Aug 4, 2015 by

The Guardian



100 months to save the world

Andrew Simms

We are heading fast in the wrong direction despite the world gearing up to approve new sustainable development goals and a new climate accord
Logs of wood
We are living beyond our ecological means. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images


16 months and counting

The world enters ecological ‘overshoot’ this year on 13 August, six days earlier than last year. All the world’s production and consumption for the rest of the year, this suggests, then runs up an environmental deficit beyond nature’s ability to regenerate itself and safely absorb our economic waste. It’s a highly conservative estimate, based on the best data available.

It means we still seem to be heading fast in the wrong direction with the world gearing up to approve new sustainable development goals in New York, and a new climate accord in Paris.

In a classic example of locked-in, yet perverse economics, recent research from the Judge Business School at Cambridge University confirmed earlier analysis suggesting that the costs generated by the fossil fuel industries far outweigh their revenues.

These costs, which are not yet formally recognised in a company’s accounts, are what the IMF has termed ‘the $5.3tn energy subsidy problem.’

Nasa climate scientist James Hansen recently warned graphically that without radical and fast emission reductions, many of the world’s major cities including New York, Miami, and Los Angeles would, sooner or later, share the fate of Atlantis.

But a counsel of complete despair right now would be very wrong. Presidential hopeful, Hilary Clinton, set a new tone in America’s divisive energy debate by pledging, within 10 years of being elected, to install enough renewable energy to power all US homes. Fortune magazine glowingly called her ‘solar power’s new best friend.’ And, much more, with far further-reaching ambition, is happening globally.

Businesses are pushing governments like never before, nearly 130 of which have committed to implementing plans to keep the world below the 2C limit temperature, with many also talking about what it means to do so with a high level of certainty, and debating calls for a more realistically safe limit of 1.5C.

In September, the Wales-based Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) will pull together over 100 examples of deep decarbonisation scenarios from around the globe in a new comprehensive report, ‘Who is Getting Ready for Zero’.

These are not marginal case studies, but include a large number of the world’s biggest emitters representing the great majority of global emissions. It means that with scientific agreement, the technology and contingency plans in place, we are now on the cusp of being able to achieve a dramatic energy transition.

Of course, it won’t just happen without political shifts, and politicians tend always to lead from behind. In this light, whatever Clinton’s pledge lacks in comprehensiveness and overall policy coherence regarding continuing support for fossil fuels, it adds in validating large scale action for renewables as a mainstream political platform.

“Picture a huge sponge with different coloured layers. The top layer is the science. That is now sorted with as much consensus as you will get,” says Paul Allen of CAT. “The next layer down is the technology. Is it there to meet the science, and the answer is yes. In this sense climate is not the problem. The problem is how we live. To change that we now need to look at all the other layers of the cake to achieve the transition like law, psychology and economics.”

This understanding that meeting climate targets is not just a techno-fix, means that next year the project will take the insights gathered from the growing global range of low carbon energy technology scenarios and complement them with work from a range of other disciplines.

Of course, they’re not alone. The Transition Network, which is active now in over 40 countries, will be publishing innovative international examples of transition in action on a daily basis in the run-up to Paris. The tricky pathways to change are also becoming the subject of increasingly applied and practical academic work. Also, far from these issues being ‘out there’, there are more and more opportunities for people to engage directly, with both the Transition Network and the Zero Carbon project organising open opportunities to do more than demonstrate, by learning and participating on making change happen.

It may seem a paradox, but this moment of our greatest peril, may also see the flourishing of our greatest potential.

This is not a problem that will be solved by ‘them’, it will be our greatest collective endeavour and adventure for decades to come. We will know we are succeeding when the day of our ecological overshoot starts moving back in the calendar until we once again start living well, within our environmental means.


  1. There is nothing wrong with cutting down Forests,Sweden has been doing it for over 100 yrs, and now there are more Forests than ever, and why, cos replanting MUST be done, and Always has been done

  2. MoS

    The approach advocated here falls into the standard trap – it de-links global warming/climate change from its companion threats of overpopulation and over-consumption. None of those three can be effectively resolved without tackling the others. Overshoot is the miners’ canary.

    At the end of WWII mankind was at around 2.5-billion and our per capita environmental footprint was modest. In the span of less than one lifetime our numbers have tripled and our per capita footprint has grown grotesquely. Yet we still cling to an economic model based on perpetual, exponential growth.

    We exhibit the behaviors of addicts. Overshoot Day this year fell on August 13. Less than a decade ago it was pegged in mid-October. We have a worsening dependency on consuming more biomass than nature can provide and the evidence of it is everywhere from collapsing global fisheries to rapidly dwindling aquifers, our groundwater resources. It’s visible to the naked eye from the International Space Station from which crewmembers can observe rivers that no longer run to the sea or dust clouds from desertification that rise over China and cross the Pacific to North America.

    We’re dependent on this. We can’t do without ever more of what nature can no longer supply. Overshoot is the measure of how far we have exceeded nature’s maximum carrying capacity. It’s our “Thelma & Louise” moment. We need to keep fighting the good fight but vague hopes for a successful outcome are fanciful.

    • Thank you so much for your comments. You are so right and the Thelma & Louise analogy extremely powerful. Would you care to write your own article for my site.
      I would be happy to post it and on ALTERNET. Many thanks again, casey danson

      • MoS

        Hi Casey. That sounds very interesting, thank you. Could you contact me at my email address (parksbmw@shaw.ca) so we can discuss this further. I have some ideas you might find interesting.

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