Earth Day 2022: The most crucial milestone yet

Over the last 150 years, we’ve witnessed a steady but acute destabilisation of the planet’s environmental health — the consequences of which have been catastrophic for humanity in all corners of the globe.

Hurricanes have blasted Puerto Rico. Floods have pillaged towns in Germany and Australia. Wildfires have scorched the US, Greece and Turkey. Millions of people are contending with water droughts, food shortages, and displacement.

Farmers are consistently dealing with crop failures and extreme weather. Frighteningly, these events are merely a snapshot of the planet’s compromised integrity, all resulting from one pressing global issue: climate change.

February’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report highlighted the ever-increasing threat of droughts, wildfires, heatwaves and other weather extremes if emissions are left unchecked — with around 40 percent of the world’s population classed as “highly vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change. The report also stressed that we have merely until the end of the decade to mitigate these disasters or risk irreversible damage to ecosystems and populations worldwide.

As Earth Day 2022 approaches, it is our duty to step back from the sweeping media narratives and look at the progress we have made since this day last year, learning from our mistakes and the actions that we could have undertaken more effectively. Through this analysis, we can set out a clear roadmap to help us urgently combat this issue.

Triumphant efforts

Amid the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, a steady stream of beneficial strides were made last year to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The COP26 conference in Glasgow saw 100 countries sign an agreement to end deforestation by 2030, in addition to pledging to cut down on methane emissions by 30 percent.

Governments and major polluting companies such as Shell were legally reprimanded over their actions. These developments also coincided with an increased movement to grant legal rights to nature, a historical precedent in many countries.

Additionally, several developed nations pooled billions of dollars in a partnership aimed at empowering coal-reliant nations, such as India, the Philippines and Indonesia, to transition towards green energy. This objective is being targeted through the retention and retraining of workers for the green-energy economy.

Hampered progress

Despite these commendable victories in environmental protection, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere still peaked at 419 parts per million (ppm) in 2021 — the highest level since records began 63 years ago — significantly up from 280 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution.

Countries also played witness to record-breaking climate extremes such as the warmest year for ocean heat, the warmest temperature on record in 25 countries, and the warmest northern-hemisphere summer ever.

The tragedy remains that at least 85 percent of the world’s population has been affected by climate change, while four-fifths of the world’s land area has also been affected by climate change-induced damage. Regrettably, the most marginalized members of society who produce the least emissions, often shoulder the impact of these events.

With many pressing issues such as inflation and COVID-19 to address, seemingly less immediate matters fall down the list of priorities for various governments. While there has been significant progress in the engagement and adoption of sustainable energy generation over the past 20 years, the scale of the challenge that faces our global society requires profound changes across every aspect of our society.

Governments need to significantly invest in green-energy infrastructure. That said, a pragmatic approach in which renewables are deployed in tandem with traditional fossil fuel generation will likely be necessary to satisfy our energy needs, at least in the immediate term, as we transition to an entirely green economy.

Fostering collaboration

As disruptive as the previous two years have been for humanity, the effects of climate change will be catastrophic by several orders of magnitude — etching irreversible ecological and geographic damage globally.

As such, governments and corporations that bear particular culpability should contribute by covering the rising costs sustained by vulnerable nations and individuals in this battle.

Investment should also be redirected towards researching methods that can more drastically boost green energy production, improve sustainability and recycling and enforce environmental protections.

This would be the next step in streamlining the flawed supply chains and practices found across the industry, such as the morally and environmentally questionable lithium and cobalt mining industry used to produce electric vehicles.

During the initial onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the abandoned streets and waterways created by lockdowns provided a welcome relief to the ailing planet, its polluted ecosystems, and repressed wildlife.

This offered a glimpse into what could be achieved by governments and the public alike if we set our minds and goals toward implementing holistic change. While Earth Day may now be an annual milestone for companies to polish off and showcase their badges of climate action, it is also a time for reflection and education. It is a day where we must remember that despite tremendous progress, our work is far from complete.

As numerous academic studies have repeatedly warned, we have reached a point of no return. Much like during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries will once again need to band together to combat this impending catastrophe and protect this beautiful planet we call home. Without this united action, Earth Day is simply an event held in vain.

Robert Holcomb is the co-founder of Holcomb Scientific Research

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