Earth Day is observed every year on April 22 to create awareness about and support for environmental protection. It was initiated by Gaylord Nelson, an American Senator and Environmentalist in 1970. This day brought in its wake the passing of acts like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, which eventually led to the abolition of lead from gasoline and disuse of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from the refrigeration industry.
But the large-scale production and use of vehicles, machinery, coal-run power houses, etc, continued to generate CO2 and contribute to global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, gas and oil. For instance, there were ca.700 million vehicles in the world in 1998 - 517 million of them being passenger vehicles (America 1,48,500, West Germany 40,499, France 24,900, Britain 24,306, Canada 13,182 and Sweden 3,630). However, an increase of ca. 40 million vehicles - the largest ever - took place in Asia. In China, for example, the number grew from less than a million in 1990 to five million in 1999 (Professor Christopher G. Boone and Ali Modarres).
The effect of this number of vehicles on global warming could be judged from the fact that on burning one gallon of gasoline, a vehicle would release 9 kg of CO2 and other gases in air. According to environmentalist Jorge Nef, while the developed countries produced rapid air and water pollution due to urbanisation and industrialisation, the developing countries, including those with expanding economies in Asia and South America, polluted the atmosphere due to overpopulation.
Stephen Leahy, a renowned researcher and environmental journalist, is critical of the overriding effect of overpopulation, bad management of resources - water, land, fossil fuels and biodiversity; he fears a total collapse of the planet by 2050.
Reportedly, “protecting bits of nature here and there will not prevent humanity from losing our life support system. Even if areas dedicated to conserving plants, animals, and other species that provide Earth’s life support system increased tenfold, it would not be enough without dealing with the big issues of the 21st century: population, overconsumption and inefficient resource use. Without dealing with those big issues, humanity will need 27 planet Earths by 2050.”
Meanwhile, the biodiversity loss and threat to mankind’s survival led to the 2010 Global Biodiversity Protection Agreement in Nagoya, Japan, to reserve 17 percent land and 10 percent oceans under protection by 2010, “it appears difficult to achieve,” claimed Peter Sale, Assistant Director of the UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
For many reasons, global warming has been a major water resource issue as well, maintained Professor Kerry Pennington and Thomas V. Cech. Its effects on stored ice is one. As predicted by scientists, if it melts the polar ice caps, the water levels in the sea worldwide may rise up to 30 feet and may submerge vast areas of the planet and also cities like London, New York, Miami, Mumbai, Calcutta, Sydney, Shanghai, Lagos, Tokyo and Karachi. The scientists throughout the world agree that global warming or climate change is the result of human activity, rather than a natural cyclical process and any effort to modulate the change, be it individual, collective or corporate, is destined to make its impact obvious.
In the 1996 Olympic games, for instance, the increased use of public transport led to 22 percent lower traffic counts, 28 percent decrease in ozone and a 41 percent decline in acute asthma among the children. Keeping this in view, the administration in Mexico initiated a programme called “No Driving Day”, which reduced the number of cars on the road by 20 percent; the people drove less and preferred to walk to the offices, shopping malls, etc.
Although the US and many Western countries have abundance of nature, such as trees, bushes, parks and greenways, yet renewed efforts are always made by their governments to make the cities greener and ensure clean air and water. Despite this, the volume of CO2 around the world is high. But for the plants, planktons and algae, on earth and in the ocean, which absorb a bulk of the CO2, O2 would have decreased drastically to cause suffocation. It is only the new, vigorously growing trees, saplings and foliage that absorb relatively larger amounts of CO2 and maintain a balanced CO2:O2 ratio for the mankind to live.
The old trees such as the coniferous forests of Siberia, Canada and the tropical rainforests are a poor sink for CO2 and less efficient in producing oxygen (Professor Tim Flannery). Interestingly, in 1970, President Richard Nixon proclaimed the last Friday of April every year as the National Arbour Day in the US - a day to plant (new) trees in the country. The 3.8 billion trees in America fix 700 million tons of carbon and sequester 23 million tons per year. Likewise, New York’s 5.2 million trees store 1.2 million tons of carbon and sequester 38,000 tons of carbon every year. With a relatively significant area reserved in the heart of the city for wilderness -plants, trees, greenways, etc - the New York metropolis offers a unique model of sustainable development in the world.
Bob McKibben, researcher, environmentalist and writer, in his book titled “Eaarth”, recollects the planet that once was without the present-day environmental problems. He stresses the importance of 350 ppm CO2 as the target as advocated by most nations at the Copenhagen Summit.
It is important that for his studies on the effects of CFCs in the depleting ozone, which led to the disuse of CFCs from the whole world, researcher Paul Crutzen was awarded the highly prestigious Nobel prize.
Further, “the Kyoto Protocol that was ratified by 132 nations has set up a permanent ‘Berlin wall’ between the rich countries with the emission targets and the poor countries without them - a deal that now looks rather anachronistic given the rapid rise of China, India, Brazil and other large new emitters,” wrote Mark Lynas in his book titled “God Species”. The US, Australia, Monaco and Liechtenstein remain outside the protocol, while Canada has recently walked out of it. With the US not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty’s desired impact on climate change may not be realised and the combined gaseous emissions both by the old and the new emitters, as well as loss of biodiversity, point to the holocaust of the sixth mass extinction approaching the planet.
The writer is ex-director NIAB, Faisalabad, former HEC professor, UAF, ex-professor of Environmental Sciences, GCUF, and former member of the New York Academy of Sciences, USA.