April 22nd. Earth Day. Every year, this is the day that announcements are made about climate commitments, new initiatives are launched and brands do their best to show us the products and programmes they have which align with living a more ‘sustainable’ life. Earth Day is – and should be – a time of positivity and action. But there is a danger in this. Whilst positivity certainly is a more effective driver of action and engagement, we sometimes need to have a more balanced view of both sides to fully understand where we are now (and where we need to get to).
So, should Earth Day not be about all the great stuff that is happening, but a cold, hard look at the current state of our climate, biodiversity, emissions, consumption and more? Almost like a health check on the planet itself, so we can look at yes, what is going well, but also have a bit of a ‘oh crap’ moment too?
We shouldn’t be negative. But we should be honest.
One of the most staggering reflections we have had recently has been about the global lockdown of 2020. Even two years ago, the thought of grounding planes, shutting stores and working from home was unthinkable. It was the stuff of Hollywood movies and apocalyptic storytelling. Yet by Earth Day 2020, this is exactly what many parts of the world were experiencing as SARS-CV19 ravaged the planet. We were suddenly forced into a situation where we HAD to change our ‘normal’ behaviour to survive. And as I write this – in April 2021, the situation for many has got far, far worse.
But the covid-19 induced global lockdown of 2020 allowed us to see, in real-time, what the implications were of reducing our emissions from the pre-pandemic levels. Previously, this had only been digitally modelled, which cannot truly replicate the nuances of a real situation. So what did we see? Air pollution plummeted across the world. The Air Quality Index in Delhi was at times scored a staggering 900 in 2019 (anything above a score of 25 is deemed unsafe by the WHO), yet with the removal of some 11 million cars registered in Delhi during 2020, the daily AQI score dropped to 30, 20, and even 7. Skies were clear. Birds around the world could be heard singing as the monotonous hum of traffic was removed… We saw first hand the consequences of our ‘business as usual’.
Yet for all these ‘positive implications’ of lockdowns, what did it mean for our global CO2 emissions? In 2020, with the airline groundings, stay at home orders, discouragement of travel, retail and leisure closures… we saw an approximate 6-7% drop in global emissions.
To put this into context, to reach our targets of getting to global net-zero emissions by 2050, the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that we will have to reduce our annual emissions by over 7% each year for the next decade to even come close to the values agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Some scientists argue that this figure should be more like 20% per year.
Even with a global lockdown – we are barely able to curb our emissions enough. That alone is a very sobering thought.
We are also pinning a lot of our hopes for carbon reduction on carbon capture technologies, but these are still incredibly small in nature and have not been proven at scale. They might not work. And in any case, we should not be looking for the get out of jail free card to allow us to continue our ‘business as usual’. If carbon capture does not work, we are then rather stuffed. To put it another way, it’s like getting into a car and accelerating to 100mph and hoping that the brakes work in time. The consequences of those brakes failing, or not working as hoped would be dire.
So this Earth Day, we think we should take a long look at the last year and understand that we need more than just a tweak to our ‘business as usual’. We need to create – and demand – complete systemic change. And fast.