World Environment Day – Thoughts by Ian Douglas

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In celebrating World Environment Day CHEC shares the following thoughts from Ian Douglas, Emeritus Professor, School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester and CHEC board member.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated most of the world’s people’s lives for the first five months of 2020.  Yet World Environment Day should make us pause to think about all the other living things on earth, whose existence continues, and remains threatened by human activity.  Some of that activity has decreased in the last five months. Daily emissions of carbon dioxide had fallen by 17% by early April 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. In many cities the fall in vehicle traffic has meant air pollution has dropped and people have enjoyed clearer, bluer skies than usual.  However, the relaxation of lockdown rules has seen private vehicle movement increase steadily, from less than 40% of normal to over 60% of normal in three weeks during May in the UK.  This makes it likely that the benefit of the fall in CO2 emissions during March and April produce only a 4 to 7% reduction on total emissions for the current year, far below the fall required to meet the goals of the Paris IPCC accords on actions to reduce climate change.

The media coverage of COVID-19 related events is so all-embracing that little attention has been given to major disasters that normally might hit the front pages.  While suffering the impacts of COVID-19 many Commonwealth and other communities have affect by tropical cyclones (hurricanes or typhoons), earthquakes and plagues of locusts. So severe have some of these impacts been that the World Food Programme has warned that we are now of the brink of a hunger pandemic.  Many people have lost the work that provides the income for them to buy food.

Locust infestations in East Africa and South Asia are threatening the precious crops on which both farmers and townspeople depend. On May 27th the FAO reported that swarms were forming in spring breeding areas and migrating east to the Indo-Pakistan border ahead of the monsoon rains. In India swarms that arrived in Rajasthan from the west were moving eastwards across that state and into Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, at least one swarm had reaching to the northeast of Bhopal. In Pakistan, adult locusts were forming groups and small swarms in spring breeding areas in the southwest (Baluchistan) and the Indus Valley (Punjab). In Africa, Kenyawas facing an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods. New swarms from current breeding will form from mid-June onwards, coinciding with the start of the harvest. In Uganda, at least one swarm was seen in the north-eastern district of Kaaborg. This has been happening while people were under lockdown and unable to carry out crop inspections and spraying operations.

Earthquakes occur all the time. Most are too small to do any damage. Large earthquakes are often beneath the sea and have little impact on human settlements.  This year (2020) in January, the 2020 Caribbean earthquake, the strongest earthquake recorded in the Caribbean since 1946, caused minor structural damage to buildings in Jamaica and Cayman Islands. On May 24th. a relatively minor magnitude 5.8 earthquake, hit an area north of Wellington, New Zealand. Vanuatu suffered a 6.4 magnitude earthquake on May 27th, while Tonga experience a 6.1 magnitude earthquake on May 28th.

Many of those without work around the Bay of Bengal were hit by Cyclone Amphan on May 19-21, 2020, losing their homes, power and telecommunications connections, driving some families into destitution.  On May 22 Hurricane Aaron hit the Bahamas, with winds of approximately 250 km/h, killing 208 people and causing over $7.5 billion in damage. On May 24th Tropical Cyclone Mangga brought power outages and some damage to West Australian coastal communities from the Kimberley in the north to Perth. 

In early April 2020, when many wealthy nations were individualistically in lockdown with closed borders, Tropical Cyclone Harold first damaged the Solomon Islands, then lashed the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, ripping off roofs and downing telecommunications, before moving towards Fiji and Tonga. The powerful cyclone made landfall on Monday in Sana province, an island north of Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila, with winds reaching up to 235 kilometres an hour that flattened some buildings and left others roofless. This cyclone then levelled buildings and caused dangerous flooding across Fiji’s largest island of Viti Levu, before strengthening as it moved on to Tonga as a category 5 superstorm. With winds of up to 260 kilometres per hour, it cut power in parts of Tonga and reduced at least three tourist resorts north of the capital, Nukualofa, to rubble. Many of these islands have coastal communities that have already been affected by rising sea levels, linked to the global climate emergency. The high seas associated with the cyclone would have been disastrous for many such communities.

Yet, we are hearing little about the climate emergency and the continuing biodiversity loss through human impacts of the world’s ecosystems.  Already the COP-26 global climate conference convened by the UK has been put back for a year, at a time when many people think that action is desperately needed NOW!  Biodiversity may be under even greater threats. Many managers and wardens in national parks and wildlife reserves, fear that the COVID-19 lockdowns will lead to increased game (bushmeat) poaching and more illegal logging. Urban park and nature reserve managers have been unable to carry out vital maintenance and their volunteers have been unable to provide their usual practical support.

Thinkers are suggesting that risks and opportunities for climate are at their most stark as lockdowns ease and recovery commences. “Politicians, and others, need to speak openly and with unflinching honesty about the significance of climate change” (Rebecca Willis, 21 May 2020, in The Guardian Long Read). The CHEC community should join with others in dialogue and discussion with politicians and opinion formers to ensure that the global campaign to minimise further climate change and help less advantaged communities adapt to the continuing impacts of greenhouse gas emissions becomes inclusive, equitable and effective. Let us endeavour to make a real difference before World Environment Day 2021.

Written by Ian Douglas

31 May 2020

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