Earth day: Wars, plastics, notions and non sequiturs

Despite over five decades of Earth Days and numerous climate conferences, such as the COP meetings, the trajectory of human behaviour remains largely unchanged.
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

This Monday, the world will observe Earth Day for the 55th time. In 1971, the then UN Secretary General U Thant unveiled the idea, observing, “An earth day has suddenly become necessary to remind us of the fact that our small planet is perishable.” In the five decades since, a number of calendar events—about a spectrum of concerns—have been unveiled. At last count, there were over 20 listed environment ‘days’ underlining the need to preserve the planet’s equilibrium. The planet is no less a precarious state than it was then, and is just as perishable.

There is little to suggest that 55 Earth Days or 28 COP (Conference of Parties) meetings on climate change have engineered or even influenced human behaviour. The emission of greenhouse gases is at a record high and IPCC reports signal that the resultant decline is irreversible. Last year was the hottest since records were first tabulated in 1850. The first 100 days of the year notched new highs in new geographies and February was deemed the warmest in recorded history. India is facing one of its worst heat waves, its cities are thirsting for water and ground water levels are worrying politicians and economists. World over, glaciers are receding in kilometres. The million sq km retreat of ice levels in the Arctic and the Antarctic regions represent the existential threat.

The planet is unmistakably trapped amid notions and non sequiturs—between vague conceptions about what must be done and competing conflicts in intent and action. Indeed, the last Global Stocktaking revealed that the world is scarcely close to achieving the goals set out in Paris. For three decades, heads of nations have debated the balance between fuelling growth and trimming emissions with little progress—the challenge of nudging nations away from problematic to preferable paradigms is daunted by politics and economics. As John Maynard Keynes once observed, the difficulty lies not in developing new ways, but in escaping old ones.

The theme for Earth Day 55 is Planet v Plastics. How has the world fared? The data is mind-numbing. Consider single-use plastics. The UNEP estimates that around the world, a million plastic bottles are bought every minute and five trillion plastic bags are used every year. Plastics are now visible markers in the Anthropocene, the current geological era. The havoc wreaked by microplastics on natural habitats is well documented—they are now found to be ingested and inhaled by humans, too. A study by Ocean Conservancy and University of Toronto found microplastic particles in 88 percent of protein in animal sources and plant-based alternatives and that highly-processed products contained the most microplastics per gram. The scourge has now reached the womb and is affecting the yet to be born. Research by a team at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences reported finding microplastics in all 62 of the placenta samples tested. 

There is the spectrum of debatable issues during times of peace and then there is the lethal cost and consequences of inaction to end conflicts. In 1971, UN Secretary General Thant hoped “humanity will be united when the common dangers we all face, the armaments race and its inherent risks of obliterating all life on earth”. Those hopes have been dashed beyond recognition as wars rage across the globe. The battle to protect the planet from perishing has been haunted by wars as the UN has been rendered a mute spectator.

Just take the two wars—in Europe between Russia and Ukraine since 2022, and in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas, and now Iran. The people and the planet are paying the price of inattention. There is the tragic loss of lives—estimates vary by source—and then there is the long-term damage to environment. The untrammelled use of weaponry—munitions, rockets, drones and missiles—has defied sense and sensibility. Ukraine says Russia has fired over 8,000 missiles and over 4,600 drones; in the war in Gaza, Israel is estimated to have used over 25,000 tonnes of explosives.

The planet suffers both in the production and use of weaponry. Take missiles—the production and use of these projectiles causes significant emission of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and hydrofluorocarbons. A recent study by scientists at the Conflict and Environment Observatory has estimated, “The total military carbon footprint is approximately 5.5 percent of global emissions. If the world’s militaries were a country, this figure would mean they have the fourth largest national carbon footprint in the world.” Between the first COP meet in Berlin and COP 28 in Dubai, military expenditure across the world has spiralled from around $1.2 trillion to over $2.2 trillion, and revenues of the top 100 companies in the arms industry totalled $597 billion.

The cause of climate change demands that nations come together as Thant had hoped. The fact is geopolitics is thwarting cooperation and resolution. The unravelling of the rule-based world order extends conflicts beyond the theatre of war. Combating climate change costs money, and inflationary geopolitics—the high cost of capital, the adoption of industrial policy and rising protectionism—haunts the cause of planet protection. As the world observes Earth Day, it is useful to remember that the cause of the planet is perishing by the minute.

Shankkar Aiyar

Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India


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The New Indian Express