The month of May is significant in lots of people’s calendars. It’s filled with bank holidays, summer is in sight and there’s even a national biscuit day in the mix.
But there’s an important date which slips through the net. Today marks the UK’s Earth Overshoot Day, meaning that any resources we consume from this point are beyond what the earth can healthily sustain. The UK urgently needs a new approach to resource use and the time is now.
Our resource consumption is out of hand
It’s not news that the UK has a consumption problem. Per person, we consume double what the UN suggests can be used while remaining within planetary boundaries and three tonnes more than the global average. So, even though the global Earth Overshoot Day is at the end of July, the rate at which we consume resources here in the UK forces the threshold a lot sooner.
Consumption at this rate is damaging for people and the planet. According to the UN, resource extraction and processing accounts for 90 per cent of global biodiversity loss and water stress, and half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Mining, processing materials and dealing with waste are also associated with human rights abuses and health issues worldwide. Crucially, the mineral rich countries that bear the brunt of the socio-environmental impacts are usually not the ones driving the intensive consumption. For instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo has no Earth Overshoot Day (meaning that national consumption remains within planetary boundaries), but child labour and worker exploitation are commonplace in cobalt mining as the industry works to supply the global demand for critical raw minerals. Kenya also has no Earth Overshoot Day but is burdened by 300 million items of waste synthetic clothing per year, fuelling plastic pollution across the country.
We need a resource reduction target
Over the last few decades, Earth Overshoot Day has steadily been falling earlier and earlier in the year. And unlike with greenhouse gas emissions and net zero, there is no target to reduce resource consumption. As a result, there is no clear pathway to reducing the damage caused by consumption and we risk continuing the same patterns where, like a close relative’s birthday, Earth Overshoot Day creeps up on us quicker each time it comes back around. But, unlike a close relative’s birthday, we can still change the date: we just need the political ambition to do so.
The UK needs an explicit target to halve resource consumption by 2050. Devolved nations are already headed in this direction: Wales have committed to one planet resource use by 2050, Northern Ireland have promised to reduce material consumption to eight tonnes per person by 2050 (matching the rate that the UN deems sustainable) and Scotland are likely to set similar targets in due course.
Despite the powers granted in the Environment Act, the UK failed to set an equivalent target. Labour have publicly supported a resource reduction target, but murmurings in Whitehall fall short of the concerted action and ambition that is needed to keep consumption within planetary limits. Perhaps, in the ample time we have in resource deficit this year, we can drum up the courage.