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COP28 must address who is really overshooting on "Earth" Overshoot Day

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By Daniel Jasper

· 6 min read

Yesterday, just eight months into 2023, marked the day that human consumption used more natural resources than can be regenerated in an entire year. Put another way, humans are using resources 1.8 times faster than nature can replace them.

Overshoot Day, which annually marks this inauspicious milestone, arrived in the midst of planetary upheaval this year. Widespread heatwaves have spurred what was quite possibly the hottest month ever experienced by humanity. Ocean temperatures are skyrocketing with record-breaking numbers in the North Atlantic and hot tub level temperatures along the Florida coast. Wildfires are burning at a record pace, Antarctica is experiencing a once-in-a-7.5-million-year event in which sea ice larger than the area of Mexico has failed to freeze, and the UN Secretary-General has declared our global food systems “broken.”

This year’s major climate negotiations at COP28 will take place amid this backdrop of an ever-depleting environment, spiraling climate disasters, and increasing levels of human suffering. Time is running out for world leaders to take just, urgent, and scaled action to address climate change and sustainable development; COP28, then, must overcome destructive political dynamics and put forward a serious “rescue plan for people and the planet.”

Yesterday was also an important reminder of a heavily scrutinized yet consistently dismissed driver of these dual crises: immense inequality. According to the Earth Overshoot Day organizers, if everyone lived like the U.S., for example, we would require 5.1 Earths to generate the necessary resources. The 2022 World Inequality Report estimated that 50% of the world’s population owns just 2% of global wealth, whereas the richest 10% and the top 1% own 75% and 38% of global wealth, respectively. These facts are inseparable from today’s milestone as they show that a small percentage of the world’s population is driving much of Earth Overshoot.

It’s no coincidence that many of the countries with the biggest ecological footprints such as the U.S. are also among the top contributors to current and historical greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), which have contributed little to overshoot and climate change, are mired in debt while high-income countries (HICs) have failed to follow through on financing commitments, both of which have delayed serious climate and development action. Taken together, these trends reveal a pattern of extraction that siphons resources, energy, and capital from LMICs to a small percentage of HICs.

Last year offered a troubling look at this “wealth pump” (a term coined by historian Peter Turchin to describe these dynamics). In 2022, oil and gas companies posted record earnings, making over $4 trillion in profits while receiving a record-breaking $1 trillion in government subsidies. At the same time, more than 70 million people fell into extreme poverty, bringing the global total of those living off of less than $2.15 a day to over 700 million. Those living in extreme poverty are, of course, also the most vulnerable to climate change and have few resources to rebuild their lives following related disasters, offering yet another alarm bell alerting us to the dramatically unwise, unequal, and unjust system of resource distribution that’s driving ecological and climate crises.

It should come as no surprise then that debates over who pays for a deteriorating climate and sustainable development are once again surfacing in international climate negotiations. At this year’s COP28 in Dubai, these issues will be visible in a variety of topics—whether officially discussed or not—such as phasing out fossil fuels, the Global Stocktake (an assessment of how far the world has come since the Paris Agreement), climate finance, past funding commitments, climate adaptation, and compensation for losses and damages related to climate change. 

Despite deep resistance, policymakers from high-income, high-emitting, and high-consuming countries must begin taking responsibility and approaching negotiations through a lens of climate justice.

For instance, while COP28 president, Sultan Al Jaber, has called for a fossil fuel “phase down”, a climate justice lens demands a serious commitment to a fossil fuel phaseout. Ultimately, negotiators must recognize that serious systems transformation must be undergirded by an acknowledgment that the fossil fuel complex is unjust and unsustainable; it’s not compatible with international climate and development goals nor is it compatible with a livable future.

Climate finance will be a hot topic at COP28 as well and a climate justice lens will be essential to make progress on necessary reforms. An important starting point will be for HICs to live up to past commitments to provide $100 billion annually for vulnerable countries. However, this amount is only a fraction of what the climate crisis requires and HICs will not only need to deliver on past commitments but make future funding commitments at significantly higher levels and with stronger accountability mechanisms. Debt relief will also be an inescapable necessity to achieve international climate and development goals.

Lastly, negotiators will need to make strides on the Global Goal for Adaptation by working to bring adaptation efforts to the scale of mitigation efforts and by funding the promised Loss and Damage Fund, which will provide support for countries impacted by climate disasters. Properly addressing these issues with adequate and debt-free financing is a critical step in aligning climate and development goals while addressing historical injustices.

We are careening toward climate and human well-being disaster—and these first eight months of 2023 are only a preview of what’s to come. More than just another reminder of how we are altering the planet, Earth Overshoot Day begs us to question both who is driving the overshoot and who is suffering most as a result; it’s a moment to reflect on how inequality is not only a symptom but a cause of the climate crisis. Hopefully, in the near future, we will celebrate a year without an Earth Overshoot Day. But for that to happen, world leaders present at COP28 must recognize the connection between inequality and climate change and embed a climate justice lens within every decision.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Dan is a policy advisor for Project Drawdown where he works on multidisciplinary solutions for climate change and poverty alleviation, particularly in South Asia and Africa. Previously, he worked for the American Friends Service Committee where he advocated for peace, humanitarian cooperation, and international development in Asia with an emphasis on US-North Korea and US-China relations.

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