The first Earth Day was held nearly 50 years ago in 1970 when 20 million Americans united to launch a modern environmental movement. Since then, many innovative laws have been
passed as a result of these annual mobilisations. Within a year, it lead to the formation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. Today, there is a lot of debate about the effectiveness of the laws, as many of the problems they were designed to solve have not got gone away. In fact, they’ve got worse.
What is Earth Day?
Earth Day is organised by the Earth Day Network, a group which connects more than 75,000 partner organisations in nearly 200 countries worldwide. This year, Earth Day is on the 22nd of April, with the theme for 2019 being “Protect our Species”. It is a worldwide celebration aiming to bring attention to our ecosystems and the methods with which we can create a better environment. This year, the spotlight is being put on raising awareness of the effects of the human population on the ecosystem. The goals are to:
- Educate and raise awareness about the accelerating rate of extinction of millions of species and the causes and consequences of this phenomenon.
- Achieve major policy victories that protect broad groups of species as well as individual species and their habitats.
- Build and activate a global movement that embraces nature and its values
- Encourage individual actions such as adopting a plant-based diet and stopping pesticide and herbicide use.
The Impact of Climate Change
Planet Earth is going through the biggest extinction period in the last 60 million years. Usually, between one and five species will go extinct annually, yet, scientists estimate that we are now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the typical rate, with many extinctions every day. Multiple species will disappear before we discover the wonders of them or the benefits they bring to our Earth. Habitat destruction, exploitation, and climate change are causing the loss of half of the world’s wild animal population. There are currently widespread concerns about the environment- plastic pollution, water pollution, air pollution, deforestation and species extinction, to name a few, all threaten Earth as we know it. Perhaps the greatest threat today, however, is climate change. It’s made headlines around the world recently, but what exactly is it? Climate change is a long-term difference in average temperatures and weather patterns, and does- to some extent- happen naturally as the Earth goes through periods of heating and cooling. The term is often used to refer to anthropogenic climate change, where human activity influences the changes in the climate. At present, climate changes are happening rapidly with harmful effects, and we humans are exasperating natural climate change. These changes in the climate are primarily caused by the enhanced greenhouse effect (EGHE). Although the Greenhouse Effect (not enhanced) naturally occurs and is critical to our survival, the enhanced greenhouse effect is of a magnitude that can be detrimental. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are created naturally and trap warmth/infrared radiation in the planet’s atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect (Figure 1). When fossil fuels are burned, these gases are also produced, resulting in increased concentrations of greenhouse gases entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Although these gases have always been present in the atmosphere, their concentration is increasing as we continue to rely on the Earth’s finite resources of fossil fuels like crude oil and coal. Increased concentrations of greenhouse gases absorb more of solar radiation that is reflected back from the Earth’s surface, trapping heat in the atmosphere. This retention of heat results in the overall warming of Earth’s temperature.
Climate change is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed to protect the diversity of life on Earth. It is expected that the impacts of climate change will be complex, including the direct loss of entire populations or habitats, and also indirectly, as species can no longer tolerate the new environmental conditions, are outcompeted as other species migrate to new habitats, and are impacted by the disruption of environmental cues. When one species is affected by the changing climate, other species that interact and depend on it can be impacted too. Ecosystems have complex networks of interdependence meaning there could be a “domino effect” of species extinction, even impacting humans.
Surely we just need to plant some more trees?
The last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, modern humans didn’t exist. The Pliocene – Earth about three to five million years ago – was very different to the Earth we now inhabit. As Earth’s carbon dioxide concentration rises — now over 400 parts per million— climate scientists worry about where we were then, and where we’re quickly headed now (Figure 2).
Planting more trees might seem like an easy solution to combat this increase since they absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. However, we cannot simply plant our way out of this crisis; trees cannot absorb the ever-increasing quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to studies by Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, carried out in 2017.
“Even if we were able to use productive plants such as poplar trees or switchgrass, and store 50% of the carbon contained in their biomass, in the business-as-usual scenario of continued, unconstrained fossil fuel use, the sheer size of the plantations for staying at or below 2°C of warming would cause devastating environmental consequences,” says Lena Boysen, who led the study.
Hypothetically, if a sufficient number of trees were planted, those plantations would have to be enormous. In consequence, many natural ecosystems would be eliminated and food production would be reduced, especially if implemented as a last-minute option if all other possible ways to reduce emissions have been exhausted.
Boysen and colleagues reported that several scenarios were explored to see whether, even in, theory, huge investment in tree planting could eradicate enough carbon dioxide from the environment. They found that even the smallest plantation needed would have extended over 1 billion hectares and used 96 million tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser every year. For context, one billion hectares (10 million square kilometres) is bigger than Canada, the second largest country by total area. Planting trees alone will not solve the climate crisis we currently find ourselves in.
Legislation to Protect our Species
Climate change isn’t the only environmental threat, and many governments internationally have taken legislative action to attempt to protect Earth’s species. By introducing the 2008 Climate Change Act, the UK government implemented long-term legislation to tackle climate change in multiple different sectors. Measures include the 5p plastic bag charge, rebates on council tax as incentives for waste reduction schemes, and carbon budgets set every five years until 2050.
