At Inhabitat, every day is Earth Day. We work each and every day to bring the latest news on the many exciting ways to inhabit the Earth in a smarter, greener, more sustainable way. So while Earth Day may have an element of business as usual, it's also a great time to take stock of the world's most important environmental issues. Studies frequently cite the dark future the planet will face if we do not change our our habits and activities on every imaginable level. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development referred to the environmental outlook of the planet as, quite simply, "grim." So this Earth Day, we're considering the most important environmental issues, and a few of the steps we can take to create a healthier future for ourselves, our communities and of course, the Earth.
Water; we can’t live without it, and thankfully much of the Earth is made up of it. Yet we face major problems where the life-sustaining liquid is concerned. While there is technically enough freshwater available for all 6.8 billion of us, one-fifth of the world’s population live in areas of physical water scarcity. Vast improvements in infrastructure are required in order provide freshwater to areas which remain without, but also to ensure continued access in the face of widespread pollution, wastage and drought.
The degradation of water quality not only poses supply problems for our population, but also has a huge, inevitable impact on marine life. Whether it’s through storm water runoff from cities or farms, dumping from industry, or ill-regulated efforts to drill for yet more oil (more on that later), we’re increasingly filling our rivers, seas and oceans with toxic pollutants. From dolphins to coral, life in our seas is suffering tremendously. The Pacific Ocean is famously home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while the Gulf of Mexico has a sizable patch of nothing at all — a dead zone resulting from the travels of farmland fertilizers down the Mississippi River. And what happens at sea doesn’t stay at sea. With pollutants entering oceanic ecosystems, they invariably pollute our food.
Deforestation has long posed a threat to our Earth. Forests cover 30 percent of the planet’s land, and provide vital protection from sandstorms and flooding as well as the substantive natural habitat for wildlife. They are one of our greatest resources for offsetting some of our outrageous carbon emissions and without the canopy we leave areas vulnerable to intense heat, further driving climate change. Yet every single year we lose an area the size of Panama.
We’ve all heard it before, but really, we need to stop destroying and start replanting. There are incredible instances of ambitious efforts to replant our woodland areas, from a man in India, Jadav Payeng, who single-handedly planted a 1,360 acre forest, to the South Korean founder of Future Forest, Kwon Byong Hyon, who has led desert tree-planting efforts throughout Mongolia and China.
With forests often cleared to make way for farmland, and worldwide consumption of food expected to increase sharply by 2050, both sides of that particular coin desperately need to be addressed, which leads us to…
Food production comes with a hefty carbon footprint, with damage caused by deforestation, the use of fertilizers which pollute our water, and pesticides which kill our bees. And, as we noted, food demand is expected to rise sharply — the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2050 a population of 8.9 billion will eat, on average, a diet with 340 calories more than the 2000 average of 2790, other studies posit that our food demand will double by that same date. Some of this projected increase is attributed to an expectation that areas which currently have inadequate access to nutrition will see improvements in the coming decades, a huge, important and challenging development.
But as we expect to produce more food to meet the needs of a growing, hungry population, we can expect to see a corresponding increase in our carbon footprint. One recent study called for a 50% reduction in meat consumption by 2050 just to keep emissions from the meat industry where they are now. But at our current rate, we also waste an estimated 30 to 50 percent of all food produced.
Huge changes are needed in agricultural infrastructure to stem this wastage. Lower cost imports of big ag’s often genetically modified crops are causing domestic produce to go to waste in developing countries, and misguided policies are causing food aid to go to waste. But while changes must be made in how we farm and how we then sell that food in order to ensure that the right amount of food is grown for supply food where it is needed, there’s also a great deal of progress we could make by simply avoiding unhealthily oversized portions.
Urban farming initiatives make a significant dent in both food environmental concerns. By converting urban areas into fruitful green spaces, food can be grown directly in the community, provide food security and serve as a hands on educational experience on where our food comes from and how its made.
On a related note, pink slime and tuna scrape are not food, they’re vaguely edible by products of the food industry, laced with chemicals to reduce the chances of poisoning us. They’re by no means the only examples; there are plenty of items finding their way to our plates that in no way should be in our bodies. And that’s wrong on so, so many levels.
In the US alone we’ve made the Gulf of Mexico toxic with oil, we’ve caused earthquakes in the midwest while fracking for natural gas, and we’ve blasted the tops off mountains in Virginia looking for coal. In the course of turning non-renewable resources into energy we’re releasing all manner of toxic gases into the atmosphere, driving climate change and creating a hazardous environment for all living beings.
