It’s world environment day! It’s a day to consider the impact that we as a species and as individuals have on our planet. Whether it’s wildlife, the climate or the local environment, it’s hard to ignore the profound effect that humans have had on nature. No matter who you are, your life is intimately tied to the state of the natural world – we rely on it for food, shelter, energy, leisure and so much more. And care of the natural world is increasingly crucial to achieving a sustainable life for humans and other wildlife. The recent focus on the climate disaster has brought some of these issues to the fore, but there is plenty more that needs to be highlighted.
Anyone who has watched a David Attenborough documentary knows how incredibly fascinating the natural world can be. There is nearly infinite variability in the flora and fauna that call this planet home. Evolutionary forces have acted over billions of years to produce the finely honed and balanced diversity that we see in our ecosystems – a balance that human activity has threatened, particularly over recent periods of industrialisation.
It is hard to overstate the fragility of this balance; entire lives have been spent trying to understand the interactions of living organisms in any given ecosystem, and the ramifications of our (purposeful or accidental) intervention. And there is very little doubt amongst experts that we are having an enormous impact on all kinds of ecosystems. As the population of the world grows, the strains that we place on the natural world increase, be that via pollution, deforestation, overfishing, over-farming and so on.
To put the problem into perspective, the total human population was approximately 1 billion in the year 1800 and has since ballooned to approximately 7.7 billion today. By 2050, it is estimated that world’s population will reach 9 billion. This is compounded by the fact that, over time, we expect to have more comfortable lifestyles with greater conveniences than those who came before. As I sit here writing this, I am aware that those like me are some of the luckiest people to ever live in the history of the planet, and the planet has paid a terrible toll for our luxury. We live in buildings for which the raw materials and labour to build pollute our atmosphere. We drive cars which are polluting to both create and use. We use electronics which require mining materials and production, which both deplete our natural resources and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and are rarely recycled!
The climate has changed as a result of our contribution of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.* The best known greenhouse gas is CO2, or carbon dioxide, of which humans have emitted 1.5 trillion tonnes since 1751. Greenhouse gases act as a ‘blanket’, trapping energy in the form of heat that would otherwise radiate out into space. Here is a small subset of the consequences that pollution and climate change have on us and our planet:
- Glaciers that previously remained permanently frozen have begun to melt, reducing how much energy is reflected back into space and causing more warming. It also contributes to sea level rise (which in turn has an effect on coastal erosion and storm activity) and has an impact on ocean currents which widely and directly impact wildlife and climate.
- Climate change has been linked to more extreme weather events, including droughts, heat waves, storms, floods, and wildfires. This can have a devastating impact on food production, ecosystems, human lives and property.
- Air pollution has been linked to an increase in repository infection, heart disease and lung cancer.
All of this is quite devastating, and it can seem like an impossible task to overcome. To quote Bill Gates in his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster “we need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar”. However, there is hope! There has never been more widespread understanding and acceptance of the issues that we face and resources dedicated to it’s resolution. Both individuals and governments have put in place goals and measures to tackle climate change. Private companies are pivoting to development and consumption of renewable energy solutions. You can help too – here is a very non-definitive list of changes that we can make to reduce our impact on the environment:
- Reduce, reuse, recycle (in that order!).
- Use alternative transport if possible – walk, cycle, use public transport or car pool rather than driving yourself. Also cutting down on flights will help. The amount of CO2 released per passenger mile is large for flying compared to other modes of transport.
- Reduce your consumption of meat and dairy produce, particularly red meat. The impact of beef on the emission of methane and consumption of water is quite staggering!
- Invest in a greener home. By making your home more energy efficient, you’ll save on energy bills and help the environment. Check if you are eligible for government grants to achieve this!
- Use an energy provider that uses more (or exclusively) renewable energy.
- Invest your money (including your pension!) in environmentally friendly companies.
- Communicate and educate. Whether that is voting, engaging with your public representatives or just chatting to others about environmental issues, being an active participant in conversation about the environment is an incredibly important role to play.
It is our responsibility to ourselves and to all other living beings on our planet to be good stewards of our environment. Use this world environment day to consider how you can make the world a better place by being the change you wish to see.
Stay happy, and stay green!
*There is no longer serious scientific debate about this point. To claim that anthropogenic climate change is not happening is about as credible is believing the Earth is flat.