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Earth Day: The right time to protect our planet is now

Recent events have shown that we have done very little to protect and preserve our environment. The ongoing Novel Coronavirus crises presents a lesson which we should not miss — it’s high time we worked together to make Earth better and safer.

Earth Day 2020
The first Earth Day was observed on April 22, 1970. Picture Courtesy: Earth Day Network

The world is inarguably going through one of its worst crises. The Novel Coronavirus, which originated from China in December last year, has so far claimed over 1,77,000 lives, apart from bringing work processes to a standstill and shattering economies. While the debate over whether Coronavirus is connected to Climate Change is still not over, there is no doubt that Climate change is a threat multiplier — a phenomenon that intensifies existing problems and creates new ones. No aspect of life on Earth is untouched by Climate Change, viruses included.

On the occasion of the global Earth Day — marking 50 years since the start of this modern environmental movement in 1970, let’s look back at how the Earth Day started and what all did the movement accomplish; some of the lessons that we haven’t learnt; and what we can/should do going forward to make our planet better and safer.

Background and achievements

Concerned over environment degradation caused by rising air pollution and oil spills, US Senator Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin) came up with the idea of the Earth Day in 1969. The objective was to sensitize people and educate them on environmental health. The first Earth Day was observed on April 22, 1970, and nearly 20 million people participated in it — chanting the message of protecting natural biodiversity.

Over the years, the annual event inspired multiple environmental movements in different parts of the world, prompting countries to come up with legislations to protect the environment.  On April 22, 2016, the United Nations opened the Paris Agreement on Climate Change for signing. The movement was highly successful in the United States, leading to the launch of several landmark environmental programs and laws such as Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts, and the creation of the country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Also Read: Map shows how Climate Change affects extreme weather around the world

Lessons not learnt

Be it the dramatic melting of Greenland’s ice sheet in the summer of 2019, or the blazing forest fires of Amazon and Australia, thick layers of smog engulfing countries in South Asia, or Europe witnessing unprecedented heat last summer, a series of recent events have proved that we have collectively failed to protect our environment and are bearing the brunt of it. Even though the world sees nothing more pressing than battling and defeating the COVID-19 outbreak, it is a fact that we will be facing many more crises if we don’t course correct now.  

Also Read: Antarctic ice instability to trigger alarming sea-level rise in future

“The impact of the coronavirus is both immediate and dreadful. But there is another, deep emergency — the planet’s unfolding environmental crisis. Climate disruption is approaching a point of no return. We must act decisively to protect our planet from both the coronavirus and the existential threat of climate disruption. The current crisis is an unprecedented wake-up call. We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future,” said António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, in his message on the Earth Day.

Preserving biodiversity to protect lives

It is common knowledge that a large number of diseases found in humans are transmitted from animals. “These are called zoonosis, and there are around 435 diseases that jumped from animals over the past 60 years into humans.  Over 60% of these ‘spillover events’ are really related to some form of change —for example, deforestation or increases in agricultural activities. What happens is when these human activities occur, the contact with wildlife increases. So, we have more encounters with these animals and therefore we get more viruses coming from these animals to us,” said Dr. Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio, Associated Vice-President for Conservation and Health at EcoHealth Alliance and a Research Associate at the Bolivian National Herbarium, in a discussion with Dr. Sean O’Brien, President & CEO at NatureServe.

Also Read: Preserving biodiversity to contain viral outbreaks

An estimate by the World Economic Forum suggests that “as much as 50% of prescription drugs are based on a molecule that occurs naturally in a plant, while 70% of cancer drugs are natural or synthetic products inspired by nature”. So, clearly, preserving biodiversity is integral to protecting human lives.

“Several treatments for health come from plants. Recently, it has been discussed that chloroquine medicine that has been used for years to treat malaria, can be used in combination with other medication to cure or to treat COVID-19. But this quinine comes from a plant from the Amazon, so it’s important to keep all this biodiversity, but also work to explore all the active principles that are in these plants and can potentially be used for human health,” added Dr. Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio.

For today and tomorrow

COVID_19 impact on environment
The COVID-19 pandemic has halted most industrial activities, air travel and construction, thus slashing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution levels around the globe. Picture Courtesy: NASA

With glaciers melting, droughts and floods around the world increasing, species going extinct and weather patterns turning extreme, the call for Climate Action, which also happens to be the theme for this year’s Earth Day, has grown louder. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already warned of severe consequences if the warming crosses 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, a change, which can be primarily attributed to the increase in carbon emissions over the past few decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic has halted most industrial activities, air travel and construction, thus slashing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution levels around the globe. The only positive that can be extracted out of this calamity is that we can get a feel of the fresh, unpolluted air we might get to breathe in a low emissions future.  As things open up and we collectively recover from the Coronavirus assault, we must resolve to not undo this and take continuous and concrete steps to protect biodiversity, preserve climate and turn Earth into a better and safer planet for us and our future generations.

Also Read: How satellite imagery is crucial for monitoring Climate Change