Earth Day is celebrated every year on April 22 but the day passed without much notice because of the coronavirus crisis. As the name suggests, the day is dedicated to earth and all the issues which plague it, with the aim to raise awareness of the need for conservation.
Historical records are witness that in the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, the world, especially the industrialised countries, was consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or bad press. Air pollution was accepted as a sign of prosperity. Until the point, the world remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment threatens human health.
The first Earth Day was observed in 1970. Threatened by a series of oil spills, endless smog and polluted rivers, 20 million people around the world took to the streets, protesting against a worsening environmental crisis. It was the planet’s largest civic event at the time and compelled governments to respond and take actions, including passing environmental laws and establishing environmental agencies.
Over the decades, the Earth Day Network has brought hundreds of millions of people into the environmental movement, creating opportunities for civic engagement and volunteerism in 193 countries. Earth Day engages more than one billion people every year and has become a major stepping stone along the pathway of engagement around the protection of the planet.
In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing the day as International Mother Earth Day. On Earth Day 2016, the United Nations formally adopted the Paris Agreement, articulating the commitment of nations to limit global temperature rise to less than 2°C over pre-industrial levels; and to strengthen the ability of countries to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.
The year 2020 has a special significance as it marks 50 years of celebrations with the theme “Climate Action”. Climate change has been a pressing cause of concern in recent years. It has posed a great threat to humanity, and immediate action is required to prevent things from getting worse.
This year, the face of celebrations has changed owing to the coronavirus pandemic. While the pandemic has been spreading around the world and dominating news headlines, the need to take concrete climate action has remained as urgent as ever. By the end of 2020, global CO2 emissions need to have dropped by 7.6 per cent and continue to fall by 7.6 per cent each year for us to have kept global heating under 1.5oC, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report 2019.
Against the background, the new pandemic is a stark reminder of the vulnerability of the human race and the planet in the face of global scale threats. In his response to the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19, United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres has rightly noted: “Had we been further advanced in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, we could better face this challenge.”
Covid-19 has now prompted a dramatic shift to completely digital and virtual platforms. Earth Day 2020 calls for 24 hours of actions, big and small, for people and the planet. On the 50th anniversary, civil society organizers filled the world’s digital landscape with global conversations, positive acts, performances, webinars and events supporting urgent action on climate change.
As we prepare for a post-pandemic recovery, the world must seize the opportunity to build a new and better world. The risks faced by ignoring the threats of environmental destruction must be understood and addressed with a well-thought out package of policy measures.
Earth Day is a timely reminder to embrace the opportunities of the natural world for green jobs, sustainable economic stimulus, for urgently taking action to protect ourselves against unsurvivable global heating and for securing healthy, dignified futures. It is time to demonstrate solidarity, take action and send a clear message to world leaders to act on climate change, halt biodiversity and habitat loss. We must realise that environmental protection is a fundamental foundation of building back better.
We must look ahead to the next 50 years and establish benchmarks that must be achieved with regard to protection of biodiversity, reforestation efforts and commitment to the overall sustainable management of natural resources.
As the UN bodies have pointed out, Nature is in crisis, threatened by habitat loss, global heating and toxic pollution. Failure to act is failing humanity. Addressing the current coronavirus pandemic and protecting ourselves against future global threats require sound management of hazardous medical and chemical waste; strong and global stewardship of nature and biodiversity; and a clear commitment to “building back better”, creating green jobs and facilitating the transition to carbon neutral economies.
Humanity must act now to secure a better, more resilient and sustainable future for our coming generations.