As life restarts, humanity's ecological footprint hits pre-Covid levels

The deforestation in the Amazon forest. Credit: WWF Brazil/Michael Dantas

Following last year's historic drop in humanity's ecological footprint as a result of the people being confined to combat the coronavirus pandemic, it has once again soared to pre-Covid levels.

The news comes on this year's Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the symbolic date when humans have consumed all the natural resources the Earth can produce in a year, and which is taking place four weeks earlier than in 2020, when it fell on 22 August.

"Today, we need 1.7 Earths to sustain our way of life and our Belgian footprint remains among the highest in the world," Julie Vandenberghe, Deputy Director National Programs at WWF-Belgium, responded to the news.

This means that from Thursday onwards, humanity will be living "on credit," as people will be cutting down more forests than nature can grow, or emitting more greenhouse gases than the Earth can absorb, according to the Global Footprint Network, which made the calculations.

'Serious increase in natural disasters'

Last year, the lockdowns and the measures imposed to combat the coronavirus pandemic initially caused a sharp drop (-9.2%) in CO2 emissions during the first six months, as reported by the International Energy Agency (IEA), but by the second half of the year, levels were rising once again as people started to come out of confinement.

Since last Earth Overshoot Day, the total ecological footprint on Earth increased by 6.6%, while total biocapacity increased by 0.3% over the same time span.

Aside from lockdowns ending, deforestation and degradation in the Amazon also played a large role in this figure increasing, as this caused a 0.5% decrease in the global forest bio-capacity, which is the ability of ecosystems to produce raw materials used by humans and absorb waste produced by humans, including emissions.

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In 2021, deforestation in the Amazon spiked and, according to estimates, increased by 43% from 2020, when 1.1 million hectares were destroyed, whilst a recent study published in the journal Nature warned that the Amazon already emits more CO2 than it absorbs.

"The consequences of this destruction and pollution are felt through a serious increase in natural disasters, such as heatwaves, extreme droughts, violent storms or floods, as Belgium has just experienced," a WWF press release read.

Belgium is one of eight European countries that together contribute around 80% to all European imports of products that cause deforestation, whilst Europe is the world's second-largest importer of products from deforested areas.

To decrease humanity's ecological footprint, governments should focus on adopting new binding European legislation to ban products derived from deforestation and conversion of natural ecosystems, according to the Global Footprint Network.

"We urgently need to bring our footprint back to a level that the planet can handle. The cost of doing so is many times less than letting the ecological crisis run its course," WWF warned.

Earth Overshoot Day is calculated through nowcasting, the practice of estimating current existing climate conditions, based on National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts (NFA) and information gathered from official United Nations datasets, as the latest data of the planet's state of affairs is usually delayed by about four years.

This technique allows the Global Footprint Network to provide an estimate of where humanity’s demand stands compared to the planet’s biocapacity in 2021.

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