The fact that we’re destroying the planet for a short term quick-fix of energy resources that will run out is a pretty good reason to give pause and change course. Yet massive corporations wielding immense political strength continue to drive increased, fundamentally experimental and ill-regulated fossil fuel sourcing missions. Deepwater drilling off the Cuban coast, anyone?
Steps to regulate drilling, fracking, mining and their ozone depleting emissions are certainly a great thing, but it’s time, if not well past the time, that we move wholeheartedly into renewable resources. This year has seen incredible progress in both policy, innovation and adoption of renewable resources, largely solar and wind power. But there’s still a long long way to go. The Great Lakes of the US and Canada have the potential to provide power for 210,000,000 homes, and as the US seeks to expedite the approval process for wind farms, we still have to design better turbines to adequately protect wildlife.
There’s a lot we can still do on an individual level to reduce our energy usage, and corresponding responsibility for fossil fuel usage and the generated emissions. Simply switching to LED lightbulbs can cut energy usage of lighting a home by a third. It might not sound like much, but — as with so many easy, individually adopted earth-saving measures — when replicated across a large area is starts to make a very significant impact. Plus, the bulbs are getting cheaper!
While studies show young people to be driving less, many of us still aren’t going to be doing without cars any time soon. As long as urban developments are built to be un-walkable (we’re looking at you, Apple and your new Cupertino Campus), we’re going to have to find a way for everyone to be able to get from a to b and back again without destroying the planet. As it stands, the Environmental Defense Fund estimates that a full 20 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions come directly out of our tailpipes.
Fuel efficiency is on the up, albeit rather belatedly, with the most recent data suggesting that carbon dioxide emissions from new cars sold in the UK has declined 31 percent since 2007. But we’re invariably better off with the ever improving hybrid electric technologies, and the recent New York Auto Show marked the release of some pretty incredible extended range vehicles. As this technology improves, the cars can only be as green as the grid they draw their power from. It’s one thing to steer clear of gasoline, but even better when we can avoid emissions generating fuels altogether.
Similar emissions-reducing advancements are much needed in the aerospace industry. A coordinated project by the biggest manufacturers to develop affordable biofuel technologies for planes is an encouraging move in the right direction, but as we’ve seen, emissions from agriculture are nothing to get too thrilled about.
That said, the whole not-driving idea is also pretty great when one has the chance. And if you’re in an area with exhausting inclines, such as San Francisco, electric bicycles still carry a far lower carbon footprint than many alternatives.
As a growing population, we have a lot of stuff. From consumer electronics to clothing to diapers, a worrying proportion of our ‘stuff’ is made using finite resources, with environmentally destructive practices only to be used for a relatively short amount of time before being tossed into landfill. And if you’re reading Inhabitat, chances are you’ve thought about this at least once or twice in your purchasing practices.
The use of reusable and recyclable coffee cups, shopping bags and other ubiquitous items is increasing with widespread awareness of wastage and availability of alternatives. But there are always ways we can do more to use less, use better, reuse and recycle. Mining for metals commonplace in items from consumer electronics to jewelry causes widespread environmental destruction, polluting water and releasing greenhouse gases into the environment. And many of these metals, when used in consumer electronics, still often find their way into landfill, allowing lead, cadmium and mercury to seep into ground water.
In the instance of consumer electronics, 17 states have taken steps to mandate recycling, but where recycling is not municipally provided, it becomes of even greater importance to take the initiative within our own communities. And for items which don’t need to be new, or disposable, we can keep on recycling, upcycling, salvaging and transforming.
Everything on this list is a contributing factor in global warming, and yet we still have elected officials who argue that it isn’t ‘real.’ A poll recently commissioned by Yale University brought some refreshingly reassuring news, as the majority of participants agreed that global warming was worsening an increasing stream of extreme weather events and natural disasters. Earlier this year surging seas presented evidence that with sea levels predicted to rise 20-80 inches by 2100, 3.7 million residents are at risk from flood waters. Meanwhile scientists looking to the past found that naturally occouring carbon emissions drove the end of the last Ice Age — and that uptick in emissions was far lower than our current surge. Yet we still, absurdly, have politicians who as part of their campaign strategy insist that carbon dioxide emissions do not pose a threat to our environment.
So as we all work towards a greener, more sustainable future, adopting responsible practices to lower and eliminate emissions of all greenhouse gases, it’s time for climate change deniers to finally give in to the evidence.
Happy Earth Day!