Eco-Wins for World Environment Day

Happy World Environment Day! Today, we’re celebrating the environment wins we’ve had in the past year. Now is the time to look back on what we’ve accomplished and motivate ourselves to continue in the fight against climate change, one issue at a time. May this coming year bring even more success! 

1) The Day Zero Water Crisis in South Africa 

Perhaps the most well-known averted crisis would be the Cape Town Water Crisis dubbed “Day Zero” by local officials and a near-Armageddon by reporters. A number of climate change-related problems, like three consecutive years of little rainfall and the overall mismanagement of diminishing water supplies in South Africa, led to the prediction of April 12, 2018, as “the date of the largest drought-induced municipal water failure in modern history.” Cape Town had 90 days to pull itself together before it essentially ran out of water. 

Through a combined effort, local officials and community leaders pulled together to keep the water running. The local government raised water tariffs, delegated the amount of water that could be used by each household, and released weekly water reports on how much each household was consuming in water usage so neighbors could compare with each other. The average person was told to use 13 gallons of water a day for everything that required water (cooking, bathing, cleaning, and drinking). To compare, the average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water per day. Farmers reallocated water that would be used for irrigation. Communities met weekly and posted on social media to discuss water-saving techniques, like reduced flushing, shower-shortening methods, and ‘dirty shirt’ workwear challenges. Ultimately, the culture of how the community viewed water changed quickly but dramatically and it remains so to this day.

The triumph wasn’t perfect: drought continues to cause water scarcity and there are severe socio-economic disparities that lead to unequal access to water. But although they still have a long way to go, this town took the first step in proving to the world that communities can accomplish a behavioral shift. They accomplished something that has not been proven too many times before in the face of climate change — that people will unite to better the common good even if it is not the easiest route.

2) Banned Single-Use Plastic Bags 

Shoppers across the world use about 500 billion single-use plastic bags a year, with an average lifespan of the bag lasting around 12 minutes. These bags infiltrate every aspect of life on this planet, from marine life to a baby’s bloodstream. But states and U.S. lawmakers have begun to acknowledge the dangers. In 2019 alone, state legislators have introduced approximately 95 bills related to banning, recycling, or taxing plastic bagsin their states. 16 states have passed some form of ban or fee on plastic bag usage: 

  • California banned single-use plastic bags state-wide and charges a bag fee at retail stores. They also require plastic bag recycling programs at their stores.
  • Hawaii banned single-use plastic bags state-wide and requires bags at checkout to contain 40 percent or more of recycled materials and be biodegradable.
  • New York’s ban on single-use plastic bags will take effect at the beginning of 2020 and counties can opt-in to charge a bag tax that funds the local government and the Environmental Protection Fund. 
  • New York, Delaware, Maine, and Rhode Island all have instituted mandatory recycling programs. 
  • Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, and Wisconsin have “preemptively banned” plastic bags as well. 
  • Washington D.C. charges a bag tax at grocery and liquor stores. 

And these bans have proven to promote positive change, such as in San Jose, California, where there was an 89 percent reduction in plastic bag-induced storm drain blockages. There was also a 60 percent drop in plastic bags found in rivers and a 59 percent decrease in plastic residential waste. Beyond this, 32 countries across the world have placed bans on plastic bags and many are stricter and more effective than the United States!

3) Endangered Animals Are Coming Back 

Biodiversity faces many challenges today including deforestation, ocean acidification, global warming, and commercialization. However, because of legislation and increasing awareness, many species are making a comeback! The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) released their “9 for 19” list of species that they predict will increase to healthy numbers in 2019: 

  • Burmese Star Tortoises (central Myanmar)
  • Greater Adjutant Stork (Cambodia)  
  • Jaguars (South America)
  • Humpback Whales 
  • Kihansi Spray Toad (Tanzania) 
  • American Bison (Rocky Mountains)
  • Maleos (Sulawesi in Northern Indonesia) 
  • Scarlet Macaws (Guatemala) 
  • Tigers (Western Thailand) 

Beyond this, we can celebrate many species of turtles, gorillas, and giant pandas growing to healthy numbers and the return of pelicans, wolves, and alligators to stable levels.

Perhaps most remarkable is the resurgence in the humpback whale population. By 1980, this species was at 10 percent of its historical levels due to hunting. But with the help of international efforts and the US’ Endangered Species Act, the whale population increased tremendously (up to 90 percent!), with numbers in Hawaii alone increasing from 800 to 10,000 in less than four decades. One scientist who co-authored a PLOS One study on the piece of US legislation, Abel Valdivia, wrote in the study’s press release that “we can clearly save endangered species if we make the effort, provide the needed funds and have strong laws like the Endangered Species Act to guide the work.” 

4) People are expecting more from big business 

Employees and consumers alike are expecting companies to commit to environmental initiatives and make decisions with climate change in mind. 

The situation was looking pretty dire when the United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement, which sought to mitigate climate change on a global level. But many U.S. groups took it upon themselves to continue the goals laid out by the Agreement regardless of government support, and they have encouraged powerful companies to consider doing so too. Recently, Amazon employees began a movement for one of the most powerful companies in the world to become more sustainable. Although Amazon did not agree to their terms, the movement is a big step in the right direction. 

And children have proven to be some of the most vocal advocates for acknowledging climate change, with somewhere between 1700 and 2000 school strikesand protests taking place across the world involving 125 different countries

The John Lewis and Partner’s Retail Report for 2018 acknowledged that “73 percent of millennials will spend more with companies who create a positive change.” And SustainAbility Trend 2019 predicts companies will need to increase the value they deliver to society as well as their transparency. Finally, documentaries and tv series like Blue Planet II (which was recently released on Netflix in the U.S.) are making a splash on many streaming services and garnering viewers at tremendous numbers.

5) Investment in Our Future – Renewable Energy 

Lastly, investments into renewable energy hold promise for the future, even from countries regularly associated with fossil fuels. China, Brazil, the UAE, Australia, and developing countries are leading the way and experiencing a renewable energy boom like we’ve never seen before. China alone “account[ed] for 45 percent of the global investment” into renewable energy sources. The EU plans to bump up their investment as well by €114 billion to equal €320 billion between 2021 and 2027 spent on climate mitigation. 

The United States is reeling in investment into clean energy sources as well. The country’s capacity for wind energy in the U.S. increased to 88,973 megawatts in a decade, with Texas leading the way at 22,599 megawatts capacity. U.S. financial institutions could invest almost $1 trillion into clean energy by 2030. Economic institutions are publishing more and more reports that link sustainability and investment in renewable energy to improved health conditions and increased economic stability in the future. And a majority of Fortune 100 companies are setting renewable energy goals for the coming decade companies, like Apple, which already runs on 100 percent renewable energy. 

We still have a long way to go: the United States alone only makes up 4.4 percent of the world’s population, yet it generates over 17 percent of the world’s trash. Even more astonishing, if the rest of the world consumed like Americans currently do, the world would need the resources of over four Earth’s to sustain them. But today we look back on what we’ve already accomplished as we set our minds to the challenge ahead of us and continue to move forward to tackle climate change. Happy World Environment Day!

Catie Brown