UP EXPERT OPINION: Earth Day: The yin and the yang

Posted on April 22, 2022

Lady Bird Johnson once said, ‘the environment is where we all meet, where we all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share’.

At a UNESCO conference in October 1969, peace activist John McConnell called for a day to honour the Earth and the concept of peace. A month later, former United States Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed the idea of a nationwide environmental teach-in, coined Earth Day, to be held on 22 April 1970. This day is rooted in the aim of educating individuals about the environmental issues that plague our planet and shaking the ‘political establishment out of its lethargy’. The teach-in proved to be a success and saw more than 20 million people flock to the streets. It remains the largest single-day protest in history.

Friday, 22 April 2022, marks the 51st anniversary of Earth Day’s establishment. The original wave of demonstrations helped shape the modern global environmental movement. On this day, billions of people across the globe celebrate in a variety of ways—from planting a tree to donating to organisations that protect the planet. The movement has yielded numerous victories. Richer countries have seen a decrease in pollution; the health of species and ecosystems has improved, and 195 countries have gone on to sign the Paris Agreement, an international treaty focused on mitigating climate change. However, despite these successes, there is a paradox around modern-day environmentalism.

In 1972, Indira Gandhi put forward the question and answer, ‘Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters? The environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty’. Fifty years later, this question and answer dominate both the debate and practice surrounding environmentalism/climate change mitigation, with the world currently witnessing a Global North-South divide regarding strategies towards advancing the environmental movement.

Industrialised and post-industrialised countries account for 12% of the global population but are responsible for over 50% of greenhouse gases emitted in the past 170 years. In an attempt to remedy decades of environmental destruction, many of these countries have invested in technologies and strategies to limit any possible risks. As such, efforts to de-carbonise the global economy have dominated international relationships, policies and trade agreements.

Despite their responsibility being minuscule, marginalised/lower-income countries and communities shoulder the bulk of the consequences. As sea levels and temperatures rise and precipitation patterns are rearranged, climate change affects everything from access to health to access to food, employment and higher living standards. Poorer communities often live on fragile land and are socio-economically marginalised, which increases their vulnerability and contributes to continuing the poverty cycle.

It is recognised that efforts to de-carbonise and implement climate change strategies are vital to sustaining our Earth and mitigating the climate risks facing both the Global North and South. However, attempts to pressure poorer countries to adopt similar climate change strategies as richer countries are problematic. This one-size-fits-all strategy fails to account for the socio-economic context in which these countries exist and survive.

The first Sustainable Development Goal is to ‘end poverty in all forms everywhere’. This has proven to be extremely difficult. In addition to the lack of education and policies, the relationship between the environment and poverty plays a key role in both the inability to eradicate poverty and environmental issues. In poorer countries, much of the economic activity is directly/indirectly based on natural resources—which adds to environmental stress—but plays a key role in keeping families and countries financially afloat. As mentioned above, pressuring these low-income countries to follow a one-size-fits-all strategy (for example, revoking funding/aid and banning investment) represents a failure to understand the context in which a country exists.

For example, renowned climate change activist Bill McKibben declared that the world cannot fight climate change if it does not stop Uganda from building an oil pipeline. However, McKibben fails to recognise that Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world whose people are suffering from energy shortages and which emitted only 0,01% of global carbon dioxide in 2017. As such, drastic policy decisions to ‘encourage’ de-carbonisation put millions of people at socio-economic and political risk. Here, such measures increase the possibility that citizens will be unable to obtain basic resources (eg, electricity) or financially sustain themselves, and this may result in political tension. These drastic policy decisions thus highlight the issue of equity.

It is recognised that, yes, the Global South may not be the key historical contributor to environmental destruction, but mitigating environmental impact now could prevent further damage. However, this needs to be done in a manner that promotes equity and understands the context in which these countries exist. Most Latin American countries have regularly emphasised that their historical contributions to the climate change problem are minimal and that industrialised/post-industrialised countries have a responsibility to assist developing countries in adapting. Moreover, African countries have requested that they be allowed to pursue economic development through existing fossil fuels, as the calls for immediate eradication without funding or compensation are unjust. As such, countries are calling on industrialised/post-industrialised countries to honour their pledges, as stipulated by the Paris Agreement, to help these countries build resilience.

This debate on the Global North-South divide stresses the importance of the 2022 Earth Day theme, ‘Invest in our planet’, which focuses on creating a 21st-century economy that repairs our planet and its ecosystems. In doing so, we need to reframe the current conversation, accelerate action and work together. If we do so, a greener and more sustainable future is possible for all—no matter the country or socio-economic circumstances.

We have one Earth, and we need to cherish everything she gives us. The support provided by industrialised/post-industrialised countries—and acceptance of this support—is critical for the Global South to undergo a transition that is both environmentally sustainable and economically viable.

- Author Tyesha Pillay
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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