As the world marks Earth Day 2020 amid an unprecedented lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic, the planet has, in fact, become cleaner and greener in the weeks and months since people began sheltering-in-place to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Confinement has led to a record drop of 5 per cent in carbon emission levels from the burning of fossil fuels, with air quality significantly improving across China, India, Europe and the U.S., even in the most polluted cities during non-COVID times. The Venice canal, typically clogged with gondolas, tourists and cruise ships, is now crystal clear, with schools of fish returning to the city’s abandoned waterways, including a recent spotting of a jellyfish floating serenely in the once murky canal.
These side effects of the pandemic not only offer an alternative view of how a cleaner world could look, but what it would take to get there in terms of reducing the impact of human activity on climate change.
In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we went into our archives to republish this story from the March 2019 issue of Zoomer magazine. – Cynthia Ross Cravit
Climate Change Is the Issue of Our Time
“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken.” —Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy would be saddened by the current state of that link between the planet and humankind. From every corner of the globe come glaring images, reports and statistics with evidence of ecological disaster on a scale once reserved for science fiction. Devastating proof in the form of severe weather events like catastrophic hurricanes and forest fires, unbearable heatwaves and unimaginable flooding. Irreparable loss to wildlife, such as Sudan, the world’s last northern white male rhino, that died last year, effectively making his species extinct. These are ongoing incidents of destruction to the earth’s ecosystems, and yet there are people who deny climate change exists or that it is the result of our negligence.
Then there are those whose work, like that of Jane Goodall and Canadian David Suzuki, has inspired us to do better. From that same generation came Greenpeace, which defined the modern environmental movement for many and was founded by Canadian and American activists Irving and Dorothy Stowe in 1971. There are also the next-generation of eco-activists such as Paul Nicklen and his group Sea Legacy, whose mission is to keep our oceans “healthy and abundant,” Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd Con-servation Society and Allan Thornton, whose group, the Environmental Investigation Agency, conducts undercover investigations into illegal forestry and wildlife trafficking. Across the globe, men and women work tirelessly at grassroot non-governmental agencies (NGOs) and non-profits to preserve wildlife habitats, forests, fresh water and oceans from pollutants of all variety – plastics, chemicals – and to protect endangered species from poachers.
There is much to be done. Each successive generation will need to step
up and continue the fight. They won’t have much of a choice — as new reports and eyewitness accounts continue to blast warning calls — it’s a matter of
survival. As we enter an election year, the Trudeau government is already making the environment part of their campaign. Here is a recap of the major climate change issues facing the planet.
We May Not Always Have Paris
The Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015 by 195 countries with a united goal starting in 2020 to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to ensure that global warming will not exceed 1.5 degrees C. At the time, the agreement was hailed as a win for the planet. But since that historic moment, countries such as the United States have threatened to pull out. A withdrawal of big polluters (the U.S. is the second largest producer of greenhouse gases; China is the first) would weaken the abilities of other nations to achieve the agreement’s goals. The U.S. is not alone; other right-wing governments around the world are also limiting their nation’s focus on clean air and water in the name of jobs. President Trump’s announcement of his intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement came in June 2017. However, with the timetable set out in 2015, pulling out would not be a reality until 2020, before the next U.S. election, which does give a window of hope that our neighbours to the south could stay the course. Canada remains a signatory to the agreement.
Crisis on the Clock
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report in October 2018 that laid out a future of worsening food shortages and wildfires, mass die-off of coral reefs and other grim prophesies to occur as soon as 2040 – within the lifetime of many of the current population. By that year, the atmosphere will be warmed by approximately 1.5 degrees C, causing waters to rise and flood coastlines, droughts to increase in duration and size, among other major changes. The report stated that avoiding such damage would mean altering the world economy at a rate and scale that has “no documented historic precedent” and beyond what was set out in the Paris Agreement.
Another report echoed the first. This one, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, written by American scientists across 13 federal agencies, was released over the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend (critics argued the timing was deliberate since its findings oppose the current administration’s policies) and warned that the American economy could drop 10 per cent of GDP by 2100 due to climate change.
They Take Our Breath Away
In December 2018, the U.S. Environ-mental Protection Agency (EPA) announced changes to the levels of mercury from coal emissions it would allow energy companies to release into the air.
The Trump government altered its cost-benefit analysis and will now take into
account only certain effects that can be measured in dollars, ignoring health
consequences. At the end of 2018, as reported by the New York Times, the
Trump administration had begun “to weaken or repeal nearly a dozen restrictions on air and water pollution or planet-warming emissions of carbon dioxide, including a plan to reduce the number of waterways that are protected from pollutants and another making it easier for utilities to build new coal plants.” Some of these repeals include car emission standards and allowing underwater seismic testing off the Gulf Coast. According to new statistics released in January, U.S. carbon emissions rose sharply by 3.4 per cent in 2018, the largest such rise in eight years.
In Our Own Backyard
Canadians like to see ourselves as world leaders on the global environmental stage. However, the continuing controversy with various gas and oil piplines as well as the federal government’s carbon tax policy will no doubt be an election issue. In June 2018, an explosion in Ohio left an enormous crater and 10 acres of burned land after a TransCanada pipeline ruptured. There were no injuries, but locals took note of how close they came to being a casualty. “I’m glad to see them here as far as the economy but I’d just like to see them have a little more respect for the locals,” Shark Martin, an area resident, told a local newspaper. “I mean, we have to live here.”
In January, lawmakers in Mary-land blocked a proposal from TransCanada (recently renamed TC Energy) over concerns about fracking and how the pipeline would affect wetlands, streams and the Potomac River.
Then there’s Keystone XL, the pipeline that drove an intense protest at Standing Rock, N.D., after a spill in 2017. The TransCanada Corporation recently admitted the amount of oil that fouled the ground was double their original report. U.S. President Obama had blocked the expansion of the Keystone from Canada to the U.S., but President Trump signed an executive order to move both Keystone and the Dakota Access project forward. The Keystone order was blocked last November by a Montana judge.
The Trans Mountain Pipeline, which carries oil from Alberta to B.C., has also faced heavy opposition from environmentalists and First Nations groups after the company shareholders expressed plans to double the line’s production capacity by building a second pipeline. In 2018, the federal government purchased Trans Mountain for $4.5 billion only to have the Federal Court of Appeal block expansion, citing a lack of environmental assessment and consultation with First Nations.
In January, the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline also drew protests across the country as members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations in B.C. established a blockade to stop the contruction of the pipeline that crosses their land.
While the federal Liberals are buying their own environmentally disastrous pipeline, they’re also cracking down on industries responsible for carbon emissions. Starting this year, the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (a.k.a. the carbon tax) takes effect and will penalize industries that don’t clean up their act. Companies that produce greenhouse gas will face a $20 per tonne levy on CO2 emissions, rising to $50 per tonne in 2022. Many provinces – most notably Saskatchewan and Ontario – disagree with this tactic and are fighting it in court. They argue that pollution pricing is no more than a tax grab, which will drive up prices, force industry and jobs out of Canada and have little impact on the environment. The Liberals, however, maintain that quick and decisive action is needed to save the planet and that any price increases will be more than offset by government rebate cheques.
This story was originally published online on March 7, 2019