Earth Overshoot Day 2020 – why we need to achieve a sustainable future by a plan, and not a pandemic

Dr Marcus Gover, CEO WRAP

My wife and I joined many in the UK last week in the difficult ritual of supporting one of our children (we have three daughters) through the anxious wait for A Level results. It was particularly stressful this year - with no actual exams and then what followed.  I have been involved with schools as a governor for many years and education is a passion of mine, so I was very concerned about the consequences for all students.   It prompted me to reflect on how something as important as our education system could so easily be sent into turmoil by COVID-19.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many aspects of the life we were used to; and took for granted. Access to food supplies, our health service, our places of work and sending our children to school amongst them. These form the bedrock of a well-functioning, prosperous society, and the shock to our society of witnessing them under strain has been profound. 

In many parts of the world, of course, these are things many in the population can still only dream of. 

According to UNESCO, there are globally around 260 million children, one in five, out of school. There are many reasons for this – war, child labour, child marriage and poverty amongst them. But one, and growing, reason is a result of the biggest, existential threat which unites us all – climate change. It is estimated that environmental threats affect the education of around 37 million children every year. A 2019 report from US academics in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences described the devastating impacts extreme weather events are having on children’s education in parts of the world. The authors outlined how storms and cyclones can destroy schools or mean the buildings are converted into sanctuary for the homeless. And how droughts and heatwaves which lead to crop failures can mean agricultural families cannot afford school fees, need their children to work, or uproot their families to look for food, water, and employment.

Indirectly, climate changes, the report went on, can also lead to undernutrition and other health problems which are linked to lower educational attainment and slower development – both of which put children at a disadvantage compared those not faced with these challenges. In building our own strategies at WRAP, we are increasingly cognisant of how environmental and societal problems are intertwined. Take the fight against food waste for example. One third of the food which is produced in the world is lost or wasted. At the same almost a billion people go to bed hungry. So redistributing that food may not tackle the root causes of hunger, but it can help to nourish people in need. And healthy bodies equals healthy societies. In Mexico, for example, our food waste project aims to support the existing work of fantastic charities like BAMX, whose network of 55 food banks already serve more than one million food insecure people every day with surplus food, just under half of whom are children and adolescents. This can have a huge benefit on education – nourished children have a better chance of learning.  

But of course, it isn’t just education which is feeling the impact of climate change. It has dug its claws into all aspects of our lives. Scientists estimate that its fingerprints can be now be seen on every day of global weather since 2012; with all the consequences we are being confronted with. That means it has been a feature of every day of the life of a child born after that time. And some are affected more than others. So, it has embedded even deeper the inequalities which existed before it surfaced. Those least contributing to it are already suffering most acutely. It is the new apartheid. It is also an inescapable truth that things will get much worse. Our children and subsequent generations will inherit the consequences of our collective failure if we don’t act now.

So, it’s no surprise that public concern about the environment had reached record levels before the pandemic. And that it was highest amongst young people. In a YouGov poll from last year, in the wake of Greta Thunberg’s crusade and worldwide youth activism, almost half of 18-24-year-olds in the UK cited problems such as climate change and annihilation of wildlife as the thing that concerned them most behind Brexit. I felt that public awareness had reached levels unseen during my years working in sustainability, and this had led to unprecedented political and business action. For the first time, it felt like a must have, rather than a nice to have part of a government and board room strategic thinking.

Has this awakening been eclipsed by the pandemic? With analysts suggesting we are emerging from the health crisis into a global recession, the temptation will be to do whatever it takes to rev up the economy to play catch-up. I understand this, but I also believe that to do this in a way which doesn’t design in resilience to future shocks, and with a reckless disregard for the greater looming threat of climate change, would be a huge mistake. This was a dress rehearsal for what could be the final act, and the moment for us adults to step in to write the script. 

COVID-19 put our lives on hold. But in doing so, it also, showed us what is possible if we stop our polluting profligacy. The planet was able to breathe fully again as pollution levels dropped dramatically; species are thriving. It’s why Earth Overshoot Day, the day which marks the moment when we have used up the resources the Earth is able to produce in a given year, is this year nearly a month later than it was in 2019. As the organisers warn though, this was by disaster, and not design. We don’t want this environmental good news story to have been a brief Utopian fantasy. Worryingly, some commentators are already warning that, for example, daily global carbon emissions in June were only 5% lower than the previous year. This was when many countries were still in partial lockdown.  Reportedly, pollution levels are on the rise again as factories crank up again. 

This reaction is understandable in some ways; economic hardship has far-reaching consequences. But turning the clock back to pre-COVID is in my view short-sighted. The global pandemic exposed the fragility of a system which is built around just-in-time supply lines and a make-use-dispose approach which is putting unbearable strain on the planet. It has demonstrated the importance of listening to science and the power of collaboration and swift, innovative decision-making. It also highlighted the flaws in our global society. It may be indiscriminate in who it infected, but it affected the lives in far greater ways those already vulnerable in our communities. It has deepened divides and disadvantage in a way which mirrors the present and future effects of climate change, and demonstrates why we have to build back better in a way which ensures resilience for the future.

At WRAP, Earth Overshoot Day is always an important milestone. This is because our vision, and the reason why we exist, is ultimately to #MoveTheDate  so we live well within the means which our Earth provides to sustain us. This year, the event feels more important than ever, because the fact that it went into reverse provides hope for the future if we take stock and take action. 

The future doesn’t belong to us – but to my daughters’ generation and those beyond. Which is why this year we gave our platform to the voices of the young people in our midst to articulate their ideas on how we can all protect our planet. It’s been a shot in the arm for me to look at their films and posters, as I am one of the custodians of their future. I’m sure all my colleagues at WRAP felt the same. Check out our Twitter feed tomorrow when we share their self-made videos. 

Earth Overshoot Day is one on which we should ponder the kind of future we want to bequeath to our children. Scientists tell us we are the very last generation to have the chance to make a difference; the last bastion of hope. After that it will be too late. This unprecedented global health crisis has presented us with our chance to rebuild a world where both people and planet can not just survive, but thrive. Where we remedy both the injustices in human society and our abuse of the planet’s precious resources. If we don’t seize this opportunity which COVID-19 has provided us to climb out of the wreckage and create a stronger, fairer future, the generations who follow will never forgive us.