Fifty-one years ago, a United States Senator founded the first holiday dedicated to the education of environmental issues: Earth Day.
Just like the youth climate marches of today, Senator Gaylord Nelson imagined a grassroots movement that would force issues such as air pollution and toxic drinking water onto the national stage.
The popularity of the event caught on like wildfire, fueling the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and subsequent laws for safeguarding the air, water, and endangered species.
The holiday has since grown into a global celebration involving close to 200 countries and more than 1 billion people in the day’s activities. According to the nonprofit Earth Day Network (EDN), it is “the largest secular civic event in the world”.
For over a year now, the planet and its people have unknowingly been preparing for Earth Day 2021. Formally taking place on Thursday, April 22, this year’s theme Restore our Earth has already received global recognition from the highest seats of power and billions of euros in funding.
Since the outset of COVID-19, global citizens have been ‘building back better’ in order to reinstate a sense of normalcy while rewriting the rules for business as usual. This drawn-out experiment has afforded us a window of opportunity to reprogramme basic human behaviours and to ‘cancel’ companies that do not play sustainably.
Never before has the connection between Earth’s systems and our impact as human beings been laid so barren. By mistake or by the inevitable, the global pandemic prompted a restoration of the planet nearly 14 months ago.
The dramatic grounding of global travel coupled with low demand for fossil fuels contributed to a loss of nearly 2 000 millions tons of CO2 in 2020 - or the equivalent of removing all of the European Union’s emissions from the global total.
These short-term effects - while impressive - will ultimately turn obsolete as lockdowns lift across the globe and economies experience a resurgence. But investments in cleantech, existing infrastructure, and climate literacy will have long-term impacts on global markets.
“We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.”
In an exasperated effort to reverse the socio-economic crisis, world leaders are making grand gestures and bold statements by investing unprecedented amounts of aid towards a green recovery.
These relief packages - some already in progress and others in development - will lay the foundations for resilient, sustainable and inclusive cities, and ultimately shape the climate change progress of the current decade.
South Korea, for example, is outperforming many of its rivals by spending about 15% of its COVID-19 recovery package on green funding for electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel over the next five years.
American President Joe Biden has outlined a 2-trillion-dollar climate plan that includes modernising the country’s infrastructure and developing clean energy technologies.
Europe has pledged a total of €1.8 trillion to help rebuild greener, more digitally advanced, and more resilient than before.
EIT Climate-KIC itself is investing €4 million in nine climate ventures to help them recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, supporting their efforts to accelerate essential innovations that will contribute to the fight against climate change.
On paper, these commitments hinge on ambitious objectives, unimaginable funding, and the influence of powerful governments. But are these efforts enough to restore our Earth?
Only time will tell.
A complete carbon-emissions cleanse will take decades of unrelenting activism and cooperation from citizens, businesses, municipalities, and world leaders alike.
The global issues posed by climate change require a unified and strategic effort on an international scale - involving all countries, not only those of wealth.
Any large-scale transformation will involve many connected actors and innovations developing in parallel. But these past months of Earth Day preparation have proven that a systemic shift is within reach.
After a trying year of uncertainty, adaptation and reflection, let this Earth Day serve as a reminder that change is possible. The restoration of the planet is already in progress.