2011 CIAT, Neil Palmer

It’s time Earth Day mattered

Insight / 22 Apr 2021

Almost 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost since the first Earth Day 51 years ago

The first ever Earth Day happened on the 22nd of April 1970, the brainchild of US senator Gaylord Nelson. Some see it as the birth of the modern environmental movement. But despite some 50 years of activism the Amazon rainforest is 17% smaller than it was back then. The last five decades has seen the destruction of 270 thousand square miles of forest. That’s why this year’s Earth Day needs to be different. President Biden’s virtual summit of the most powerful people on the planet needs actions that are direct, tangible and immediate.

World leaders have to recognise that in the fight for our planet nature could be our biggest ally. Thirty percent of the climate change solution could come from halting and reversing deforestation. So why do governments currently spend more than 1 trillion dollars of public money on subsidies to economic sectors that harm biodiversity? Top of the agenda this Thursday should be stopping those subsidies. We spend five times more destroying nature than we do protecting it. That has to change.

Second, world leaders must get financial institutions on board. It’s already expected that the former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, will outline a pledge by the world’s leading banks to reach net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. Pressure is coming on all sides. Speaking at an event organised by the World Bank earlier this month, Prince William called on financial institutions to “value nature” and “put it at the heart of your work.” That must be a given. Part of their net zero pledge has to include policies on deforestation, because there is no solution to climate change without addressing the destruction of our forests. At the moment almost two thirds of the world’s largest 150 financiers, providing US$2.7 trillion to at-risk companies, ignore this issue in their public policies.

World leaders also need to get behind efforts to create a new global standard of environmental metrics for the financial sector. Some countries have already started. The UK has made climate-related financial disclosures fully mandatory by 2025. A similar law is currently making its way through the New Zealand Parliament too. But more could be done. The US could leapfrog into a leadership position, championing a new global initiative that is creating a parallel framework for disclosing corporate impacts on nature. The World Economic Forum estimates more than half of global GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature. It’s in the world’s interests to protect it.

But beyond the finance sector, deforestation is a problem baked deep into our global system of trade. More than two-thirds of tropical deforestation worldwide is linked to the production of commodities like soy, palm oil and beef. These commodities end up in half the products in our supermarkets, and the companies that rely on them shouldn’t be able to turn a blind eye. So world leaders should require all businesses to ensure their products and supply chains are not linked to any form of deforestation. Because at the moment, bad leadership in Brazil allows extensive illegal and ‘legal’ deforestation, to the detriment of nature, the climate and Indigenous and local communities. So through tough new due diligence legislation world leaders have to ensure that no business is able to take advantage of that.

We’ve now become a world that celebrates days. In April alone the UN calendar marks 16 of them, including World Malaria Day, Chinese Language Day and International Jazz Day. But this year’s Earth Day needs to do more than raise awareness. 50 years ago senator Gaylord Nelson said he wanted to “force the issue onto the national political agenda.” That time has now passed. President Biden’s Earth Day summit needs to have more than strong words because forests like the Amazon are at a catastrophic tipping point. Soon they will cease to be the world’s carbon sink and a climate change solution and become a carbon source and a major climate change problem.

Image: Creativecommons license

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