2020 has marked a year of significant world change. Beyond COVID-19 and the revelations it has given us in regards to our lack of preparedness for pandemics, our remote working capabilities, and the government’s ability to feed the homeless and poor, our planet has also suffered environmentally.
At first, reduced impact to climate change seemed like one of the very few positives to come out of the pandemic; people weren’t using cars or planes, smog was clearing, and wildlife was returning. However, as time went on and lockdowns ceased, air pollution returned and in some cases worsened. More and more single-use items were (understandably) used and discarded, many of which ended up littered on our beaches. So, did the weeks without humans make any improvement to the environment crisis?
Yes and no.
For one, it has raised awareness of how devastating our impact is on the planet and how theoretically easy it would be to reduce air pollution (which ironically makes more people vulnerable to COVID).
I would imagine that any break from human activity, no matter how short, is beneficial to the environment. We’ve all been sad about our lack of summer holidays; this is the first one the Earth’s had in years! I think she’s more than earned it.
Earth Overshoot Day
In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, August 22nd marked Earth Overshoot Day; the day at which the earth is no longer producing as much as we are consuming within a year. This accounts for everything that takes a toll on nature; from fossil fuels to energy consumption, use of space, and more.
This year’s research concluded that there has been a 9.3% reduction in the global ecological footprint compared to last year. 2019’s overshoot day was as early as July 29th, so pushing it back to late August is a good improvement. Daily carbon emissions were believed to have dropped by 17% worldwide as a result of COVID, with areas in full lockdown using up to a quarter less energy.
Great progress though this is, there is far more to be done. For one, we shouldn’t even have an Earth Overshoot Day, let alone occurring four months before the end of the year. As it currently stands, we would need 1.6 planets to sustain our ever-increasing population.
Earth’s average temperature is rising at almost twice the rate it was fifty years ago and is at the highest it has ever been in 800,000 years.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is bad. The earth’s fate is often literally within our hands, and as planetary habits change, so must ours.
The main contributors of global warming
Global warming ultimately boils down (sorry) to the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and food production processes. All of these are well within our power to change, but for a multitude of reasons, this isn’t an easy job. You’ll likely have heard of individuals, charities, and initiatives fighting to dampen the impact of these issues, but they can’t do it alone. We need serious global changes in each of these areas in order to make a real difference.
Fossil fuels are still the main source of energy in almost every country because their efficiency meets the high demand. Renewable energy sources are ever on the rise, but will always be dogged by the extremely profitable enterprise surrounding oil. Asking oil tycoons to give up their billions of dollars is like asking your cat to stop scratching his favourite arm of the sofa. Why would they? What’s in it for them?
Food production is another area of high concern. Between the amount of space required to produce enough food to feed the earth’s population, the amount of energy required to grow the food both on and off-season, as well as the pesticides, fertilisers, and waste product, food production causes significant environmental damage across the board.
There are several projects currently working on improving, combating, and stopping deforestation. Deforestation usually occurs for timber use, palm oil, creating space (often for farming purposes) and for fuel.
However, there are now sustainable criteria for plantation owners to meet, as activists draw awareness to the damage caused by deforestation and the harvesting of palm oil. Keep an eye out for products containing palm oil (it can be in almost anything), and try to make sure if you absolutely have to buy it that the oil is sustainably sourced.
More companies are pledging to plant trees to offset the carbon from manufacturing their products. TreeApp is one such example. You can educate yourself on the current state of forests around the world, ethical brands you may not have known about, and get to plant a tree daily for answering three survey questions.
One of the main reasons for deforestation is creating space for agriculture so that the ever-growing public consumption demand can be met. However, despite the belief that trees and wildlife are bad for farms, there is a method of food production that proves this is far from the case, combating each of the three main contributors of climate change.
Permaculture is the act of making a permanent, sustainable farm that works in harmony with nature as opposed to just taking from it, by working alongside plants and wildlife to sustain farming processes. It is sometimes known as ecological engineering – designing living systems for growing produce.
The principles of permaculture have been around since the 70s, but practice has naturally increased along with climate change awareness. Most permaculture farms today are in rural spaces in need of reinvigorating or are community projects in urbanised areas. The majority of land in England is used for agricultural purposes, so imagine the difference if most farms adopted permaculture principles.
Check out this wonderful TED Talk by Manisha Lath Gupta on her journey to create a living permaculture farm:
Permaculture rejuvenates dead land, creating new forests and bringing communities together. It allows the growth of organic and healthy produce whilst offering a place for wildlife to thrive. There are very few downsides to this practice, and yet it’s not commonly adopted. Why?
As Manisha says in her talk, a farmer’s first concern is their livelihood. They need to focus their efforts on mass production, which means fast and efficient growing methods with the aid of pesticides and fertilisers to ensure a healthy and plentiful harvest. Manisha’s beautiful farm took years and years of hard work, patience and mistakes to succeed. Whilst farmers don’t have the same luxury of time, I don’t think they should rule out permaculture as a viable future option.
Anyone considering permaculture needs to be prepared for full commitment to its principles or it won’t work, as Manisha’s farm demonstrates. If farmers only planted a few trees on their land, it would just take up valuable space they could have used to grow more crops. Perhaps the solution is to look upwards and grow vertical farms like the infamous Supertrees of Singapore.
If we could figure out a way of adapting permaculture to suit the needs of the farmers, maybe we would be onto something huge. The government currently provide funding through the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) to aid farmers in improving the environment, but this could change after Brexit. If the government actively incentivised farmers to adopt the principles of permaculture, we could see a huge improvement in neutralising our national carbon footprint.
What can we do?
COVID-19 obviously had a huge impact on Earth Overshoot Day, but the general trend is still generally increasing. At our current rate, we are likely to see June- and even May-dated Overshoot days within the next decade unless drastic changes are made.
It may seem like we can’t currently do much stuck in our ‘social bubbles’, stuck behind our computer screens, but we can.
Remember, you can make a huge difference just by raising issues in your workplace, changing your own buying habits, and making your friends and family aware of environmental issues. Educate yourself on the ecological impact of your everyday life.
Start sending letters. We often forget the impact a simple letter can have. Think about how many times you see people complaining on Twitter about a disappointing experience they had with a brand, and the business offering some form of compensation. Brands have a reputation to upkeep and will do their best to avoid bad publicity, especially during a recession.
If enough people write to the manufacturers of their favourite brands, either physically or digitally, they would have to seriously reconsider their methods of sourcing, manufacturing, and packaging. Wherever your environmental concerns lie with a business, if they have an address, you can address your concerns. It may make slow or even no effect, but where’s the harm in trying?
You may be one person, but history has always proven that one person can be the start of something amazing.