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Earthshot: How to Save Our Planet

einstrong.org / Earthshot: How to Save Our Planet

Earthshot: How to Save Our Planet 

by Colin Butfield, Jonnie Hughs 

Summary by Inday Ransom

1- The Crucial Decade 

If we want destruction of our planet to come to a halt humanity must keep carbon in the ground, restore our nature, cleanse our air and oceans. That’s where the Earthshot Prize comes in. Created by Prince William, it challenges scientists, pioneers, corporations, governments and citizens to come up with groundbreaking solutions to the five global crises: nature, oceans, air, climate and waste—the prize being £50 million. 

Before diving into solutions, we must first understand what we’re facing. That is what forest researcher Michael Coe went to find. Coe wanted to uncover what happens at the border between agribusiness and the biodiverse systems. In the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, lies farm ground the size of Manhattan being prepared for livestock food, specifically soybeans. From the rainforest to the farmland the climate abruptly changes. The farmland is several degrees hotter and has a dry season several weeks longer. Because of this, fires are common in a place where fires were once rare. It begs the question: “Do we want the forests and their ability to moderate temperatures, make rain and maximize biodiversity? Or do we want them removed for rows upon rows of soy plants to feed our livestock?” (pg. 26). 

Serge Morand of the French National Center for Scientific Research found a strong correlation between deforestation in tropical areas and epidemics. Disrupting the relationships between species in their ecosystem pushes diseases to find new hosts. This happened in Malaysia when land was cleared to make way for palm oil farms, which led to fruit eating bats to farms where their feces transferred into foods. Eventually creating a virus similar to COVID-19. Today, we only have 3 percent of untouched ecosystems. 

 

Oceanlife has been decimated by human activity, much of our marine life faces extinction if we dont change how we treat our oceans. Researchers in Vancouver found that orca miscarriages and deaths of newboarn calves are now widespread among the population. Nearly two-thirds of orca pregnancies end in miscarriages off the coast of Vancouver. The cause: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs were used in electrical components and plastics until being banned in Canada, and many other countries, in the 1980s. However, the effects still linger—millions of tonnes of PCBs are still in our environments.  

 

The fish life off of Liberia have depleted immensely ever since commercial fishing was introduced. Many communities suffer from lack of their main food resource. Nearly 37,000 Liberians depend on the ocean for food, and once was able to yield enough food to feed 5 million people. Many African governments are now denying foreign fishing licenses. 

Now there are three things that need to be achieved: prevent ocean poisoning, end over-exploitation, and revive our coral reefs. The coral reefs of Enewatek and Bikini Atoll were subject to many nuclear bomb tests by the United States in the 1950s. Since the end of the tests, about 80 percent of coral species have returned. Similarly, in Mexico’s gulf, the implementation of marine protected areas has brought back substantial ocean life.

Our oceans absorb much of the pollution we produce. Without its help, climate change would be even more disastrous. But there is only so much the ocean can absorb. Too much and it becomes acidic, killing more life than we already have. Recovery takes time, for for this to happen we need better pollution regulation, fish management and numerous protected zones. If this can be achieved, the oceans could be restored by 2050. 

 

The capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, has temperatures as low as -40 degrees celsius. To keep them warm they burn coa. But it’s killing them. Their smog is known internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recorded that dangerous particles are 130 times above safe levels. Respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis and asthma are widespread among Ulaanbaatar. Pneumonia being the second biggest cause of deaths for children under five. 

This isn’t just happening in Mongolia, it’s happening everywhere. Air pollution contributes to 7 million premature deaths annually, that’s 20,000 deaths per day. Butfield and Hughs express that clean air is a human right, global standards should be placed to save people from air related deaths. 

 

Many countries are in danger if sea levels continue to rise. The most unlucky being the Maldives, as it’s the lowest country in the world. In the Peruvian town of Huaraz, climate change is increasing the risk of the city’s destruction. Right above the city is Lake Palcacocha, which has grown thirtyfold due to melting glaciers. A landslide or icefall could send water spilling over into the city. 

In Alaska, climate change is disrupting animal migration. Food supplies are dwindling, such as salmon and caribou. The quicker society stops adding greenhouse gasses the greater chance of having a stable climate.

By the 1950s plastics were able to be mass produced. Now the world produces around 400 million tonnes of plastic yearly. 5 billion tonnes of plastic lie as waste on land and in the oceans. They slowly degrade into smaller particles which go into our food, lungs, bloodstream and eventually our brain. “ ‘We produce things that last 500 years, and then use them for 20 minutes.’ For the remaining 499 years, 364 days, 23 hours and 40 minutes they are waste.” (pg. 72). 

 

All of this sounds overwhelming to hear, but fortunately, Butfield and Hughs explain that there is still hope. For instance, consumption of food, textiles, construction materials, metals and fossil fuels peaked in 2001 and now has dropped more than a third—from 15 tonnes of things per head per year to 8.3 tonnes in 2019. The UK has polluted 38 percent less in greenhouse gasses since 1990. And Europeans consume 18 percent less than they did ten years ago. We have also advanced far enough technologically to produce enough food without as much waste, such as vertical farming.

Some animal species have been increasing from protection programs as well. The panda population rose from 1,100 in the 1980s to 2,000 now. China conservationists have even announced that they are no longer endangered. The American Bison went from 60 million to less than 600 a century ago, and as of today, 60,000 roam national parks and in the wild. In East Africa, protection of mountain gorillas has doubled to more than 1,000. Since the ban of hunting loggerhead and greenhead turtles their numbers are also recovering. Larger ecosystems have also been recovering in some places around the world. Costa Rica’s forest has nearly doubled in the past thirty years through natural regeneration. “Over the past ten years we have seen an exponential rise in sustainable energy solutions, with solar photovoltaics, wind power and electric mobility all much more economically competitive.” (pg. 90). 

 

2- Fixing Our Planet

In 1926 the last gray wolf was shot in Yellowstone. Decades later, in 1995, the Yellowstone Wolf Project reintroduced the wolves into the park. Without a top predator, elk numbers rose. They grazed so much vegetation that trees rarely grew above knee high. With a top predator the population of elk dropped from 15,000 to 4,000, and vegetation began to regrow. This allowed for mooses to graze more, raising their population. Songbirds migrate back as the trees grow taller. Resurgence of vegetation helped control rivers, and excess trees allowed beavers to build dams. The wolves left carcasses behind which added more food for scavengers such as coyotes, foxes, bald eagles, ravens and bears. Predators are just as essential as any other animal or plant in our ecosystems.

The United Nations has announced the 2020s as the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, “…when the world must, ‘prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems.’ on every continent and every ocean.” (pg. 104). 

Many countries have already taken action. Costa Rica used to be a prime location for deforestation. But in 1992, president Rafael Calderón began paying landowners to protect and restore their forests. The revived forests were not only beneficial for wildlife, but also brought in $2 billion a year from tourism. 

 

Over one billion people rely on the ocean for food. The oceans regulate climate change and the water cycle, and absorb much of our pollution. But for decades the ocean has been overexploited. We have released toxic chemicals, overfished, polluted and changed the chemistry of the ocean. The UN Sustainable Development Goals agreed to “conserve and sustainably use the ocean and their marine resources” by 2030. Carlos Duarte, a marine ecologist, believes that recovery of resources, structure and function of ocean life could be reached by 2050 if major disruptions are avoided. 

 

The United Nations started the Clean Air Initiative in 2019, calling on all governments to improve air quality that is safe for citizens within the next decade. Most air disruptions can be fixed quickly: ending the burning of coal in cities; spraying water to suppress construction dust; ships having filters, and big polluting planes, trucks and cars to retire soon. 

There have been many achievements across the world, many cities no longer burn coal. Most of the chemicals that destroy the ozone layer have been banned, and electric vehicles are now dominating the environment. By 2021 there were 11 million EVs being used. The International Energy Agency (IEA) believes that 60 percent of new cars will be electric by 2030. 

Amol Phadke of the University of California, Berkeley, said that all new cars in the US will be electric by 2035. There will be a noticeable difference, “With nitrogen oxide emissions from all sources down by 85 percent and the finest particles reduced by 90 percent, the air will be sweeter, and hugely healthier.” (pg. 181). Bettering our air will prevent 2 million early deaths.

 

Electricity is now dominating the energy field. The largest wind farm is in the UK, it contains more than 2,000 turbines and generates about 10 megawatts each. Butfield and Hughs says there are times where it produces most of Britain’s electricity. In fact, all of the twenty largest wind farms are in Europe. Jobs in renewable energy have increased as the fossil fuel industry declines. Since 2005, UK emissions have fallen 33 percent, and their GDP has increased 20 percent. 

Other countries are soon to follow, or are already making progress. Iceland uses geothermal energy, enough to heat up 90 percent of their homes. South Korea has the world’s largest tidal power station, enough to fuel the city of Sinheung with a population of 500,000 people. Morocco is installing half a million mirrors that will use solar radiation to heat sodium salt and charge turbines. Their goal is to export solar energy to Europe. 

 

Human-made non-biodegradable waste is littered throughout our environment. “An economy constructed around single-use products is not only wasteful of resources, it is also inefficient and expensive.” (pg. 241).  For example, recycling aluminum takes just 4 percent of energy required to make new aluminum. Some countries are able to recycle three-quarters of household waste. Others are lower, the US only recycles one-third, and Britain recycles 45 percent of their waste, which should be at 50 percent. To give some context, Britain produces more than 2.3 million tonnes of plastic waste a year, the second largest after the US. We need to focus  on cutting non-biodegradable waste and recycle as much as we can. 

 

3- Our Earthshots—How We Can All Make a Difference 

 

There are things we can do individually and as a society to make a positive impact on our planet. When it comes to air pollution we can drive less, especially in cities, slow down our speed to prevent tire erosion, and stop the burning of coal in cities. And give a helping hand to developing countries to switch over to energy efficient, renewable energy.

For our climate, we should turn to renewable energy providers. Whether that be solar or wind. Using appliances that eat up less energy would help too, such as energy efficient light bulbs, refrigerators, washing machines and dryers. Everyone should make sure that any appliance we are not using is turned off, and air conditioning and heating should only be used when necessary. 

To heal nature we need to be eating sustainably grown food. We should eat less meat and more organic, sustainably grown vegetables. Local produce is even better. 

The same should be applied for our oceans: eat locally and sustainably caught fish. We also need to recycle our electronics and waste properly so as to not pollute the oceans even more. 

To reduce our waste we could take home our leftovers from restaurants. France made this a legal requirement. We need to buy things that are sustainably packaged and recycle what is left. San Francisco has been able to recycle 75 percent of its waste, we can do the same.