2021 - a year of promise?
“Happy New Year. Our planet is unique, a living world of diversity and wonder. It’s also fragile. With a new year comes the opportunity for change, and if we act in 2021 we can make a world of difference. Together we can turn things around, together we can restore our fragile home, and make it a happy new year for all the inhabitants of Planet Earth.”
So were the words of Sir David Attenborough as part of the celebrations in London to welcome the New Year.
I wrote last year that 2020 could be the year that we saved the planet, or at least began to. There were numerous international conferences scheduled, including COP 26 in the UK where nations would come together to update their carbon emission reduction targets, and the UN Biodiversity Conference which would focus on conserving biological diversity.
As the title of this post suggests, there is a strong sense of deja vu at the beginning of 2021. A year ago I quoted an article by the chairs of Natural England and the Environment Agency, Tony Juniper and Emma Howard Boyd respectively. Together with Sir William Worsely, chair of the Forestry Commission and National Forest Company, they published a similar article on New Year’s Day headlined “We have no choice - this has to be the year we reverse the decline of nature”, imploring the UK to “emerge as a global leader in conserving and improving the natural world”.
2020 will forever be known as the year of the coronavirus pandemic, and understandably almost everything else dropped off the radar - those conferences were postponed as government’s focused their efforts on responding to COVID-19.
That’s not to say nothing happened in 2020. Globally, CO2 emissions reduced by around 7% and Earth Overshoot Day, the date on which we’ve used all the biological resources that Earth can renew during the entire year, fell on 22 August - some three weeks later than 2019. However the method by which these reductions were achieved, a global pandemic and economic shutdown, resulted in widespread physical, mental and economic costs to millions of people around the world and not something we would wish to see repeated.
Indeed, the pandemic has shown two things. The first is how critical it is that we decouple economic growth from carbon emissions, so that we can tackle climate change without inflicting economic hardship. The second is how our destruction of nature and intensification of agriculture have left us more vulnerable to outbreaks of disease, and future pandemics are more likely unless we work to restore biodiversity.
The money to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss is there if it is targeted correctly - according to the International Monetary Fund governments and central banks had pledged $US19.5 trillion to bail out economies, and the incredible speed with which vaccines for COVID-19 have been developed shows that it is possible for global leaders to come together to make the unthinkable possible. Much like funding for climate change adaptation and mitigation though, the challenge lies in ensuring equitable access to the vaccine.
So, as we emerge from the pandemic, the opportunity is ripe to begin to tackle the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. The UN Biodiversity Conference is scheduled to take place in May and the UN Climate Change Conference in November and hope of positive outcomes from these conferences have been raised by the election of Joe Biden in the US and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge that his country will aim to be carbon neutral by 2060.
In one final nod to 2020 I believe my closing paragraph from last year’s post still stands:
“But can the platitudes and warm words so often heard at these type of events be matched with concrete action? If the world’s leaders can put their petty differences to one side and listen to what the scientists are telling them there is real reason to hope that 2020 could be the year a real difference is made to the future prospects of our planet. There is certainly ample opportunity for the governments of the nations of the world to make the world a better place for future generations. Whether they will take it is up to the politicians and civil servants who will attend those conferences, as well as all of us to demand that they do so.”
Cover photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash