In 1962, Rachel Carson's environmental science book 'Silent Spring' created the much-needed consciousness among the rather oblivious American citizens on the linkage between living organisms and the environment, and the relation between pollution and public health. The book also laid the foundation for the first Earth Day on 22 April, 1970, supported by a Junior Senator who inspired students and activists to take the lead.
Reportedly, 10% of the US population took to the streets, urging immediate steps against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, indiscriminate use of pesticides and the extinction of wildlife, etc. The desire of the people was loud and clear - business-as-usual must change.
The response from the government was immediate with the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA spurred the formation of the clean air act and different environmental regulations within two years. Afterwards, these initiatives garnered a high degree of consensus among many other countries to mobilise action to protect the earth from irreversible damages.
Indeed, we have come a long way from the first Earth Day with more knowledge and wisdom. But we are in a state of emergency due to the rampant destruction of our life-sustaining ecosystems. In 2019, the government of Bangladesh declared a planetary emergency, calling global leaders for urgent and decisive measures to protect the earth. Some other countries also declared a climate emergency, echoing the need for rapid actions.
As we celebrate the 51st Earth Day with the theme "restore our earth" today, it brings an opportunity for introspection of what is going wrong and what appears to be encouraging.
We have failed on so many fronts
Over the years, the world has recorded some achievements but not devoid of gaping holes. The declining poverty rate, increasing access to electricity, improved health, increasing literacy rate etc. are some of the areas we have performed well. However, we have also failed on many fronts. Pollution, overconsumption of resources and wastage are a few of them which I would dwell upon here.
To many people, the last decade was a missed opportunity. Some go as far as to call it a lost decade due to the "squandering of many important chances to address climate change". Despite growing concerns and more frequent workshops/seminars on climate change, we miserably fell short when it came to taking actions.
The last decade was also the hottest on the record. We are now facing a very different reality with increasingly visible signs of our ecological crisis. Furthermore, we are heading towards the dangerous tipping points of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
In January 2021, the mean concentration of CO2 emission stood at 415.13 parts per million (ppm) compared to 412.40 ppm and 384.43 ppm in January 2020 and in October 2009 respectively.
The CO2 concentration trajectory paints a grim picture of overshooting it beyond 500 ppm by 2100 when the limits are 430 ppm for 1.5 degrees C global warming and 450 ppm for 2 degrees C warming. If CO2 concentration continues to rise, the likely scenario is either to live with high temperature or to try unproven strategies to remove CO2 from the air.
On the other side of the coin, over-consumption of resources leads to climate breakdown. However, the existing policy mechanisms fail to correct this tendency of people. A 2018 report of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) mentioned that 1.3 billion tons of foodstuffs are wasted globally per annum, an amount equivalent to one-third of the total production.
Similarly, on many occasions, people misuse energy, water and other resources at their whims. The likely presence of perverse incentive, i.e., subsidised or low price, increases the likelihood of such wastage.
Every year, we are affecting the natural regeneration cycle of resources. This can be better understood if we analyse the "Earth Overshoot Day" which reminds us of the point of a year when we end up consuming all the resources that the natural system could regenerate within a year. Each year, we reach the "Earth Overshoot Day" sooner than the previous year.
Among other problems, the flow of plastic waste into the oceans in millions of tons per annum represents a serious challenge that lies ahead. The keys to addressing the growing menace of plastic pollution are to overhaul policies and regulations considering the costs and incentives of the businesses producing plastic and to make people aware of avoiding the use of plastic as much as feasible.
Reasons for optimism
With increasing warnings and evidence of ecological crises, failure is not an option. And technological innovations, social movements and increasing cost-effectiveness of actions over the last decade are the sources of optimism.
There is no stopping of the clean energy revolution. Moving forward, the cost competitiveness of electric vehicles (EVs) and battery storage to make them mainstream in the coming years would be crucial.
Public support is imperative to clamp down on pollution, dumping of plastic waste and destruction of ecosystems etc. And governments across the world could take the advantage of the climate movements that are taking place under the leadership of the young generation. Millions of teenagers are now talking about climate change, the mother earth and the ensuing disasters unless actions are taken.
A decade or two back, the climate narrative was largely confined to "global warming". However, almost every day, we now come across the terms "net zero-emission", "tipping points", "circular economy", "climate emergency", "planetary boundary" and so forth. The media is more active today in preparing features on the breakthrough technologies and reporting the controversial projects that work against our race.
The political levers hold the key to enabling the clean energy transformation, addressing the price distortion that helps over-consumption of resources and moving away from using materials that are clearly harmful to our ecosystem.
As US President Biden is holding a Leaders' Climate Summit on this Earth Day, the possibility of increasing political traction among the leaders to gear up climate ambitions seems high. With perhaps no margin for the delay in taking actions and no room for making costly mistakes, this summit should be the milestone on the road towards the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference which is scheduled to take place later this year.
Shafiqul Alam is an environmental economist