World Earth Day at 50 – Looking back and looking forward

Few would now imagine that the United States led the world in establishing the first Earth Day in 1970 but it is true.  It was endorsed on the day by a Republican President in a high-profile press conference and tree-planting photo call on the famous White House lawn – in front of domestic press corps and the world’s leading foreign correspondents. The photos don’t lie – no fake news here.

Earth Day came about as reaction to a massive 800 mile long oil spill off the California coast in early 1969.  The event occurred just days after Richard Nixon had been sworn into office and it was his first big domestic crisis. The oil slick from the burst off-shore oil well also just happened to be near to the private seaside home of the newly elected President.  He didn’t need to take to the air to see it.

Just over a year later this Republican President, with his wife Pat at his side, planted a tree at the White House on 22 April 1970 to mark the world’s first Earth Day.

Massive environmental improvements were made in the United States throughout the 1970s, with the US leading the world on removing toxic lead from petrol, cutting highway speed limits to conserve fuel (and in the process making long road trips irksome and time consuming) and setting up a ground-breaking Environmental Protection Agency to help fund a massive environmental clean-up across the continent. Much of this was done on a bi-partisan basis, working across the aisle. Old Europe, lacking any co-ordination, was a laggard but eventually caught up in the decades that followed.

I mention this example of rapid progress made in a short space of time as it shows how crisis can fundamentally change the world, sometimes for the better.  Even the United States changed in just ten years beyond all expectations of what even its most fervent environmental activists could have hoped for in 1969. And then it went backwards.

How will the world respond in 2020 as it takes stock on 50 years of start-stop progress?  Will the evidence before our eyes in 2020 finally lead to a collective experience to pause and reflect on what could be?

In can be done. It must be done.  We know that with the right investment in infrastructure it is possible to make rapid progress to decarbonise. In just ten years from 2010, the UK transformed its carbon footprint in respect of power generation.  As I write this just hours ahead of World Earth Day, the fine weather means that with wind and solar power capacity on-line, the UK is easily running with no coal being burnt day after day, a position not seen since 1882 when the world’s first public electricity generating station came on stream in central London.

Now, in the next ten years we must transform the carbon footprint of heat in homes and commercial premises across the UK. It will be far harder to achieve because it intrudes directly into the homes of everyone of us in a way that remote power generation does not. But this investment needs to happen.

Likewise, we need to wean the world’s population off its century long addiction to burning high density petroleum inside the internal combustion engine, a device created in 1876 – six years before the world’s first public power station started burning coal.  These are both ancient technologies ripe for change and investment in the right infrastructure can make this change happen by 2030.

Or will we just revert back to drill, drill, drill and the urge for ceaseless travel regardless of the impact on the planet?  Now is the time.

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Image credit: White House Photo Office – US government, Executive Office of the President, Public Domain.