Dr Anjani Ganase joins the dots from lockdown in pandemic to climate change and how our lives are changed. The key is to see ourselves as active participants, responsible for the health of the earth in whichever corner we find ourselves.
On June 5 we celebrated World Environment Day with the international theme of Re-imagine. Recreate. Restore; a call to action to regenerate and restore our natural ecosystems in the world that has been ravaged by human exploitations.
This week, World Oceans Day, on June 8, was observed with the theme of The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods highlighting interconnectivity with the ocean and its resources. This is especially pertinent to island nations that depend on ocean resources yet lack understanding of the marine ecosystems and how they function. In 2021, both days occur in the first year of the UN Decade of Ocean Science and Sustainable Development, a decade that pushes efforts to reverse the damage to ocean health inflicted over the last 100 years.
Some may wonder why we even bother to consider the environment given that we are all reeling from the devastations of covid19. Who cares about climate change and the ocean when we can’t even eat? But there are many in the position to care and should care, to avoid future tragedies of this nature. Our normal behaviours are the reasons we are in this position and it’s not just the pandemic.
Here are some facts that should make us think about our future and “normal.” The World Economic Forum has listed the top five global risks to humankind in the next ten years. All are related to the environment: extreme weather; climate action failure; significant global biodiversity loss; natural disasters; and human-made natural disasters. Many of these have significant consequential impacts on other major threats including water and food crises, involuntary migration (refugees) and global governance failure.
Biodiversity loss because of human activities is ten to a 100-times higher and is resulting in a faster rate of extinction, when compared to the last ten million years. All 7.9 billion people on the planet make up 0.01 per cent of all living creatures on the planet, yet we’ve wiped out 83 per cent of wild mammals, 50 per cent of plants and 40 per cent insects.
The main drivers of biodiversity loss are habitat loss and alteration: 85 per cent of wetlands converted, 75 per cent of land surface altered, and 66 per cent of ocean impacted. The other major drivers include exploitation of wildlife (animals and plants), pollution of habitats with our waste and species invasion because of trade and global commerce. All of this exacerbates ecosystem health that is already under pressure to adapt to shifting climatic conditions. The consequences of biodiversity loss are dire for us, as nature is our source of food, water and medicine. It is our stock for all research, innovation, and human health care.
Around the world climate action continues to be slow as it competes with improving lifestyle, with fossil fuels still the currency for access to electricity, fuels for transport. But many countries have been reducing their carbon footprint with new technologies and energy alternatives.
Trinidad and Tobago is one of the top three emitters in the world of carbon dioxide per capita. Because of our small size and population, we are not among the big polluters; but our fossil fuel economy means we are among the least ready to adapt to climate change and extremely vulnerable socio-economically. In 2020, during one year of lockdown, carbon emissions only reduced by five per cent, and this was accompanied with significant grief, economic loss, and hardships. If we are to shift rapidly away from fossil fuels in order to help curb the long-lasting effects of climate change, then we must change rapidly to adopt different lifestyles in order to reach the aim of net zero emissions by 2050.
In the last five years alone, the world has recorded the warmest temperatures, and extreme events – forest fires, storms – spanned every continent. We are on track to have a global average temperature of a three-degree Celsius warmer world by 2100 with significant consequences to the environment and human wellbeing. Warmer temperatures mean greater risk of crop failures, more severe storms and flood damages, increased risks to water and air quality, and food-borne diseases.
All amount to higher pressures on our society, economy and health care. In 2018 alone the world suffered US$165 billion in economic losses from natural disasters, many of which were climate-related. Such losses are expected to increase, with severe implications to lives and livelihoods.
Economic growth should not have to come at the cost of environmental disaster. We need to decouple our activities from harming the planet.
In the middle of lockdown and under a state of emergency, many of us are pining for normality, but there is urgent need to understand that our normal actions – our use of natural resources that has afforded some luxuries in our lives – comes at significant environmental cost. More than ever, we appear to have no choice: the cost of better life and lifestyles now is a future of environmental degradation. But there is a choice. The challenge to decouple economic progress from environmental degradation either in the form of carbon emission or over-exploitation can be won. How do we do this? By simply valuing resources and conserving differently.
One strategy is the adoption of the circular economy to reduce the amount of raw materials: maximising a resource by keeping it in circulation for multiple cycles before it is recycled. This is the start of breaking the need for excess resources for economic growth. Research and technological innovations that are aligned with conservation can prolong the lifespans of our electronics, reduce waste and incorporate waste production into the circular path.
To this day, most countries do not consider the environmental cost of waste – air, water, and material pollution. We need to include waste minimisation and management into the circular economy. Examples of a circular economy include the recycling of electronic waste to extract rare earth metals, avoiding the need for mining natural landscapes and seascapes. To use compostable packaging material that can then be composted in back yard gardens. These are a few of several simple solutions that add up to big changes in our norms.
Uncoupling our lifestyles and habits from environmental degradation can be done at the individual level. For example, we can change our eating habits so that what we eat is not linked to significant clearing of forests; eat produce from small gardens, cottage style producers. 70 per cent of the land used for agriculture is used for rearing livestock. Restore natural habitats by being mindful of the quantities we eat and encourage the use of small-scale permacultures and farms that establish more resilient crops systems and reduce nutrient loss and pollution of our waterways.
Finally, let us decouple our thoughts of helplessness in the process of change; there is no magic bullet for saving the planet. We are the magic bullet, we have to become the guardians of nature. Let us citizens restore our voice and demand environmental protection and sustainable management. Our futures must align with our duties as carers for the planet; no one will do it for us.