The 50th annual call for environmental reform falls at a time when the health of people and nature has never been more urgent
Fifty years ago today, the first Earth Day was marked in the United States as a peaceful call for environmental reform, following a massive oil spill off the coast of California. Half a century later, this annual day unites millions across the globe, drawing attention to the huge challenges facing our planet.
Now more than ever, Earth Day offers an opportunity for us all to reflect upon our relationship with the planet, amid the most powerful possible message that nature can surprise us at any moment, with devastating consequences for pretty much every individual. It is a time when the health of the planet and its people has never been so important.
This year held great promise for environmental change on the back of growing pressure for concerted, urgent action and with a suite of international conferences set to refocus global commitment on these key issues. The nexus between nature, climate and sustainable development was embodied in 2020. The year offered hope.
There was much talk of nature as the bridge between the biodiversity and climate crises, of nature-based solutions such as forestation, peatland restoration and the protection of mangroves as the answers to some of the challenges we face today, and of natural capital supporting sustainable development and human wellbeing.
The postponement of COP15 and COP26 – the international conferences which were set to determine new global targets on biodiversity and climate change later this year – was, clearly, the right step to take when the world is grappling with a pandemic like coronavirus, but we should not let the momentum of what had been hailed as a “super year” for the environment be lost.
We are in an age of extinction and at the point where irreversible environmental damage could be wrought. Despite changed plans, we cannot afford to lose pace nor focus. The challenge of the biodiversity and climate crises will still be there when the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted; the ambition of COP15 and COP26 must be carried forward and built upon in 2021.
Right now, it may be hard not to feel despondent but there are shoots of optimism. After the lockdowns, we may may see greater appreciation for nature in many countries around the world. From China to Spain, people of all ages are missing what they did not know they would miss until they could not have it: craving open spaces; realising the wellbeing and health benefits of accessing nature; and, in many countries, missing the blossoming of spring.
Some improvements in pollution levels have been seen in countries with restricted movements of people and the shutdown of factories and businesses. Will we be able to balance our need for these to reopen and our desire to travel while reducing the footprint of these kinds of activities?
Communities are coming together to support each other – even in large metropolises like London, which are so often perceived as hostile and cold. Can we harness this spirit to look out for those further from home and for the planet that supports us all when coronavirus becomes a distant memory?
A poster to mark the first Earth Day featured the quote: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Fifty years on, will this be the year we collectively stop taking the planet for granted, degrading and exploiting its resources? Will we now, also, realise how vulnerable a species we actually are?
I hope that through our experience of this pandemic, we will learn that it is far better to pre-empt a global problem when we see it on the horizon than have to deal with it when it engulfs us. This is a lesson we should apply to the challenge of climate change, which also threatens hundreds of millions of people, as well as that of heeding and listening to the experts. We must also recognise that global challenges require globally coordinated responses.
At the end of the year, we will still have a decade to deliver the sustainable development goals, and the biodiversity and climate change COPs – along with other key international meetings – will be rescheduled.
Crucially, a window of opportunity is opening to ensure that economic recovery plans that countries adopt as they emerge from this crisis are steadfastly “green”. Long-term investment and sustainable economic growth plans should drive climate projects and environmental change. We need nature more than ever, as a solution, as a resource, for respite and for life on Earth.
Looking ahead, there are opportunities emerging from this pandemic which, if seized, could set the path for a more fruitful 2021 “super year”. We must cease being the enemy of nature, and instead become its friend.
Richard Deverell is director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew