We only have one Earth

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As we celebrate World Environment Day today (5) let us take a step back and look at the precious Earth we are living in, and how much we have taken all the resources it provides, for granted. The universe we are living in is so vast that the normal layperson can’t even begin to fathom the dimensions of it. Just like  the galaxy we are living in, there are billions of galaxies found in the universe and in those galaxies, there are billions of planets, some have been discovered but many yet to be seen or named. However, in this vast abundance, we tend to forget how alone we are in this universe. There might be countless planets in every part of the universe but there is only one Earth – the smallest of a planet that happens to match all the conditions required for life to occur.

For millions of years Earth supported life which it still continues to do. However, since Homo sapiens began its rapid course of evolution and development of the Earth, in a relatively short period of time, it has seen much destruction which is now alarmingly reaching the point of no return. The industrial revolution, the unsustainable usage of resources and not being environmentally conscious in our day-to-day lives; all have led us to rethink our actions and future strategies.

World environment day

In June 1972, the first major conference on environmental issues took place in Stockholm, Sweden. Organised by the United Nations (UN) and known as the Conference on the Human Environment or the Stockholm Conference, the historical event set the stage to have a basic outlook on how to address the challenge of preserving and enhancing the human environment.  

Later that year, on 15 December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (A/RES/2994 (XXVII)) designating 5 June as World Environment Day and urging, “Governments and the organisations in the UN system to undertake on that day every year worldwide activities reaffirming their concern for the preservation and enhancement of the environment, with a view to deepening environmental awareness and to pursuing the determination expressed at the Conference.”  The date coincides with the first day of the landmark Conference.

Also on 15 December, the General Assembly adopted another resolution (A/RES/2997 (XXVII)) that led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the specialised agency on environmental issues.

Since the first celebration in 1973, World Environment Day has helped UNEP to raise awareness and generate political momentum around growing concerns, such as the depletion of the ozone layer, toxic chemicals, desertification and global warming. The Day has developed into a global platform for taking action on urgent environmental issues. Millions of people have taken part over the years, helping drive change in our consumption habits, as well as in national and international environmental policy.

Stats are alarming

As the UNEP reveals, the Earth, as of now, is facing a triple planetary emergency.

  • – The climate is heating up too quickly for people and nature to adapt.

– Habitat loss and other pressures mean an estimated 1 million species are threatened with extinction.

– Pollution continues to poison our air and water.

Little do we know but scientists have estimated that the human population on Earth is actually consuming the equivalent of 1.6 Earths worth resources to maintain its current way of life. Needless to say that the demand is not something our ecosystems can keep up with. Moreover, despite all the awareness, precautions, and other means of reduction, our lifestyles are still associated with two-thirds of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The good news is that there still is hope. Studies show that, “Sustainable lifestyles and behaviours could reduce our emissions by 40 to 70 per cent by 2050 [UNEP].” Moreover, the sustainable consumption and production can drive economic development, mitigate adversities of climate change, positively impact human health and environmental pollution, and help alleviate poverty; potentially increasing incomes by an average of 11 per cent in low and medium-income countries like Sri Lanka is now by 2060.

A look at Sri Lanka

While all these suggestions and actions sound simple enough on paper, the practicality of them is something that we have always been struggling with. In 1972, the theme for the World Environment Day was, ‘Only One Earth’ and 50 years down the line, the theme is still valid thus it’s the theme we are going with for the year 2022. It goes to show that the solution has not changed over the years, just the sense of urgency to implement them.

Sri Lanka, being an island-nation blessed with an abundance of natural resources, is lucky enough to not suffer severe adversities of climate change when compared to some other countries in the region but this ignorance itself could well be our eventual downfall. We as a developing nation might not emit GHGs as much as some developed nations, our agricultural practices might not be as much chemically-dependent as some other that practice mass cultivation, and our rivers and air might be cleaner than other countries but the adversities of climate change know no state boundaries. A plastic straw thrown into the ocean from Madagascar can result in a turtle dying on one our coasts and vice versa.

We neither can stay content with our relatively rich resources, nor can we stay blind to unsustainable activities happening beyond our shores. However, the climate change action should first sprout within our borders before we can tackle global issues. In this regard, legally speaking, there are provisions to protect the environment and also, we can be proud about ourselves as Sri Lanka is signatory to many a UN climate change action treaties such as the Paris Agreement, legally binding us to take action and show progress. 

Centre for Environmental Justice

When it comes to taking legal action against any action harming the environment in any way, perhaps there is no better local organisation than the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) which has a proven track record of taking legal action, following it through, and emerging victorious on many occasions. Speaking to Ceylon Today the Chairman of CEJ Senior Lawyer Ravindranath Dabare opined that the legal action the CEJ takes, doesn’t only benefit Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka, but the entire humankind in general. “We are legally striving to restore our precious ecosystems which over the years, have been badly affected by ill-advised and short-sighted decision-making. For example, at the moment, we are working towards taking legal action against the environmental damage caused by the controversial Circular MWFC/1/2020 which gave power to the divisional secretaries to release Other Forest Areas for non-forest purposes.”

If you have been following the environmental news as of late, you must have come across the trials, tribulations, and the triumphs of CEJ. Not so long ago, the Court of Appeal took a landmark decision, legally ordering former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen to fund and regrow the areas of Wilpattu National Park which the Minister had knowingly cleared for resettlement. The CEJ was and still is instrumental in acquiring the maximum compensation for the marine ecological disaster caused by the X-Press Pearl shipwreck. Their labours have resulted in the led content in local paint being reduced and imported toys for children being screened for its lead content as well. Together with the indigenous community of Pollebedda area, CEJ went to courts to stop the mass clearing that took place at pollebedda-Mahaoya-Galwalayaya areas in the name of commercial cultivation.

The passionate workforce at CEJ is ever-ready to jump into action if the environment is being harmed via any illegal means. Continuing their good work, this World Environment Day, the CEJ has organised an online webinar featuring expert panellists who will talk about, ‘Needs, challenges and procedures to focus on a sustainable, green lifestyle in the face of adverse economic policies in Sri Lanka’. The panellists include; senior advisor of CEJ Hemantha Withanage, Energy Analyst and the Executive Vice-President of Epic Group Dr. Vidhura Ralapanawa, and Environmentalist and the Director of Species Conservation Centre Pubudu Weerarathna. The Zoom webinar is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. today and is moderated by Chinthaka Rajapaksha representing Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform. All are welcome to join and more information can be obtained from the CEJ Facebook page.

What can individuals do?

The Zoom meeting, available in both Sinhala and English, is sure to discuss timely action we should take to protect the only planet we have and Ceylon Today plans to bring them to you in our future articles. In the meantime, as we are celebrating yet another World Environment Day, the UNEP has released a practical guide which contains valuable guidelines we can follow as individuals to ensure the environment is protected. Some of these actions have direct links to the environment while some don’t appear to have a direct connection but vital in saving the ecosystem nonetheless.

For example, let’s take financial investments. Say you want to save your money in a bank or invest it in a company or a project. You can practice ethical investing by looking into the environment policy of the bank you are selecting. Check if the bank is following an environmental-conscious operation which reduces their carbon footprint as a company, and when investing, you can again take how ‘green’ the project or the company is before making your decision.

Conserving energy, reducing your own carbon footprint, recycling, reusing, reducing the use of plastic materials, and upcycling non-biodegradables  are instructions you all must have heard a hundred times and perhaps are following, but little do we know that we can protect the environment by paying a little bit more attention to our own diet.

Try to follow a balanced diet. A balanced diet provides much-needed nutrients from various food groups. Reduce food items that require more water to prepare as clean water is a resource we need to conserve. (Meat items take more water to prepare than pulses and greens). 

Use all your food. Throwing away simply means you are throwing away money and it result in more wet waste that needs to be taken care of. If you must throw away food, you can always take action to compost the food residue and use the made compost in growing your own organic fruits and vegetables.

When shopping always think beyond buying; whether it is an impulse buy. Always go for products and services with a low environmental footprint and only buy what you really need. When it comes to fashion, stay away from mass producers since their labour standards and policies usually tend to cost the environment dearly. Evolution of fashion is not necessarily linear. You can always bring back greener fashion practices from decades ago to create awareness and a green-conscious fashion generation.

When having fun and vacationing, don’t always think beyond borders but consider travelling locally to places you have not yet been. This way you’d get to know your own country and culture better as well as can reduce your carbon footprint by avoiding long-distance travel. While on vacation opt for experiences. Rather than spending money on value additions which can come with a hefty environmental footprint, consider spending more time and resources on experiences such as cultural events, team sports, volunteering, or learning a new course.     

See the bigger picture

During COVID-19 lockdown, China’s air quality increased, dolphins returned to Venice after decades, water quality of our rivers increased, and peacocks were spotted in Colombo. However, while all eyes were on flattening the curve, significant environmental damage also took place under the guise of agricultural activities and so on. Cattle were released to national parks for feeding, logging and illegal gem mining continued, and sand miners and transporters were given licence relief. Fortunately, CEJ took legal action to address many of such issues but it feels like we are yet again at a similar juncture as a country. The on-going economic and political crises are stealing our attention away from being environmentally-conscious.

During these trying times, it is easy for anyone to not make the betterment of the environment their first priority but we should strive to make it so. We should not fail to see the bigger picture. Some of the challenges we are facing currently goes well beyond the dollar shortage in the country. For example, the paper shortage is not just a result of depleted dollar reserves but a global paper shortage the world is currently experiencing. If we fail to make our decisions during these trying times as eco-friendly as possible, perhaps it could prove to be a bit too late to go back on our decisions ones the economic crisis is eventually resolved.   

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe