Since Earth Day began 44 years ago more than 1 billion people in 190 countries take the time each year to reflect on and reconnect with our beautiful planet Earth to celebrate its many and diverse gifts. This year, shortly before Earth Day with its hope-filled theme of Green Cities, we were alerted by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to the stark reality of the effects of Climate Change, being witnessed not only in so many experiences of natural disasters around the world but now in the potential risks to the global food supply with the looming threat of famine and war. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterates this anxiety and reminds us that the report confirms that the effects of human-caused climate change are already widespread and consequential, affecting agriculture, human health, ecosystems on land and in the oceans, water supplies, and some industries.
Today this alarming situation is being further aggravated in our own country and elsewhere by the current trend of population movement from rural to urban areas in search of more lucrative employment and better opportunities for advancement. With this rapid growth in city populations there is a rising concern regarding the increase in greenhouse gases. This escalation of urban dwellers signals the need to make important and urgent changes toward creating a more sustainable future as promoted by this year’s Earth Day theme of Green Cities, places having clean and efficient energy, transportation and building infrastructures that allow all residents to live healthier, happier and more secure life styles.
The challenge is to educate the public and actively engage ourselves in the awareness that we live in a closed system and that there are limits which must be respected if people and the planet are to survive. There is but one web of life on which both human and non-human life are totally dependent, and both social systems and the biotic community must thrive together in a harmonious relationship. We must unequivocally accept that the human community cannot exist apart from the Earth community and subsequently adjust our lifestyles to that fact. It is imperative that we respectfully recognize our place as humans in this one interconnected and interdependent web of life, or face the wholesale destruction and devastation of our planet and of all life systems as the report predicts. The choice is ours.
Some cities, particularly in parts of Europe, are already waking up to the reality that there is but a small window of opportunity in which to provide the urgently needed response to climate change and are priding themselves on a race toward becoming green cities. For example, in Norway, the city of Oslo aims at cutting its emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, and the country as a whole plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. Copenhagen, Denmark already has more than 217 miles of bike lanes and one-third of the city’s 1.2 million people regularly cycle to work via these lanes. It is hoped that by 2015 half the population will be using bikes as their chosen means of transportation. Besides having the largest wind turbine industry in the world Denmark has set itself the goal of becoming the world’s first carbon neutral capital by 2025. Mandatory green roof city policy requires all new developments to incorporate some level of vegetation into their building designs. Throughout the city green spaces, half the size of soccer fields, are being provided for parks with the hope that by 2015 90 per cent of all residents will be able to walk to a green space in less than 15 minutes.
In these two Scandinavian countries we recognize future-directed policy making to reduce green house gases in order to protect the well-being of people and the planet. Here in St. John’s, as well as in other parts of the province, there are encouraging efforts towards the furtherance of a more environmentally-friendly atmosphere. For instance, bike lanes are being put in place, recycling programs are on the increase, the number of community gardens is growing, organizations and groups with a major focus on environmental concerns are becoming more active despite difficulties in securing sufficient funding and there is evidence of a growing awareness among us of the need to become more energy efficient, to conserve water and reduce waste. However, there is still much more to be done. One example would be to work towards making public transportation in our cities more accessible and convenient. Also, it is becoming ever more obvious that trees and green spaces in the city of St John’s and in other major areas are rapidly disappearing with the growth of new commercial and residential developments. In the interest of creating a healthier and more holistic environment, more thought could be given to the importance of providing green spaces in these areas.
Earth Day challenges us to continue our reflection on how we as individuals and as a people can address the critical need to promote a more stable relationship with our environment and to find further effective and innovative ways to create a sustainable, healthier, more affordable and satisfying Earth home.
Mary Tee, Mercy Centre for Ecology and Justice (St. John’s)