As of the end of 2020, there’s clear water in the Venice canals, blue skies over Delhi and wild animals are roaming boldly in locked-down cities all over the world.
The oil industry and airlines are smaller than ever, and carbon emissions have fallen fast. The global pandemic appears to have some positive environmental outcomes.
Of course, there have also been untold tonnes of food wasted in broken supply chains as well as a small spike in worldwide temperature due to less mass in our atmosphere to cool it. This is to say nothing of the fact that the lifestyle changes that brought about the drop in carbon emissions are, thankfully, not going to be permanent.
Historically speaking, when emissions drop fast, during difficult economic times, the recovery leads to skyrocketing emissions that wipe out any gains made. Now, is it possible for this to be different in 2021? Of course it is.
Perhaps this is why the global theme for Earth Day 2021 is Restore Our Earth.
“Earth Day is particularly important this year providing focus for the environment when, to a large extent, it has been put on the back burner due to the pandemic,” says Stuart Cumner, vice-chair of The Markham Environmental Advisory Committee. “It’s a reminder to us that the most important environmental concern, the climate crisis, needs our attention.”
Restore Our Earth is meant to reinforce nature based solutions to environmental problems rather than the notion that mitigation or adaptation are the only way to address climate change. It focuses on natural processes and emerging green technologies that can restore the world’s ecosystems.
Traditionally, Earth Day is a time of gathering to take action. Communities all over the world, including Markham, plan events and initiatives to take on the challenge of the year’s theme. Of course this year, Earth Day’s 51st, will be different.
“This year Earth Day will, to a large extent, be virtual,” Cumner says. “Activities will be online and a little scaled back from recent non-pandemic years. Nonetheless the focus on the well-being of our planet has never been more important.”
Some municipalities, like Whitchurch-Stouffville, have had to shut down sponsored activities altogether out of an abundance of caution for city employees and citizens while encouraging locals to celebrate the day by cleaning up nearby community parks, plant trees, have a plant-based meal, pledge to start using reusable shopping bags, or even set up a safe area to garden wildflowers.
In Markham however, the Markham Environmental Advisory Committee and the city’s sustainability department are hard at work creating local, safe, opportunities for citizens to take part in. Still at the planning stages, the intent is to address the topics of Energy, Food/Agriculture, Trees/Urban Forest, Waste and Transportation. Events may include groups presenting live, or recorded material, online in the days around Earth Day; as well as a children’s book reading and an outreach garden presentation.
“The City of Markham is proud to be a municipal leader in sustainability, and we encourage everyone to take advantage of the services and programs offered by the city to help our community build a more sustainable future,” Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti says. “Our Earth Month programming includes a book launch, showcasing a video challenge, and seedling and seed giveaways.” Residents can visit markham.ca for more details about the city’s Earth Month activities.
These activities are in addition to the global online initiatives that are being hosted by the Earth Day Network and will culminate in a digital world climate summit on April 22.
The Restore Our Earth theme also ties directly to the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 very likely originated in wildlife, spreading from human-to-wildlife interactions. Climate change, deforestation and other habitat destruction only increase humans’ contact with wildlife.
“Scientists are sounding the alarm that unless we take better care of the planet, we risk more viruses ravaging our communities,” said Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network.
So, as ever, Earth Day 2021 is an important opportunity to, not just save the environment, but to restore it.
“It is something potentially much more damaging to human (and planet) health than the pandemic,” explains Cumner. “The good news is that there is still a little time for society to steer us in the right direction. There is already a cultural shift towards reducing the greenhouse gases – we just all need to do our bit, educating ourselves, making wise living choices and advocating for governments and companies that bring about the larger scale changes.”
And everyone doing their bit is what Earth Day is ultimately all about, even in a pandemic.