Fish swim again in Venetian canals, smog has lifted over China … but today’s crisis reminds us of the fragility of our society, environment and economies

April 22, 2020

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

On 22nd April 1970 an estimated 20 million Americans, 10% of the population, took to the streets. They were incensed by the increasing damage to our environment. In recent years they had seen oil spills off the coast of California, the introduction of commercial insecticides, and the discovery of acid rain damaging historic forest. Lake Erie and its waterways had become so polluted that a nearby river caught fire. The first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement.

Fast forward 50 years, and little has changed.

Last year was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record, as wildfires burned 27 million acres and killed 29 people. Global temperatures have steadily increased for each year of the past two decades. Antartica’s ice sheets are melting and cracking off into the sea. Exceptional droughts, fierce storms and record-breaking rain were our new normals.

Today, we see the fragility of our society, environment and economies.

Yes, because a global pandemic has shutdown our industries, fish now swim again in Italy’s crystal blue Venice canals, because cruise ships and motor boats no longer churn up the muddy bottom. The amount of nitrogen dioxide in China, caused by burning fossil fuels, dropped 30% in January. The notorious smog in Los Angeles has dissipated, and air quality in the city is the best it’s been in 40 years. Carbon monoxide emissions are down 50% in New York City. People can see the stars in Delhi, and the tip of Mount Kenya can be seen from Nairobi. The EIA says that energy-related CO2 emissions will drop 7.5% this year. If as individuals and as societies we continue on this path, we could see reversals of extreme weather, rising temperatures and sea level rise.

The pandemic caused something else peculiar to happen this week: the price of a barrel of oil dropped below $0, the lowest it’s been since 1946. Oil producers could not give it away. A string of other oil headlines sent people reeling. The famous Singapore oil trading firm Hin Leong was revealed to have allegedly hid about $800 million in losses racked up in futures trading. A Nigerian oil-industry union ditched plans to strike, after they were accused of breaking rules aimed at containing the coronavirus. And Mexico’s Pemex has too much gasoline and nowhere to store it because of the fast-spreading coronavirus.

What we do now will shape all of our futures.

Earth Day is now recognized as the planet’s largest civic event and it led to passage of landmark environmental laws in the United States, including the Clean Air, Clear Water and Endangered Species Acts. Many countries soon adopted similar laws, and in 2016, United Nations chose Earth Day as the day to sign the Paris climate agreement into force.

The enormous challenges – but also the vast opportunities – of acting on climate change have distinguished the issue as the most pressing topic for the 50th anniversary year. At the end of 2020, nations will be expected to increase their national commitments to the Paris Agreement, so the time is now for citizens to call for greater global ambition to tackle our climate crisis.

Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable. Unless every country in the world steps up – and steps up with urgency and ambition – we are consigning current and future generations to a dangerous future.

Earth Day 2020 is far more than a day. It must be a historic moment when citizens of the world rise up in a united call for the creativity, innovation, ambition, and bravery that we need to meet our climate crisis and seize the enormous opportunities of a zero-carbon future.

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