at the upcoming European Council meeting in June.
We ask political leaders to commit to placing the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the heart of everything the EU does in the coming five years and adopt a European Sustainability Pact, comprising of concrete actions on climate and environment to protect what is vital to us all. This includes, amongst others, transformative actions to fully protect and restore nature in Europe by 2030 and make the EU climate neutral by 2040.