April 22, 2020 marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. Since its beginnings in America in 1970, millions of people have taken to the streets on this day to campaign for the protection of our planet. Whilst this year mobilization may be online, their message is clear: climate change still represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity, and citizens must continue to demand greater global ambition to tackle the crisis, now more than ever.
Of course, the world today is far from “normal”. With around a third of humanity under some form of lockdown to try and halt the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, reports have been flooding in of the impact this is having on the environment.
Across China and Italy, dramatic drops in the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide have been observed in satellite images, whilst some climate scientists predict that we may see the biggest drop in carbon dioxide emissions since WW2 due to the coronavirus. Himalayan peaks are visible for the first time in decades in parts of India, canals in Venice have become clearer, and endangered sea turtles have been able to nest in peace on empty beaches across the world.
However, these changes have come about under extraordinary circumstances, which environmentalists have described as “the worst possible way to experience environmental improvement”. Even then, “the pandemic’s climate silver lining is vanishingly thin,” with projected declines falling short of targets needed to reach the Paris Agreement’s ambitious goal of 1.5°C of warming by 2030.
“The reduction in industrial activity and travel will undoubtedly have reduced global emissions in greenhouse gases,” Dr Anna Jones, a climate scientist at British Antarctic Survey said. “This will have given the climate a brief respite, but only brief. To really heal the climate, and to maintain a healthy climate into the future, we need rapid, major, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”
This sentiment has been echoed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his remarks for Earth Day 2020. “The impact of the coronavirus is both immediate and dreadful. But, there is another deep emergency – the planet’s unfolding environmental crisis,” Guterres wrote in a statement.
“We must act decisively to protect our planet from both the coronavirus and the existential threat of climate disruption. The current crisis is an unprecedented wake-up call.”
Amidst Covid-19 coverage, there have been some stark reminders over the last few weeks of the impact that climate change can have not only on humanity but the other creatures that inhabit our planet. From the worst megadrought in 1,200 years hitting the western US to the most widespread bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef yet.
As Professor Dave Reay, chair in Carbon Management, executive director of Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, University of Edinburgh, summed up: “Climate change has not gone away – it remains the greatest threat multiplier on Earth – but if our leaders can show one ounce of the courage currently being shown by our health workers then Earth Day can still become one of celebration rather than mourning.”