It is only the beginning of May, but already Germany’s Overshoot Day. In other words, per person, the country has used as much from nature in just over four months as the planet can renew in the space of a year.
If people across the world lived like those in Germany, we would need three planets to cater to them. Though clearly, we only have one.
“That should be an alarm signal to remind us of the gravity of the situation,” said Lara Louisa Siever, senior policy advisor for resource justice at the German development network INKOTA. “It’s a wakeup call to all of us citizens, but also politicians and the industry, that we cannot continue like this.”
Calculated by international reasearch group, Global Footprint Network, Overshoot Days factor in how much we consume, how efficiently products are made, population size and how much nature can reproduce.
Germany’s early Overshoot Day, is down to its intensive use of resources in areas such as agriculture and energy inefficiency in buildings, says Stefan Küper, press spokesperson for the environmental and sustainable development NGO Germanwatch.
“And this leads to Germany living on credit and taking a lot more from the planet than we are supposed to,” he said.
Progress too slow
It is not the first time Germany has depleted its resources so quickly. In fact, the country’s official Overshoot Day has been more or less around the same date for years.
“And that’s the saddest part. We don’t see enough movement in Germany. We are clearly not making any real, measurable progress towards using less resources or emitting fewer greenhouse gasses,” Küper said, adding that it sends the wrong signal to other countries that might be looking at Germany to see how it is tackling the problem of emissions.
“What they see is that Germany isn’t really making any progress in reaching its climate goals. So they’ll think it’s not a priority for them either.”
Against that backdrop, he says Germany has to “take giant, measurable steps to show Germany didn’t just set goals, but is doing something to reach them.”
Countries like Indonesia are the ones that feel the brunt of the climate crisis though they emit less than nations like Germany
High-income countries live at the cost of low-income nations
Despite reaching its Overshoot Day so early in the year, Germany is by no means the first country to cross the dubious finishing line. Other high-income states including Qatar, Luxembourg, Canada, the United Arab Emirates and the United States got there even sooner.
A fact that Siever says underscores how industrialized countries are living off the backs of low-income nations, such as Jamaica, Ecuador, Indonesia, Cuba and Iraq, which use fewer resources and will not reach their respective Overshoot Days until the end of the year.
“Germany, is the fifth biggest consumer of raw materials in the world and is importing minerals and metals to 99% from countries in the Global South,” Siever said. “These countries don’t consume the same amount of raw materials, but are the ones bearing the costs; the human rights degradation and environmental damages.”
Earth Overshoot Day across the decades
Half a century ago, the Earth’s biocapacity was more than enough to meet annual human demand for resources. But ‘Earth Overshoot Day’, the date when humanity as a whole has used up the resources needed to live sustainably for a year, has been creeping up the calendar for a long time.
For this year, the date hasn’t been announced yet, but it landed on August 22 in 2020. In 1970 and 1990, it fell on December 30 and October 10 respectively. By 2010, it had moved forward to August 6.
“That’s what worries me so much, that we have been overusing our resources for decades, and that globally, speaking, we are seeing an increasing level of overuse,” Küper said. “It’s a development that we need to stop immediately.”
What needs to change?
One of the main culprits for overshooting the planet’s natural budget are carbon emissions, which currently make up 60% of humanity’s ecological footprint. If we were to emit just half that, we would hit Earth Overshoot Day about three months later.
Transitioning to renewable energy is one of the most powerful ways to cut emissions, but Siever says we also have to be aware of the raw material value chains involved.
“Everybody is asking for a renewable energy transition. But we need minerals and metals for this, such as cobalt, lithium and nickel. What we often forget is that the processing of these minerals and metals contribute 11% to global CO2 emissions,” she said.
She is working with civil society to push for a raw materials transition that would see a radical reduction in our consumption of raw materials and is encouraged by the fact that the German government included a plan to reduce its use of raw materials in its coalition treaty.
Shaping a sustainable future
Many citizen initiatives, municipal policies and business strategies are already driving change that could ultimately impact when Germany hits it Overshoot Day in the future.
In the western German city of Wuppertal, citizens initiatied a project to transform an old railroad into a bike path network, which is expected to be used by 90 million cyclists over the next 30 years.
In the western German city of Wuppertal, citizens initiated a project to transform an old railroad into a bike path network
Not far away, in the city of Aachen, policymakers laid the strategic foundation for a climate-neutral city by 2030. The surface area of Aachen’s roofs eligible to support photovoltaic systems is large enough to meet the electricity demand of all inhabitants. The financing of 150 rooftop solar installations has already been secured, with another 1000 to be initiated this year.
Küper believes such shifts are down to citizen initiatives like Fridays for Future putting pressure on politicians and demanding change. And he says dates such as Earth Overshoot Day play an important role in raising the alarm across the world.
“When we started raising awareness of this day with other organizations, hardly anyone knew about it. Now I see a massive growth in public awareness of the day and the problems it represents. And we need that. Without public pressure, nothing is going to change as fast as we need it to,” Küper said.
Edited by: Tamsin Walker