We’re in the midst of a climate crisis. Our forests are burning, communities are flooding, our oceans are choking with plastic and earth’s surface temperature is rising. It’s not too late to save our planet, but it requires urgent action.
Each of us are responsible for our own actions, and we can all make adjustments to create a more sustainable way of living. Reducing travel, eating local produce, choosing green energy sources and consuming only what we need, all help to reduce our carbon footprint and create a more sustainable world for future generations.
But often, it can be hard to visualise a greener world without these actions happening on a larger scale. However, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic millions of us around the world are now being forced to slow down and make dramatic lifestyle changes, and already we’re seeing positive environmental change.
Each year on 5th June World Environment Day occurs to encourage businesses, governments, and people to focus on the environmental crisis. Created and run by the United Nations, every year has a new host country and a new theme focusing on a specific crisis. The natural world is key to our survival, and we must act now to protect it for ourselves, and future generations.
Covid-19 has affected millions of lives worldwide, and whilst many countries continue to lock down and people adjust to the ‘new normal’, it appears some of the damage nature has suffered is slowly reversing. Of course, concern for the safety of our loved ones, combined with general uncertainty has created challenging times for all, but these positive environmental changes are a beacon of hope.
According to analysis by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, China’s emissions dropped by a quarter in February, compared to the same period in 2019. In New York carbon monoxide (mostly from road transport) has reduced by nearly 50% compared with last year. While in Milan and northern Italy, air quality has significantly improved, with nitrogen oxide levels falling by about 40%.
But Covid-19 is certainly not the answer to tackling the climate crisis, and whilst the positive environmental changes provide hope for creating a greener, more sustainable future, it’s important to address the negative environmental impacts happening as a result of the virus.
Governments have been forced to turn their attention towards Covid-19 and away from conservation, creating a large increase in land grabbing, deforestation, illegal mining and wildlife poaching from opportunists and criminals.
At SLO active, we’re dedicated to protecting our oceans and sustainability is at the heart of everything we do. We support the “slow movement” and believe in taking time to connect with our environment. In this guide we aim to raise awareness around some of the biggest issues threatening our planet and explore some of the positive environmental changes happening as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.
In the early 1900s, climate change was nothing more than a faraway concept. But this decade, we are already starting to see the very real effects of climate change. Earlier this year, Australia suffered their most destructive bushfires on record. Over a period of several months, more than 11 million hectares (110,000 sq km or 27.2 million acres) of bush, forest and parks across Australia were burned. Nearly 50 threatened species are believed to have had more than 80% of their area affected, including seven critically endangered plants.
Due to it’s dry desert-like climate, bushfires occur regularly in Australia. But this year was far worse than normal, and scientists warn it’s an indication of climate change. Over the past year, Australia set two new temperature records, with an average maximum of 41.9C recorded on 18 December. Natural weather patterns are regarded as the main cause behind the increased fires, but many researchers say human activity has also played a part.
Expected sea level rise in the next century
people have been forcibly displaced because of climate change since 2008
of the hottest days on record occurred in the last 16 years
During the months of burning in Australia, East Africa also suffered extreme weather conditions. According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, the Horn of Africa saw up to 300% above average rainfall between October and mid-November. As a result, over 1 million people have been affected by flooding in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.
Whilst scientists say this extreme weather is caused by a natural climate phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole, they have warned extreme climate and weather events caused by the dipole are likely to happen more frequently, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.
One 2014 study modelled the effects of CO2 on extreme Indian Ocean dipoles and predicted the number of extreme positive dipole events would increase this century from one every 17.3 years, to one every 6.3 years if emissions continue to rise.
• Eat local – Avoid imported foods wherever possible and support your local farm shop or butchers
• Practice energy conservation – Switch off your lights when you’re not in the room and make sure appliances are completely turned off if they’re not in use.
• Join a climate action group – Get involved with projects in your local community or join an organised protest march
The air quality across the globe has been steadily worsening for the past 50 years, and recent reports reveal that the quality of the air we breathe is now reaching toxic levels in many parts of the world. Latest figures from the UN reveal that in low and middle-income countries, 98 per cent of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants fall below the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines.
