For two hours on saturday morning Santa Monica State Beach was a frenzy of activity. It was my first time helping out by giving Beach Talks to the 1900 volunteers who came to clean up the beach for Earth Day. I joined dozens of Heal the Bay volunteers to get folks orientated.
Every 10 minutes another group would be shuttled over and my job was to tell them a little bit about how the trash came to be on the beach — the storm drain system — and how to stay safe in the water.
I asked every group how many had been to a clean-up before. Turns out not many. I’d estimate 90 percent of people were out for their first Earth Day coastal clean-up. I could tell from the smiles and the high fives they were here to have fun and to give back to the Earth.
My six-year old son asked one day, why do they call it Earth when it’s mostly covered with water? He has a point. 71 percent of the Earth is covered by water. Of all the water on Earth, the ocean’s hold 96.5 percent. Take one thing we can’t live without: oxygen. Did you know that between 50 and 85 percent of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere comes from phytoplankton and algae in the ocean?
So on this Earth Day, let’s remember the Oceans and all they do for us each and every day.
In response to my post on Earth Day trends, Emily Burns asked about habitat loss and development. Has land protection kept pace with losses or do we need to accelerate protection efforts?
I have struggled to find data to compare habitat loss in the 43 years since the first Earth Day. What I have found suggests that while the trends are in the right direction in some ecosystems, habitat destruction continues at worrying rates around the world and right here in the USA. It also appears to be accelerating in the places that are hardest to manage and regulate and where the stressors are primarily global climate change. While the northern tundra and coral reefs of the world might seem remote, there loss will likely accelerate the changes we see here at home. They also can’t be protected by simply buying them and creating a park. Protecting them, and indeed protecting all the places set aside in parks and reserves, now needs a much more global and holistic approach. If there’s a bright spot in that its that our daily actions, while small individually, do add up. But they need to be combined with strong political leadership to make a lasting difference.
According to the FAO, deforestation of tropical forests peaked between 1950 and 1979 at over 300 million hectares. They estimate we lost lost 100 million hectares between 1996 and 2010 (thats over twice the size of California). So while the trend is in the right direction, the losses each year are staggering and cumulative.
Wetland Loss in the USA
According to the EPA, the lower-48 states contained 110.1 million acres of wetlands in 2009 (an area the size of California).This is estimated at one half of the area of wetlands in 1600. Peak wetland destruction occurred from the 1950s to 1970s and has declined since then. While the trend is in the right direction, we still lost a further 62,300 acres between 2004 and 2009 and all the associated benefits they provided such as flood control and bird habitat.
At the far northern extent of our continent lies the tundra — the treeless plain. Long considered immutable, this too is starting to change according to research reported in Yale Environment 360. As the planet warms we are losing tundra through increased burning and thawing. Both release additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — which in turn is likely to accelerate the rate of change.
Coral Reef Loss
According to the Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2004 it is estimated that 20% of the worlds’ reefs were effectively destroyed with no prospects of recovery. A further 24% were under imminent risk of collapse and 26% under ing term threat of collapse. Pressures are primarily related to human’s land management practices releasing sediments, nutrients and pollutants into the oceans, along with fishing. Bleaching associated with acidification and warmer oceans is rapidly emerging as a primary threat. According to a 2007 study reported in National Geographic, loss of coral reefs was proceeding at twice the rate of loss of tropical forests.
The idea for the first Earth Day was hatched, as many conservation ideas have been, at the 1969 UNESCO conference right here in San Francisco. It was celebrated for the first time the following year on the first day of Spring — March 21, 1970. It’s since blossomed and is now celebrated in more than 192 countries around the Earth and many of the ideas promoted along the way have become mainstream. But how much further have we to go?
I was curious as to how things had changed so ran a few quick statistics that I found interesting — its far from exhaustive but is perhaps informative. To me the take-home message from these few statistics is that we can recycle and reuse all we want, but until we deal with per capita consumption we are just skirting the edge of the issue. We clearly have a long way to go.
Earth Day Statistics
# Cars in USA
Car fuel efficiency
# mobile cell phones in the world
Carbon Dioxide concentration
Global protected areas
The World’s population has almost doubled in the past 43 years. And while the rate of change is declining, its still an impressive increase. But the truly stratospheric rise has been in cell phones. The first cell phone was introduced by Motorola in 1973 — there are now more than 6 billion in the world and some estimate there will be more cell phones than people by this time next year. Taken as a proxy for consumer electronics, this is a phenomenal change. I am also reasonably confident that no amount of personal plastic and metal recycling can make up for the additional resources contained in this must have accessory that many of us (me included) seem to churn through every two years.
A quick look at cars in the USA was also interesting. The good news is that fuel efficiency standards have increased by 60% from a pitiful 14 mpg to an estimated 22.4 mpg for the US car fleet. It’s still pathetic of course (friends in Britain regularly get 50 mpg in non-hybrid vehicles). But this modest gain is dwarfed by the massive 125% increase in cars on the road — and pretty much we’ve been driving more every year (with recent modest declines as the economy faltered). Worldwide, there are now more than 1 billion cars on the road, with no reason to believe this trend will reverse.
Carbon dioxide concentrations have gone up 22% — a small increase compare to the other numbers I looked at, but the consequences are likely to be catastrophic and despite some lackluster efforts they only continue to rise. The recent collapse of the European carbon market gives little reason to hope that the market-based solutions tried to date will work long-term.
The one bright spot for me, as a long-time land trust practitioner is the very large increase in the area of the Earth — both land and sea — set aside as protected areas. This has increased a massive 865% since the first Earth Day. But once again to put it in perspective, we’ve gone from setting aside a little under 0.5% of the Earth’s surface area to barely 4.75%.