Wednesday, 10 August, 2022

World Environment Day

We Have Only One Earth, Better Take Care of It

Dr Kanan Purkayastha

Every year on 5 June the world celebrates the Environment Day. Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and held annually since 1974, it is the largest global platform for celebrating the environment day by millions of people across the world. This year, the host country is Sweden. There is a significance for it because the first UN conference on the human environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972 and 50 years later, Sweden is again hosting the World Environment Day (WED). In 1972, the Stockholm conference put sustainable development on the global agenda and led to the establishment of the World Environment Day (WED). ‘Only One Earth’ was the slogan for the first conference. Hence, this year the UNEP kept it as a campaign for the day. The UNEP calls for ‘collective, transformative action on a global scale to celebrate, protect and restore our planet.’

Fifty years ago, it was realised that we have billions of galaxies in the universe. In each of the galaxies, we have billions of planets, but we have not yet found any other planet like our earth. So, we have in fact only one Earth. Therefore, for the sake of our existence we should take care of it. But in order to take care of our only Earth, we collectively need to understand, what are the current emergencies for which we should do something about it? Our first emergency is-the climate is warming quickly and speed of such warming is greater than the speed through which nature and human can adapt. Second emergency is that an estimated one million species are threatened with extinction. Such habitat loss has a global implication. Third emergency is- our air, land and water becoming polluted because of either industrial pollution or from our life style such as use of plastic or transport.  In order to save our only planet we need to understand each emergency little bit more detail and also need to transform our economies and societies.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Centre for Environmental Information suggests that atmospheric carbon dioxide in April 2022 at  Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii was 420.23 parts per million(ppm). The April 2022 global surface temperature was 0.85°C (1.53°F) above the 20th century average. The 10 warmest April months have occurred since 2010, with the years 2014–2022 all ranking among the 10 warmest Aprils on record. The global average surface temperature in February 2022 was 1.19°C above the average for the comparison period of 1880-1920. There are regional variations have been noted. Australia had a temperature in April 2022 that was 1.61°C (2.90°F) above the 1961–1990 average. While northern hemisphere land surface temperature is 1.64 ± 0.18 degree Celsius, the Southern hemisphere land surface temperature is 0.96 ± 0.11 degree Celsius in April.

In brief, according to NASA’s global climate change data, Earth’s surface continues to significantly warm, with recent global temperatures being the hottest in the past 2,000-plus years. In comparison with the speed of global warming, our speed of adapting to such change is limited. For example, one of the promises at the Glasgow Climate Pact was that 196 countries would revisit and strengthen their plans for curbing emissions by 2030. COP 27 to be held in Egypt in November this year, but there is very little political energy being put into it right now to achieve this promise. The war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis is engulfing the situation, but one should realise that climate change is a chronic danger.

Mass extinction occurs naturally and periodically over time. However, there is a natural background rate of extinction in terms of its timing and frequency. Data suggest that 10 percent of species are lost every million years, 30 percent every 10 million years and 65 percent every 100 million years. We can see five events of extinction in the Earth history last 500 million years. These five spikes in extinction rates are at 444 million years ago (mya), 360 mya, 250 mya, 200 mya and 65 mya respectively. Last one is known as the event that killed off the dinosaurs. Many people say that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. Human pressures on wildlife, deforestation, poaching, overfishing and climate change are pushing many of the world’s species to the brink of extinction. British Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, in his book On the Future maintains that ‘extinction rates are rising-we are destroying the book of life before we have read it.’

Biologist E O Wilson, in his book Half Earth, proposes to commit half the planet’s surface to nature. Wilson writes, ‘the Half-Earth proposal offers a first, emergency solution commensurate with the magnitude of the problem. Wilson added, ‘I am convinced that only by setting aside half of the planet to reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilisation required for our own survival.’ In climate change term, the strategy of ‘Half Earth’ approach is to normalise Earth’s carbon cycle and pulling back the feedback loop that escalating the climate change.  Research carried out by Bernardo and Strassburg and published in the Nature (2020) suggests that if destructive activity ceased on just 15 percent of land in some parts of the world, 60 percent of the extinctions that would otherwise happen could be averted and 30 percent of all the carbon dioxide released since the industrial revolution could be extracted from the atmosphere.

Environmental pollution affects climate change, but that affect is not straightforward. For example, some pollutants, such as black carbon and ozone, increase warming by trapping heat in the atmosphere, while others, such as sulphur dioxide forming light reflecting particles, have a cooling effect on the climate. On the other hand, plastic pollution has been shown to have a very negative effect on marine lives. For example, marine life’s ability to feed, digest, navigate, breathe, breed and migrate is affected by plastic pollution. Research suggests that the number of whale and dolphin species known to be affected by marine litter has increased from 37 percent in 1997 to 81 percent today. The research also states that ‘the only species without plastics in their bodies are those that haven’t been studied’. Scientists believe that all species are most likely affected. In order to tackle the situation, in the UK and also in some parts of the USA, seven grades of plastic have been identified for recycling purpose. According to the grade of plastic, a symbol is used to make the user aware of which plastic should go to a recycle bin for further processing. For example, Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is a grade one plastic. According to the UK household plastics collection survey 2021, almost 85 percent of PET plastics are being collected for recycling from households. Though this is not a bad statistics but that should be 100 percent.

Above all, the UNEP suggests that though we have only one Earth but we are using more than one Earth equivalent, approximate 1.6 Earth, in order to maintain our current lifestyle. This is related to human’s unsustainable consumption and production. Alan Watson Featherstone, a founder of Trees for Life said, ‘The environmental movement up to now has necessarily been reactive. We have been clear about what we don’t like. But we also need to say what we would like. We need to show where hope lies. Ecological restoration is a work of hope.’  We should cherish this hope and take it forward for our ‘only one Earth’ campaign.


The writer is a UK based Academic,Scientist and Environmentalist, Columnist and Author