This is having detrimental impacts on human health, with WHO estimating there are around 7 million premature deaths a year as a result of poor air quality.
of China’s citizens breath air that is considered safe by the EU
premature deaths occur each year as a result of poor air quality
tonnes of CO2 from human activities released each year
One of the main contributors to poor air quality is the fossil fuel industry, which is responsible for 80% of all energy production worldwide. According to UN statistics, only 82 out of 193 countries have incentives promoting investment in renewable energy production, cleaner production, energy efficiency and pollution control.
We also rely heavily on fossil fuel for transport, which accounts for almost one-quarter of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Open waste burning is another large contributor to air pollution, releasing harmful dioxins, furans, methane, and black carbon. Globally, it’s estimated that around 40 percent of waste is openly burned, and is practised in 166 out of 193 countries.
• Walk or cycle – Road transport is one of the largest polluters of CO2 so try to avoid using your car whenever possible!
• Reduce air travel – Try to reduce your trips abroad by taking a local holiday instead
• Use renewable energy – Try to use a renewable energy supplier and opt for clean alternatives where possible
Now the issue closest to the hearts of SLO active, plastic pollution. While it may be more difficult to see the effects of air pollution and global warming at present, the destructive effects of plastic pollution are all too painful and clear to see.
Thousands of marine species are affected by plastic pollution. Many mistake small particles for food and choke, whilst others become entangled and trapped in floating debris. Even the top predators of the marine world are at risk. When plastic particles are digested, toxic chemicals are released and absorbed into the body tissue, and transmitted into the water.
These chemicals are then ingested by filter feeding organisms and are passed onto feeding predators. Over time, the toxins from these plastic particles accumulate in the body at a faster rate than the body can dispel them. This process is known as bioaccumulation, and affects those at the top of the food chain, including sharks, killer whales, and polar bears.
But while plastic debris is slowly breaking down in the ocean, more and more plastic is being tossed or washed into the sea – at a rate far faster than what it is breaking down. Consequently, there is a LOT of plastic in the ocean – it comes in all shapes, forms, and sizes, and is found floating on the surface, suspended in the water column or littering the ocean floor, and eventually washes up on beaches around the world, wreaking havoc with marine life in all these ecosystems.
tons of plastic ends up in our oceans every year
plastic particles are currently floating in the world’s oceans
number of estimated losses per year associated with marine plastic debris due to the negative impact on marine ecosystems
Plastic waste has been found floating in all corners of our oceans and has even been discovered on the ocean floor of one of the deepest places in the ocean – the Pacific Mariana Trench. The American explorer, Victor Vescovo descended nearly 11km in a submersible, breaking the world record for the deepest ever sub-dive.
However, amidst his search for sea creatures, he reported finding a plastic bag and plastic sweet wrappers at the very bottom of the ocean floor, revealing the true extent to which plastic pollution has infiltrated our oceans.
• Avoid single use plastics – Try to avoid plastic straws, shopping bags, water bottles and disposable cutlery by investing in your own reusable alternatives
• Reduce your consumption – It can be hard to avoid plastic completely, but try to limit your plastic waste by only buying what you really need
• Take part in a beach clean up – Look for local events near you – or simply create your own
Deforestation is a major contributor to global heating and climate change. Rain forests act as the earth’s lungs, absorbing green houses gases such as CO2, from the atmosphere. They also provide a habitat for approximately 80% of the world’s documented species.
Yet despite their vital role supporting Mother Nature, our forests are declining at a rapid rate. Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 502,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers) of forest. Agriculture, mining, and drilling are responsible for more than half of all deforestation, while forestry practices, wildfires and urbanisation account for the rest.
(7.3 million hectares) of forest are lost each year
of the world’s oxygen is produced in the Amazon forest
species are expected to become extinct by the next quarter of the century due to deforestation
• Avoid palm oil products – Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil found in rainforests and is used in half of all supermarket products.
