Earth Day reflections: will we learn to listen?

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Reflections on the size of the climate challenge – lessons from the current pandemic.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Initiated in the US in 1970 by a junior senator from Wisconsin concerned about the deteriorating state of the environment, Earth Day went global in 1990 and has in recent years seen a billion people take part in a day of action in over 190 countries.  So, how has the world changed since 1970? I’ll start with some of the pre-COVID-19 trends before reflecting on some of the potential implications of the current global pandemic.

In 1970, two years before I arrived on the Earth, the global population was around 3.7 billion with just over one-third of people living in urban areas. Life expectancy at birth was 57.4 years and global economic activity per capita (measured by PPP in 2010 USD) was around $5,200. In 1971, around 85% energy was sourced from fossil fuels with total energy use per capita of just over 1.3 tons (measured in oil equivalence). Overall, we were generating around 15.2 gigatons of CO2 emissions per year. (source)

According to the Global Footprint Network, 1970 saw an important tipping point whereby humanity’s environmental impacts had grown to the point that for the first time the planet was in “ecological overshoot.”

Fifty years later, the global population has more than doubled to 7.8 billion and is still growing by around 100,000 people per day, energy use has nearly tripled (use was circa 14 billion tons of oil equivalent in 2014), and carbon emissions have risen from 15.2 gigatons to around 36.6 gigatons in 2018.

Of course, it hasn’t all been bad news. In this timeframe: data to 2018 shows life expectancy at birth has improved, rising from 57.4 years to 72.4 years. Infant mortality (per 1,000 births) has decreased from 64.7% (in 1990) to 28.9% and the adult literacy rate has risen from 65.2% in 1975 to 86.3%.

However, the Global Footprint Network data shows that we are now consuming as if we had the luxury of 1.75 planets. “Earth Overshoot Day” – an illustrative calendar date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year – has been moving steadily forwards overtime.

Earth Day

Source

What might we learn from COVID-19?

As we sit here, with over a third of the global population in lockdown, of course the priority must be ensuring we are on the path to recovery, but from a sustainability point of view my first hope might be that humanity might finally start listening to climate scientists now that they have seen the implications of not listening to the scientists on pandemics.

For years now, 97% of the world’s climate scientists have presented us with the evidence and so we must now listen and act on their findings. In 2018, we were warned in a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we have only ten years left to act before global heating becomes irreversible. Each year we delay, the pressure is piled on the subsequent years – till we could be faced with an impossible task. Having lived through even the beginning of this one global pandemic, who now, would want to wait until too late, before attempting to mitigate for run-away climate change?

A second light-bulb moment – the art of the possible

COVID-19 has also shown us that no longer can we say change is “impossible” or “we can’t do this.” We clearly can, and almost overnight, we have, as one global community, united against a shared enemy. Airlines have grounded whole fleets. Energy use has dropped.

Critically for the environment, the current pandemic with associated travel restrictions has provided a clear and immediate stimulus for remote working in a way climate change has so far failed to do. Switching from in-person face-to-face meetings to virtual collaboration technology has been one of the ways we’ve sought to reduce Capgemini’s carbon footprint in recent years. Last year for example, a successful behavior change campaign on virtual collaboration in the UK contributed to a 14% reduction in travel emissions. COVID-19 has supercharged this trend globally, with the vast majority of our 270,000 employees shifting to a home-based work model almost overnight.

Encouragingly, many are reporting that this new way of working is actually driving up productivity and the myth that projects cannot be delivered remotely certainly can never be used as a thin excuse for presenteeism again.

The environment has been the unexpected “winner.” Immediate improvements in air and water quality have meant that cities like Delhi are experiencing clear blue skies, while residents of Venice marvel at the translucency of their usually murky canals.

Of course, no one is expecting that decreases in energy use, consumerism, and travel will be automatically be sustained at this rate (some estimate that carbon emissions could be 2.5 billion tons down in 2020), but it can be hoped that the current situation provides the impetus for societies to take a more existential look at the future.

What happens next?

In a special Imperial College Business School lecture on how COVID-19 might affect climate change, which I took part in last week, Professor Martin Siegert argued that there is potentially good and bad news from a sustainability point of view – good news, in the sense that there is evidence that the world can take action together and that governments can find the funds to solve major problems.  However, in contrast he also raised two key questions – have we just spent the funds on propping up the economy that were needed for the carbon transition? And will the public be prepared to engage again in the long-term lifestyle changes needed to put the planet on a path to a sub 1.5-degree climate change scenario?

I suspect, in reality, only time will tell.  In the meantime, stay safe.

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