In 2018, humanity used up its annual budget of resources in record speed. August 1 marks the day all resources, which could have been sustainably consumed throughout the entire year, are depleted. This date is determined each year by the Global Footprint Network (GFN), an international non-profit research group, and named World Overshoot Day.
The group tallies up humanity’s need for resources and checks it against what our planet is capable of producing. Each year, we are using more resources than the earth can reproduce over the same period. Doing this calculation enables the group to determine the date by which we have used up all our resources that were sustainably available for the year.
According to the researchers, the world has started living in debt in relation to Earth’s biocapacity since 1970 and subsequently, the situation, symbolized by the World Overshoot Day, has gotten worse. In comparison, the World Overshoot Day in 1997 was in late September and, now 21 years later has come nearly two months earlier.
This development shows that the current efforts of deploying renewable energy resources are far from sufficient, to keep up with global economic development and the increase in global energy needs. Despite efforts in developing solar PV and other renewable energy resources, this year is yet another record-breaking unsustainable year.
Reportedly, 60% of the humanities annual budget is consumed by carbon emissions. GFN further stipulates that if the carbon element could completely vanish from the calculation, the date would move closer to December 31 by 93 days, marking a significant improvement.
Current renewable energy ambitions
According to REN21’s Global Renewable Energy report published earlier this year, the solar PV industry added at least 98 GW of new capacity, globally, in 2017. That is a 33% year-on-year increase, resulting in a total 402 GW of installed capacity, by the end of 2017.
Wind power also increased YoY, by 11%, installing 52 GW. Global wind capacity was estimated to be 539 GW, and in combination with solar PV, these two energy resources comprised 70% of new installations, up from 63% in 2017. Still, renewables are playing catch up with world economic development.
Additionally, 39% of the total annual energy-related CO2-emissions come from heat consumption, which currently has a 26% renewable energy share. Transportation has only 3% renewable energy share, even though the sector makes up nearly a third of the global energy consumption. Finally, the electricity sector, also accounting for nearly a third of the global energy consumption, shows a 25% renewable energy share.
A significant problem, according to REN21’s report, is subsidies and insufficient investments into renewable energy resources. The report highlights the fact that fossil fuels are subsidized with $370 billion, each year, compared to $140 billion for renewable energy.
By subsidizing fossil fuels twice as much as renewable energy, the latter struggles to be price competitive and loses out on priority grid integration. Furthermore, to come closer to meeting climate goals, such subsidies could be used for renewable energy investments.
As the report further highlights, to meet the Paris Agreement goals, a global annual investment for renewable energy amounting to $500 billion would be necessary. Currently, the annual global investment is $279 billion, representing the slow pace at which renewable energy resources are deployed.
Technology is here already
“Our current economies are running a Ponzi scheme with our planet,” said Mathis Wackernagel, CEO, and co-founder of Global Footprint Network. “We are borrowing the Earth’s future resources to operate our economies in the present. Like any Ponzi scheme, this works for some time. However, as nations, companies, or households dig themselves deeper and deeper into debt, they eventually fall apart.”
Notably, the researchers take into consideration not just energy needs, but overall resource consumption, and account that into global hectares. However, energy needs and the carbon industry make up the most significant chunk in this calculation.
Global Footprint Network and Schneider Electric conducted a joint estimation of the effects of current off-the-shelf technologies for buildings, industrial processes and electricity generation would have and come to the conclusion that the day could be moved by 21 days. They iterate that at this point, this is a conservative calculation that does not incur any loss of productivity or comfort.
“At Global Footprint Network, we believe that overusing Earth’s ecosystems is one of the largest challenges facing humanity today, with climate change being a big portion of that challenge,” concluded Wackernagel. “Transforming our economies to address this challenge is no easy task. But just as humanity has tapped creativity and ingenuity in the past, we can do so again to create a prosperous future free of fossil fuels and planetary destruction.”
Not a new topic
This knowledge is not new. As the book, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway pointed out in 2010, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in 1995 that human activities were affecting climate change. Meanwhile, the issue of CO2 and its effects on the environment were raised even earlier, in 1979, which was described as a “seminal year for climate”, chiefly due to drought-related famines in Africa and Asia, which served to highlight the sensitive nature of the global food chain.
While many studies were conducted into CO2 in the 70’s, and beyond – which unequivocately concluded that, indeed, it was having a detrminental impact on the climate that would only increase over time – a handful of scientists with deep political and industrial connections, but not such deep knowledge of their areas of “expertise”, have also managed to delay action, by decades, on climate change. They were also involved in very successfully spreading doubt about the link between smoking and cancer, coal and acid rain, and CFCs with the ozone hole, in the face of stark facts.
This explains why, in 2018, we are experiencing increasingly hot climates, melting polar ice caps, and an increasing number of catastrophic environmental disasters, including wildfires, storms and earthquakes, to name but a few from the past two monhts of this year. And it explains why we are still having the same conversations about the climate; and we are still experiencing scandals like the recent Volkswagen emissions scandal; why we still see push back from governments and industry, which are still deeply invested in fossil fuels, fracking and nuclear; and why we still hear so much misinformation about renewables.
The planet will be ok, eventually. Humans won’t.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.