50th Anniversary of Earth Day: Saving the Planet Presents Challenges and Opportunities

Global emissions of greenhouse gases hit a record 43.1 billion metric tons in 2019.

By Chaitram Aklu

The world’s population was 3.7 billion in 1970. That was 50 years ago when the first Earth Day was observed. Today the global population has doubled to 8 billion. And with this growth has come an increase in global warming, loss of biodiversity – the life-support systems that make our world habitable, and a serious threat to food security and supply.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) only 200 of the 6,000 plant species cultivated for food are cultivated substantially to produce food globally. Of that 200 only 9 (sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybean, oil palm fruit, sugar beet, and cassava) account for 66 percent of the total crops produced. In addition 91 countries reported that “wild food species and many species that contribute to ecosystem services that are vital to food and agriculture, including pollinators, soil organisms, and natural enemies pests, are rapidly disappearing.” And “the largest number of wild food species in decline, appear in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

As climate changes, warmer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snow melt are creating longer dry seasons. Tropical zones are expanding some 20 miles a decade, pushing other climate zones towards the poles. In India the aquifers feeding the Ganges River are being depleted faster than anywhere else in the world, according to National Geographic. Farmers depend on this water source heavily to irrigate their fields and depletion could lead to severe food shortages. A quarter of all the mammals on earth are threatened with extinction. FAO also reports that 26 percent of the 7,745 breeds of livestock globally are at risk of extinction. There is also increasing habitat loss mainly on land and overexploitation mainly in the oceans – almost a third of fish stocks are overfished and more than half have reached their sustainable limit. 30,000 species are listed as being at risk of extinction. And in North America, there are 2.9 billion less birds than in 1970.

Earth Day was initiated in the United States on April 22, 1970 when it attracted 20 million people to raise awareness about environmental issues such as pollution and chemical waste disposal. The first Earth day, however, was on March 21, that year, the first day of spring when the idea was proposed for a world holiday at a 1969 UNESCO Environment conference. In 1971, the UN proclaimed that the vernal equinox (March 20 or March 21) would be International Earth Day.

Since the establishment of Earth Day, at least a dozen major legislation has been passed into law in the United States – the Clean Air Act; the Water Quality Improvement Act; the Water Pollution and Control Act Amendments; the Resource Recovery Act; the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; the Toxic Substances Control Act; the Occupational Safety and Health Act; the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act; the Endangered Species Act; the Safe Drinking Water Act; the Federal Land Policy and Management Act; the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Global emissions of greenhouse gases hit a record 43.1 billion metric tons in 2019. A quarter of the emissions in the United States come from electricity and heat generation, and another quarter comes from agriculture, forestry and other land use mostly in the form of nitrous oxide, methane and Carbon dioxide. Globally, carbon dioxide accounts for 76 percent of emissions. Methane and nitrous oxide, account for 16 percent and six percent respectively. China emits 26 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions, India 14 percent, EU 10 percent, and India 7 percent. Tropical forests account for 60 percent of all photosynthesis on Earth and they absorb billions of tons of carbon dioxide each year. The sequestered carbon dioxide is released when the forest is or trees are burned.

2019 was Australia’s driest year ever and fire devastated vast areas of the country and killed millions of animals. The California Camp fire in 2018 was the most destructive on record. It killed 86 people and displaced tens of thousands. Pushed by climate related natural disasters environmental stresses, and disease, millions more people may slide into poverty. Already the mass movement of people in desperation from Central American countries northward is being linked to climate change.

But in spite of the doubling of the population and demand for food and the degradation (strip mining, deforestation, overfishing, reduction of farmland) that is occurring, people have more food to eat (much is wasted and availability is not uniform), they are living longer, fewer women are dying at childbirth, the number of years spent in school has increased, and more people have better access to clean water, and electricity. Still there is the struggle to keep up with demands.

Although the costs have been outpacing benefits, there has been some successful effort at mitigation. 127 countries have now banned plastic bags. Still an estimated 8.8 million tons of plastic wastes enter the ocean each year and kills millions of marine mammals and the highest concentrations are in the polar waters and ice. Dumping will quadruple in the next 30 years, according to a National Geographic.

Sustainable development projects are being undertaken all over the world and many have proven to be successful in reducing emissions and wastes and are becoming the main source of energy for many communities.

In the United States more than 500 coal fired plants have been shut down since 2010. And in April 2019 renewable sources generated more electricity than coal for the first time. At the same time the use of coal for energy production has increased in both China and India – the two countries with the largest population. China accounts for nearly half of the world’s yearly consumption.

In New York City, the Freshkills landfill once the world’s largest garbage dump (landfills contribute methane gas to the atmosphere) is being transformed into a recreation park which is nearly three times the size of the famous Central Park.

According to an article by Robert Kuniz in National Geographic, Denmark is using an incinerator to convert 534,000 tons of waste each year to electrify 30,000 homes and heat 72,000. The plant also doubles as a recreational destination for visitors; Iceland uses geothermal energy to heat homes and provide electricity; in the US in New Jersey, the world’s largest indoor vertical hydroponics farm produces vegetables sustainably year round, using recycled plastic bottles to support the plant roots, uses 95 percent less water than outdoor farming, and yields that are 390 times as high as farming in fields; a British company is experimenting with black soldier ants feeding on food waste to replace soy as a protein in animal feed; in Italy 40,000 workers are employed to process discarded wool which is spun back into yarn.

However, research and development projects require capital which is more readily available and accessible in the developed countries but not in the underdeveloped countries. Several international environment summits were convened and international agreements signed over the last half a century to address global problems. The Paris Agreement for example, which came into force on November 4, 2016, supports conservation projects by developing countries and the most vulnerable countries, in line with their own national objectives. Developed countries provide funding for conservation projects that will lead to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Through this agreement, Sweden has given some $250 million to Guyana to foster conservation efforts in its share of the vast Amazon rainforest. Sadly, the United States has withdrawn from this agreement this year.

The theme for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day is climate action. An educator will define learning simply as a change in behavior. Climate change presents the greatest challenge for the present and future generations. It can also open up vast opportunities, through the wise and careful use of resources, if there are changes in behavior at the global, country and village level.