The 5p plastic bag charge (where the public are charged 5p for each plastic bag they use), was implemented to reduce plastic pollution. Plastics have recently been shown to be have been more pervasive than previously thought, according to results published after scientific experiments conducted in bodies of water in the UK, USA, China, and Spain. In the UK, microplastics were found in all ten lakes. Due to their small size, microplastics can easily evade water filtration systems and their effects on the ecosystem have yet to be fully explored. The 5p plastic bag charge has shown to be very effective in reducing waste, with bans in Ireland in 2002 having resulted in an approximate 95% decrease in plastic litter. However, a report published by BP warns that swapping out plastics for more recyclable materials may actually have unforeseen negative consequences, as the production of such alternatives requires increased energy expenditure. This would put more demand on carbon fuels, and result in higher emissions. It seems that an ideal solution to this problem is, as yet, undiscovered.
What are scientists doing to tackle this problem?
Climate change is affected by different industries, resulting in many sector-specific solutions. The DrawDown Project summarised 100 of these solutions in a bestselling book in 2018, ranking them from most to least effective (Table 1).
Table 1: A list of the top ten most effective solutions tackling climate change
As can be seen from Table 1, the solution that could give the greatest reduction in atmospheric CO2 is by targeting chemical refrigerants involved in chilling the internal environment of air conditioners and fridges. Halogen-containing compounds called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were banned following the introduction of the now universally ratified Montreal Protocol in 1987, due to the damage inflicted on the Earth’s ozone layer. Current replacements such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are able to avoid ozone layer damage, but still war,m the atmosphere to a greater extent than carbon dioxide. This year marks the first step in moving away from HFCs; as concluded by the Kigali Amendment after a 2016 deal negotiation reviewing the protocol, high-income countries will begin removing HFCs, followed by lower income countries in 2024.
The effect of this, scientists estimate, is that global warming would be reduced by roughly one degree Fahrenheit, although disposal of HFCs is crucial to ensure that no emissions are released at the end of its lifetime. The costs of this procedure are high, but over roughly 30 years, the containment of 87% of refrigerants would be equal to the removal of roughly 90 gigatons of carbon dioxide. This is the same amount removed by over 10.6 billion acres of forests in the US every year.
One of the newest, and arguably most interesting, innovations was pioneered by Daniel Nocera, professor of energy science at Harvard University. His work involved a groundbreaking artificial leaf project based on the chemical processes underlying photosynthesis, engineering Ralstonia eutropha bacteria to generate fuel from hydrogen and carbon dioxide. This technology could be applied to lower-income countries where renewable energy sources have a wider impact.
There are a huge number of people working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics globally to counter the threats that face our environment. They’re working to find new ways of doing things, so that the human impact on Earth can be lessened, and to try and reverse some of the damage we’ve already caused.
How do we raise awareness and what can we do?
Nowadays, news articles are constantly highlighting new data from current scientific research, bringing the climate change discussion to the forefront of the public eye. Most recently, Sir David Attenborough released a new BBC documentary, “Climate Change: the Facts”, highlighting the current major issues associated with climate change, outlining the scientific proof, and warning the public of its consequences, some of which can already be observed today. As the documentary points out, the countries that will end up suffering the most are the ones that cannot afford to. Threats include the loss of many animal species as seen in bat species during the Australian heatwave and increased risk of extreme weather conditions such as the Californian wildfires of 2018.
Although solutions to major global problems such as this are not immediately straightforward, change can only be made with the support of increased public and political engagement. In an effort to tackle both of these, online petitions and climate change protests have become more common within current school communities in the UK. In March 2019, four school students from Oxford launched a petition aiming to introduce more content on the impact of climate change and its proposed solutions into the school curriculum. In an interview, the students explained that there has been a demand within the school community to raise awareness by educating young people, allowing them to understand and ultimately take action on the issue of climate change.
One example of student advocacy is Greta Thunberg (Figure 3), a 16-year-old activist from Sweden, who first
gained public attention through weekly strikes outside the Swedish Parliament building. This display of determination lead her to speak at COP24, the United Nations’ conference for climate change. More recently, her voice was heard through a bold, impassioned TED Talk in which she urged fellow students to strike and show world leaders the importance of ensuring the participation of younger generations in the climate change discussion. Her movement, dubbed “#FridaysForFuture”, has garnered global recognition, with 1.5 million people striking in the streets of over 120 countries. Her TED Talk has gained over 1.1 million views (and counting!) on YouTube, she has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and also recently acquired a spot on the TIME 100 Most Influential People of 2019 List. Her earnest and persistent activism have influenced many young people into action, empowered by the knowledge that we are all able to make an impact on climate change as individuals working towards a common goal. Thunberg has inspired scores of students to speak up and take action, proving that with courage and by raising our voices, even the youngest in society are able to spark change for the better.
“I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic…”
– Greta Thunberg at the 2019 World Economic Forum.
Read more about the Earth Day Network and environmental issues at https://www.earthday.org/
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About the Authors
Omodolapo Bolinda, Amanda Amaeshi and Lucy Chen
Omodolapo(Dolapo) Bolinda, Amanda Amaeshi and Lucy Chen are all members of the Young Scientists Journal team. Dolapo is the Ambassador to England, Amanda is a blogs editor and Lucy is an editor.