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Earth Overshoot Day 2022: Improving our ecological footprints

Published on July 28, 2022

To mark Earth Overshoot Day 2022, which this year falls today: Thursday, 28 July, Lucy Thomas, RSK group Chief Scientist, sat down with colleagues from across the RSK family of businesses to discuss why this day is so important and what actions we can take to help #MoveTheDate nearer to the end of the year.

Let’s start with an introduction from everyone here today.

Lucy Thomas: I’m Lucy Thomas, I’m RSK’s Chief Scientist and I also run our businesses in Africa and the RSK Centre for Sustainability Excellence.

Joe Farnell: I’m Joe Farnell and I work at CAN Renewables. We work on a variety of renewable energy systems, including solar, wind and heat pumps, from feasibility through to installation and commissioning, service and repair.

Katherine Risk: I’m Katherine and I’m from Nature Positive. We support businesses to understand their impacts and dependencies on biodiversity and develop sustainability strategies and action plans.

Sarah Wynn: I’m Sarah Wynn and I lead the ADAS Climate and Sustainability business based in the UK. Our focus is very much on improving the sustainability of food production and providing advice to the whole food supply chain.

Simphiwe Mazibuko: My name is Simphiwe Mazibuko. I am from RGM Environment based in South Africa. I am the country manager and also work in new business development and operations.

What is Earth Overshoot Day?

Katherine: Earth Overshoot Day is the day when the amount of material that we’ve used for a year is greater than the amount of material the Earth has to supply to us. These calculations are done by the Global Footprint Network – they study different metrics across many different countries to provide an overview of when we’ve used up the resources for that year.

We’re essentially depleting the resources we have available to us and at some point, we’re going to run out, which is the issue. So, we need to get back to Earth Overshoot Day being more like the 30th of December.

Lucy: It is worth noting too that in national terms, Earth Overshoot Day can be quite different. In the UK, it fell on 19 May this year; for our colleagues in parts of the world such as Australia, it was 23 March and in South Africa, 1 June. This is of both national and global importance.

So, thinking about how we reach that point when Earth Overshoot Day is at the year’s end and starting with energy, we could potentially move the date by about three months if we began to decarbonise this sector.

How significant is the role of the energy transition here?

Joe: In my opinion, with larger commercial-scale projects, it does have a big effect. Now that we are seeing energy price increases, the two go hand in hand: not only the need to decarbonise but also the need to spend less on energy. People are very much interested in trying to cut energy bills, but we see that people aren’t driven to cut down on usage that much: instead, they’re driven to try and get cheaper costs.

Simphiwe: In South Africa where I’m based, our energy mainly comes from coal. We face the additional challenge of load shedding, where one side of town has energy but the other does not, so that the potential of overload on the system is minimised. What we are trying to do now is to redefine our systems with alternative energy sources. For example, wind farms are increasing but some cities are not suitable for them. The Eastern Cape is more favourable for wind farms while the egion is more suitable to harvest solar.

Also, though we do have backup generators when we experience load shedding, a new action we have implemented at RGM is to not use heaters when we are on generator power. It’s not easy for us as we are not used to the cold! We currently have a solar panel on our building that we hope to extend and start using battery backup so that we can store the power we harvest.

Sarah: I think there’s an overall sea change needed in how we perceive our right to use energy, as both Joe and Simphiwe say. At the moment, everybody just uses energy and they don’t really think about the consequences. I found it very interesting last autumn, when we had the petrol crisis in the UK and we had the COP26 conference – there was no joined up thinking: we were running out of fuel but we were talking about climate, separately.

Lucy: Let’s move over to the food side of things. An important statistic is: if we reduced global food waste by half, we could move Earth Overshoot Day back by roughly 13 days. What’s the significance of food and agriculture?

Sarah: There are a couple of things here. On the food waste part, being very conscious about how you buy and store your food, and at least in the UK, how you respond to things like best before and use by dates. There are some things maybe you need to be a little bit more careful of in terms of dates, but we need that kind of thinking about how you buy and consume food. And how much you actually let go to waste, reusing leftovers and portion control rather than wasting – are you eating more food than you need to be eating?

Another area you see an awful lot in the press about is cattle being the big challenge. There are challenges around cattle production but we are working on solutions. There could be big problems if we didn’t have cattle in terms of consequences for land use change elsewhere and poor utilisation of land. There is currently work under way to develop methane inhibitors that are relatively practical to apply in a housed cattle system.

If we can get these things managed, then actually, cattle have a positive contribution, because they can utilise land that is not otherwise readily usable for food production and they also help reduce food waste through their feed. And I imagine that the land use element would possibly have some resonance in other parts of the world as well, where you’ve got scrub areas where there isn’t enough rainfall to sustain crops but cattle, goats and sheep have the ability to utilise that land in a way that a crop couldn’t.

Lucy: Thinking about the areas where I’ve seen cattle rearing in East Africa, you wouldn’t easily grow crops in some of those regions.

Sarah: And it’s the same in the UK. If you think about the Lake District or the Peak District: if you try to cultivate those hills, you’d have soil erosion and lots of biodiversity loss. I did a lot of work in the mountains in Uganda, where they were cultivating on steep slopes and the loss of soil there was massive. Sometimes, livestock is potentially a better utiliser of that land and if well managed, it can be complementary to biodiversity too.

Lucy: One additional point here: is there anything we’re doing already or could be doing on linking renewable energy and agriculture? How can we produce crops with less energy or less fossil fuel energy?

Joe: It’s all to do with the energy consumption side of it. People have been interested from an agricultural point of view in a cost-saving benefit rather than the carbon-saving benefit, but the two go together. Ultimately, it depends on what land is available and what structure is available.

Sarah: There are a couple of big, big energy uses in crops: drying of crops, for example, the drying of wheat after it’s harvested, and the storing of potatoes. These are potentially huge energy consumers. Getting the potato growers to invest in the energy efficiency of their storage facilities is a starting point but then also encouraging them to invest in renewables – installing solar on the roofs of their potato stores because they’re huge, great buildings – as Joe says, the structure is there.

Lucy: Let’s come on to biodiversity – we could move the date by 8 days if we were to restore 350 million hectares of forest. And I’m also aware that we could move it yet further if we did more to restore the oceans as well: seagrass restoration, for example, can be really pivotal. What’s the significance of biodiversity?

Katherine: Degradation of biodiversity across the world is accelerating and it’s bad for a whole host of reasons. One of these is the loss of habitat that absorbs carbon into the environment – the loss of large carbon sinks, especially the likes of seagrass meadows and rainforests. But then closer to home, we’ve got the peatlands in the UK that also provide a lot of security in terms of natural processes that we rely on and ecosystem services, such as clean water, soil health and disease prevention and resilience in crops.

In terms of the work we’re doing at Nature Positive, we’re helping clients to really understand what raw materials they’re procuring and what sort of impacts they might be having across the supply chain. There’s also the impact the companies will intrinsically have through their operations and buildings, and we are starting to get companies to offset that land use by helping to restore nature in other areas.

Another thing around buildings that helps manage impacts is biodiversity net gain, which will be enforced by new regulations in the UK. When you build on an area of land, the biodiversity value of that land is calculated, and then you have to replace that biodiversity value plus 10%. It may be that you go and create a woodland, a wetland or a meadow to enrich biodiversity.

Lucy: It would be interesting for us to consider if there are some potential blockers to introducing these kinds of initiatives? When we get a challenge, what are those blockers and do we have ideas for how they could be overcome?

I had an interesting conversation with our Australian colleagues, who couldn’t join us today, but mentioned that sustainability initiatives aren’t as advanced there as they are in Western Europe. So, their government bids now require innovation and the team sees that as an ideal opportunity to promote RSK services around reducing carbon, improving biodiversity and improving the rights for indigenous peoples, so that it’s all linked more to sustainability and sustainable development.

Joe: From the energy side, it’s material availability at the moment – trying to get hold of batteries is actually the hardest thing. The supply chains just aren’t keeping up with the demand of consumers. There are not that many local UK manufacturers of these goods, so the material availability slows things down but it’s not a complete stopper.

Things are also slowed down for us with the district network operator applications that we have to fulfil – almost every time when people want solar panels, depending on the size of the system, we have to make an application to the grid. And it can take a long time to get the approval back. But the upfront cost is probably the hardest barrier to winning people around out of everything: it’s a significant investment.

Katherine: I would agree with cost. With something like biodiversity net gain, the cost of the land and implementing the change is quite high for a lot of companies. And then I think it is probably the complexity of things such as supply chains and understanding where your impacts are. A lot of companies don’t have visibility over their end-to-end supply chains, which essentially means that they can’t tell you what their impacts are because they can be very location-specific – you need to know where products are coming from and the process that’s being used in that location. And that is a big challenge for a lot of companies.

Simphiwe: South Africa is known to be a water-scarce country, yet the rivers are so polluted in such a way that you can’t even put your foot in them. Not much is being done about this but there are so many companies that the government could work with to change that. Katherine, you spoke about the biodiversity net gain policy: I think that’s something we still need to develop in South Africa. For me, it could make a real difference. For instance, I would like to see industry being pushed to adopt certain portions of rivers to keep them clean, free from plastic pollution, because that is where we could do better.

Lucy: Great, thank you very much everyone for sharing your insights and thoughts on Earth Overshoot Day. Hopefully, next year we can come back together much later in the year!

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