Every environmental problem represents an ecological overdraft of some sort. Deforestation, water scarcity, species losses, soil erosion—each is an overuse of a natural asset, an excess withdrawal made temporarily possible by dipping into nature’s reserves. Even climate change and polluted rivers involve a component of ecological debt: It’s the amount by which pollutants loaded into the atmosphere and waterways exceeds the capacity of those natural sinks.
Ecological debt has an equity aspect when it is the debt accumulated by industrial countries on account of resource plundering, unequal trade, environmental damage and free occupation of environmental space to deposit waste. This appropriation of natural resources violates human rights and obstructs the development of the peoples in less developed countries. A 2021 study found that less powerful nations are the dumping grounds that make possible the cleaner and more affluent lifestyles of wealthy countries. There is call for wealthy nations to compensate low-income countries for their excessive consumption.
The repayable portion of ecological debt is enormous and accumulating rapidly. Estimates of the climate debt alone is estimated by the Center for Global Development to be in the tens of trillions of dollars.
The Global Footprint Network (GFN) has for decades tracked the use of many renewable resources relative to their growth—for example, the number of trees cut compared to new trees grown. For all of human history prior to 1970, the world’s people took from nature each year less than she generated. But in 1970, the planet’s supply of newly generated renewable resources was exhausted by December 30th. Thus, for the first time, humanity’s consumption of renewable resources exceeded Earth’s output (slightly, by one day’s consumption). By borrowing from nature's capital, this was humanity’s first experience with ecological debt at the global level.
Since then, what GFN calls “Earth Overshoot Day”—the day when human consumption of renewable resources exceeds what Earth can produce for the year—has arrived ever earlier. In 2022, Overshoot Day fell on July 28, meaning that for the remaining five months of 2022 humanity borrowed from nature to cover its consumption of renewable resources.
Ecological debt provides a different look not only at the legacy of the colonial period but also at the "era of development" after World War II. A lot of this development has been debt driven, not only in fiancial terms (South-North) but in ecological terms as well. Ecological debt points at the collective responsibility of industrialized countries for past violations of the right to a clean and safe environment in other countries. It also is another way of revealing the impossibility and undesirability of copying development paths of industrialized countries.
There are the ecological assets that will never be recovered—wasted nonrenewable resources such as copper, or species driven to extinction. These debts are unpayable and must be written off as total losses.
Default on our ecological debt would be calamitous. It would mean acceptance of ecosystem collapses, accelerated extinctions, blistering warming, and expansion of deserts, to name a few consequences.