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by Mathis Wackernagel
29 June 2020
Associate feature: Choosing our future by design, not disaster


Associate feature: Choosing our future by design, not disaster

Last year, our planet’s ecological budget only lasted till July 29th. For the rest of the year, humanity lived off depleting our planet, growing our ecological debt and with it, the fragility of our economies. This debt shows up as excessive greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, biodiversity loss, air pollution, groundwater depletion, and deforestation – among other impacts.

This year has been different. The economic slowdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the global Ecological Footprint, pushing this year’s Earth Overshoot Day to August 22. That’s the latest we’ve seen since 2005.

This phenomenon demonstrates that shifting resource consumption patterns in a short timeframe is possible. However, true sustainability that allows all to thrive within Earth’s ecological budget can only be achieved by design, not by disaster. This year’s reduction in Footprint does not come from intentional changes that decarbonized energy, made cities more resource efficient, or yielded a healthier and more resilient food system. It was paid for by imposed restraint, in some cases with significant human suffering. The sudden year-over-year Ecological Footprint contraction is a far cry from the systemic change which is required to achieve both ecological balance and people’s well-being, two inextricable components of a workable future.

By choosing design over disaster, we can address this imbalance. In fact, it is the only sensible path forward, one that the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency calls “one-planet prosperity”. Because Earth’s ecological budget is not up for negotiation, the only choice before us is whether we build one-planet prosperity or one-planet misery.

Scotland’s COVID-19 recovery is an opportunity to choose. No society can shift overnight to a thriving economy in a world characterized by climate change, biological resource constraints, and phased-out fossil fuels. No country, city, or company can rebuild, retrofit or repurpose its infrastructure instantaneously. Clearly, those who plan ahead stand a far better chance to thrive than those who keep investing in the obsolete resource-intensive economy.

This foresight is emerging overwhelmingly from women, starting with the youth inspiring the Fridays4Future movement. Angela Merkel has pushed Germany’s energy transition for years. Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde advocate for Europe’s “Green New Deal”. Carolina Schmidt, the Chilean minister of environment presiding COP25, and Patricia Espinosa, who heads the UN’s climate convention, fight for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Last but not least, Nicola Sturgeon has been championing and implementing one of the most rigorous and thoughtful decarbonization strategies of any region in the world.

We have learned from COVID-19 that protecting ourselves is the only effective way to protect others. The recovery is the opportunity to do just that: preparing ourselves so we can thrive in a predictably challenging future. While this is necessary for each community’s and company’s own benefit, it is also a most generous act because everyone investing in their own long-term success makes it more possible for others to succeed. Unlike a soccer championship, this is a positive sum game.

To bridge the gap between the UN’s COP meetings – with the COP26 now postponed to November 2021 in Glasgow – and act on the urgent need to accelerate the transformation, Global Footprint Network will launch this year’s Earth Overshoot Day in Scotland.

With its newly launched recovery plan, Scotland’s statement to the world is clear: foresight and innovation are critical for one’s own future. Most importantly, as it thinks pro-actively about what its future needs to look like, Scotland is seizing the perfect opportunity to avoid going back to what was broken and to build a future worthy of its great past.

Mathis Wackernagel is President of the Global Footprint Network

This piece was sponsored by the Global Footprint Network

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