Strategy & economics
Earth Overshoot Day: Living far beyond our planet's means
For decades, the Global Footprint Network (GFN) has measured the date at which global consumption of natural resources exceeds the planet’s bio-capacity. This year, Earth Overshoot Day was reached on 1 August; the earliest date ever (see figure 1). GFN’s analysis implies we have used natural resources meant to last a year in a little over half that time.
This analysis is not unique. The picture of a global economy living beyond its environmental means emerges from almost any angle and nowhere more clearly than climate change. We are fast approaching the point where an orderly transition to a low carbon global economy ceases to work mathematically. Indeed, some of the seemingly outlandish or “moonshot” ideas might yet make the move from “madness to mainstream”.
Source: Global footprint network, National footprint accounts 2018
Most of those options fall under the broad heading of “geoengineering”. The term describes large-scale manipulation of environmental processes to affect the earth's climate. While reducing CO2 emissions is still the most efficient way of limiting climate change, escalating greenhouse gas concentration means we may need to focus on changing the atmosphere rather than on damaging it less quickly. Broadly, the techniques can be split into two groups: solar radiation management and CO2 removal. The former refers to any intervention that reduces the amount of sunlight reaching the planet. The latter includes any technology or natural object (trees, rocks, soil) to draw CO2 out of the air.
Existing solutions are diverse. They range from planting trees, setting up man-made technologies to siphon CO2 out of the air, to ships with large pipes shooting aerosol particles into the stratosphere and even space mirrors to reflect sunlight. While the latter might seem implausible on first sight, they might become reality rather sooner than later if drastic and rapid action is needed to tackle global warming. First examples of small-scale geoengineering can be seen in cities such as Los Angeles, which started to cover their streets with white paint to reflect sunlight and hence combat urban warming. Additional unconventional examples of climate change interventions include:
- Dumping iron into the ocean: a controversial American businessman dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering scheme
- Space mirrors to stop global warming: Lowell Wood of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proposed a giant space mirror
- Houses of the future made from trash: Last year’s trash could become next year’s model home
- Solar air planes: Solar Impulse 2, which landed in Abu Dhabi, is the first plane powered by the renewable energy source to tour the globe
These may seem unusual, but current developments indicate that the application of more radical interventions might be required in order to reduce global warming. While not every intervention will carry the expected effects, having a larger set of possible interventions will increase the odds of success – even if brought by unexpected measures.
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