• Go paperless – Prevent timber harvesting by reducing the amount of paper you print at home, and in your office.
• Buy certified wood products – Check the labels and look for the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification.
Scientists believe the Covid-19 outbreak originated from bats, and spilled over to humans at a wet market (selling fresh meat, fish, seafood and other produce) in Wuhan, China. But many researchers believe that the destruction of natural habitats and biodiversity loss as a result of human activity, is also partly responsible.
Covid-19, Swine Flu and Ebola are all examples of zoonotic diseases or ‘zoonoses’. These are human infections of animal origin. In a recent article published by the Guardian, Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL says, “the rise of zoonotic diseases are linked to environmental change and human behaviour”. According to Kate, “the disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanisation and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before.”
She goes on to say “The resulting transmission of disease from wildlife to humans is now a hidden cost of human economic development”.
Scientists are warning that climate change will soon become irreversible, unless we act now. The European Union has a target of reaching net-zero carbon by 2050, and to halve Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but many campaigners say this is not enough, with the protest group Extinction Rebellion, urging governments to aim for net zero emissions by 2025.
In a recent statement, Extinction Rebellion co-founder Dr Gail Bradbrook said “We were told this was an “impossible target”, but the things happening right now [as a result of COVID-19] are the things needed to hit a 2025 target. We can do the impossible. We have to.”
There is no doubt that Covid-19 is a serious public health crisis. And a disease claiming thousands of lives and destroying economies certainly shouldn’t be viewed as a positive way of creating environmental change. Nonetheless, the imposed travel restrictions, grounded flights and increased number of individuals working from home are having a noticeable impact on the environment.
Since China entered it’s ‘lockdown’ phase, air quality has improved significantly. According to its Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the proportion of days with “good quality air” was up 11.4% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities across China. Meanwhile, the Centre for International Climate Research in Oslo, Norway, said the drop in air pollution caused by the measures could lead to a reduction in premature deaths between 54,000 and 109,000 people if continued.
In Europe it’s a similar story. Satellite images show a decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions over northern Italy, while Venice canals are noticeably clearer as a result of reduced boat traffic.
Cleaner air also means less greenhouse gases, and reduced global heating. The transport sector is responsible for 23% of global carbon emissions, with driving and aviation accounting for 83% of the transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.
But because of the coronavirus lockdown, Marcus Ferdinand of Independent Commodity Intelligence Services, suggests greenhouse gas emissions in Europe could drop by 24.4 percent in 2020. He predicts that Europe will emit 388.8 million tons less of carbon than it did before COVID-19.
Travel bans could also be good news for the great barrier reefs. Recent studies show that 50% of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed, as a result of climate change and overtourism. Such is the problem, that in 2018 Maya Bay – a coral reef tourist hotspot situated on the island of Phi Phi Leh – was temporarily closed by officials, due to large volume of visitors causing severe damage to the environment.
The beach was originally due to reopen after 4 months to allow the ecosystem to recover, but due to the extent of the damage it’s now expected to be closed until 2021. But now that we’re facing world-wide travel restrictions, it may provide a small window for more coral reef sites to escape the hordes of tourists, and restore some of their former beauty. And perhaps if we can see improvements over the next few months, it may force us to change our behaviour in the future?
If just a few weeks of reduced travel can have such an impact on air quality, imagine what difference a few months, or years could make?
We’d see a significant drop in greenhouse gases and global heating. People would be healthier, and the number of premature deaths as a result of poor air quality would fall sharply. And it’s not just humans that would benefit. With cleaner air, wildlife would flourish and nature would be spared from the destructive impacts of climate change.
A sustainable future is possible, and we don’t need a global pandemic to get there. We just need to act with similar urgency, and make the changes while we still can. So during these challenging times, remember to slow down. Breathe. Reconnect with nature and stay positive.
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By empowering girls and women, we will hopefully make greater progress in managing sustainable ocean use and conserving the earth’s most precious resource.
The natural world is key to our survival, and we must act now to protect it for ourselves, and future generations.