Earth Day is celebrated today for the 50th time. In 1970, on this day, 20 million Americans came together to call for a cleaner and healthier environment.
Only last year, the climate school strike movement drew millions to the streets to call for more decisive action against rising emissions.
This year’s Earth Day was expected to keep up this momentum, with climate change as its main theme. Instead, streets in the world’s major cities will remain empty.
If asked 50 years ago how we would celebrate this day today, some pessimists might have foreseen our present state of the environment.
By 2070, deadly heatwaves will be an annual occurrence in many parts of the world, and hundreds of thousands of people will die each year from malnutrition, heat stress and diseases linked to climate change
Others would have hoped for a better, greener world by now. But no one could have predicted where we now find ourselves: somewhere in between, possibly in a crossroads.
For many, the COVID-19 crisis offers time for reflection. The golden anniversary of the Earth Day offers an opportunity to imagine this day 50 years from now.
So let’s take a stab at it by imagining two different futures, one forecasted and another backcasted.
Backcasting: A powerful tool
Backcasting is a powerful tool for creating desired futures. As opposed to forecasting, which builds on the past and the present to project possible futures, backcasting establishes how the future should look like and works out the steps needed to make it happen.
Originally developed for energy planning, backcasting is widely employed in sustainable development planning and allows for a focus on policy goals that actively seek to shape the course of events rather than to passively preparing for a range of possible outcomes.
So how does the ‘Future We Project’ look like? Most of our economic and policy planning is still based on forecasting — be it at the individual, company or government level.
It is therefore easy to imagine a future of business as usual: science tells us that already by mid-century, unless we change course, oceans will have more plastic than fish, coral reefs no longer exist, and half a billion people’s livelihoods will have been destroyed as a result.
By mid-century, if we keep emitting carbon and destroying biodiversity at current rates, half of the world’s people will be regularly facing food and water insecurity.
Soil degradation and climate change will have displaced 700 million people and low rainfall fuelled violent conflicts across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
In a world of business as usual, we will be headed to more than 3 degrees Celsius of global warming by the end of the century.
By 2070, deadly heatwaves will be an annual occurrence in many parts of the world, and hundreds of thousands of people will die each year from malnutrition, heat stress and diseases linked to climate change.
Adapting to consequences
Governments worldwide will be spending trillions of dollars in adapting to these consequences.
Unregulated large-scale geoengineering programmes initiated by major economies that seek to cool down the earth by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere will lead to unintended consequences, including droughts and storms in neighbouring countries, stoking geopolitical tensions.
Generation Z will be faced with a bleak retirement and its children an uncertain future.
Fortunately, we already have a ‘Future We Want’. The UN Earth Summit of 2012 issued an outcome document with this title. The declaration set into motion the process to agree on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which now guide the international development agenda through 2030.
While not legally binding, all UN Member States have agreed to pursue these goals to “free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet.”
At the heart of the 2030 sustainable development agenda is also the Paris Agreement on climate change, with its goals of net-zero emissions in the second half of the century and making finance flows consistent with a climate-safe future.
Building on these, the future we want for 2070 is easy to imagine.
It is a world with zero poverty and no hunger, universal health care, quality education and decent jobs, and one with net-zero emissions and recovered ecosystems. It is green, resilient and inclusive.
But imagining futures does not mean they will automatically materialise. Governments and businesses prefer long-term goals because they make good headlines. Too often, however, short-termism and business-as-usual trump good intentions.
Despite significant efforts in many countries, the UN recently warned that the world is not on track to achieving the SDGs by 2030, with misallocated finance flows largely to blame.
We therefore need a ‘Future We Create’. We need to design pathways for each society, and these need to be backed up by milestones, transformative policies and strong financial incentives.
The first milestone is 2020. We not only have to flatten the curve of COVID-19 but we must also permanently bend the curve on global emissions. When we restart our economies, people and the environment need to be at the core of all recovery efforts.
Economic support and investments need to be directed at sectors and activities that improve people’s lives and price out polluters. When life returns to normal, cities should be rethought to become spaces for communities and environmental health.
Many of us will not be there for the 100th anniversary of Earth Day. But if we start laying the stones for the path to a sustainable future now, we will know exactly how the world will look like when our children and grandchildren will celebrate it. It will be a happy Earth Day.
Dr Mari Luomi is a UAE-based expert in climate change and sustainable development