Every Day Is Earth Day
'We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to.' Terri Swearingen
Welcome to the first in our two part blog post about the effects of the Covid-19 crisis and our battle to protect the environment.....
Yesterday, April 22, was Earth Day 2020. It was actually the 50th year since the day was designated. On that first day in 1970, 20 million Americans (10% of the U.S. population at the time) took to the streets to protest against environmental ignorance and to demand a new way forward for our planet.
Now, 50 years later, the climate emergency has never been more time critical. The global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The science is clear. We have to act quickly or we won’t be able to act at all. To prevent warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius we need to reduce emissions by 7.6% every year from this year to 2030 and every year we fail to act the targets get harder to achieve.
But, we’re still far away from the targets and time is running out. If governments had acted on the known science only 10 years ago emissions reductions would only have needed to be by 3.3% each year. In 2015, on Earth Day, world leaders meeting in Paris agreed to a legally binding commitment to limit global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. They pledged to cut or curb their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and this became known as the Paris Agreement.
Unfortunately, the initial pledges of 2015 are now insufficient to meet the target and when governments get together to review the targets at this year’s conference, their decisions will have stark consequences for the planet. If countries cannot agree on sufficient pledges, in another 5 years, the emissions reduction necessary will leap to a near impossible 15.5% reduction per year. At present countries are not even on track to fulfil their existing promises. We are on a terrifying trajectory towards more of the kinds of extremes we’ve seen in recent years - the flooding, the forest fires, the loss of wildlife and destruction of their habitats, the worst ever locust infestation in Kenya and the illnesses caused by pollution.
Of course, in recent months the appearance of Covid-19 has inevitably caused a huge distraction which has changed all our lives in so many ways. Even this week’s Earth Day, though it ran as it has every year since 1970, had to be an online affair. But many people have also observed the effects the Corona Virus situation has had on the planet. It is like the earth has been able to take a break.
It is estimated that at least a quarter of the world’s population are now under some form of lockdown. That’s around 2 billion humans. This has caused a huge drop in domestic travel, in manufacturing, in air travel and in human consumption. The effects are stark. Satellite imagery and other atmospheric monitors are already showing a dramatic reduction in pollution. Over China, as one example, there’s been a 50% reduction in things like nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide due to reductions in manufacturing. Pollution in major cities has dropped massively as traffic levels have plummeted and parts of India’s River Ganges are running clear.
It is also clear that we are consuming less. Less fuel is being used as vehicles sit on driveways. With more time available to cook from scratch people are eating less processed produce and the retailers are reporting less sales of luxury items. Maybe we are seeing that we can live just as well with less consumption.
Covid-19 is a devastating crisis that has caused huge loss of life, a looming worldwide economic catastrophe and it even runs the risk of destabilising society. However, friends I speak to also talk of many positives to their enforced lock down - time to relax over that morning coffee, a chance to enjoy the bird song on their once a day wander, the peace of quiet roads, more reading time, time to cook and a thousand other small benefits. I know this isn’t the same for everyone of course and some people are working harder than ever, but certainly this seems a common message.
The other thing that has been shown loud and clear by the current situation is that we may be separate countries, but we live in a very connected world. What happens in one country can soon affect us all. Never is this truer than for the environment. Locusts affecting Kenya have soon been causing devastation in ten countries just as wild fires in South America soon start to pollute Central America.
It is unquestionable that the way humans interact directly affects the health of our planet and pandemics create a rare opportunity for scientists to study how we influence the environment on a global scale. It is often referred to as a natural experiment where a sudden change from the normal allows a glimpse of how natural system’s respond. Without the time to gain hard data this can only be observational, but there are certainly already signs such as those outlined above of how quickly natural systems may be able to bounce back when human behaviour changes.
The emergence and spread of Covid-19 has taken the citizens of many countries by surprise (and, it seems, many governments) and yet to the experts it is no surprise at all. It really isn’t the first crisis of this type and they have been predicting more for years. This always comes down to our interaction with nature. A 2007 study of the 2002/03 Sars outbreak concluded that ‘the presence of a large reservoir of Sars-Cov like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.’ So we are where we are and where we are isn’t good. But we are lucky that, despite the devastating trail Covid-19 is leaving, it could be worse. Many people will survive and humanity will bounce back. But what then can we learn from the crisis?
Even if only anecdotal, surely the learning point is that earth needs us to change our behaviour. We are reliant on our planet and yet we seem determined to destroy it. We need to consume less and listen to what our precious globe is telling us. We know that, but will we listen? Unfortunately the evidence suggests not. Individuals might make changes and that will help, but the huge policy changes are less likely unless citizens push policy makers to make the hard choices needed. Then, of course, it also needs linked global action and the history of getting policy makers to agree to radical collective action is not positive. There is also the consideration of what the post Covid-19 world looks like. With economies in tatters it seems unlikely that governments will be prioritising actions to protect the environment over rebuilding economies. They are in a difficult position and the planet is likely to be the one that takes the hit.
United Nations environment chief Inger Anderson said recently that ‘nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis. Humanity is placing too many pressures on the natural world with damaging consequences. Failing to take care of the planet means not taking care of ourselves.’ No one in the know is really in doubt.
In part two of this blog post we’ll consider the possible paths ahead….
Posted by Ben