The world has seen some amazing messes by humanity, including plastic pollution, climate change, and the possibility of a sixth mass extinction.
People, nations, and political factions have come together to solve environmental problems that were caused by humans. They have cleared the ozone hole and cleared the air of pollutants, and saved many species from extinction.
“We can be good at cleaning up our messes, it’s whether or not we choose to be and what we prioritize,” said Michigan State University environmental sustainability researcher Sheril Kirshenbaum.
The Associated Press asked over 25 environmental scientists and policy specialists, including two former chiefs of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the current director at the United Nations Environment Programme to share their top stories on environmental problems the world has fixed, for Earth Day, which is celebrated annually on April 22.
“There are some amazing success stories,” said Stanford University environmental scientist Rob Jackson. “It’s easy for us to get tunnel vision with everything going wrong, and there is a lot that needs to change quickly. But it’s wonderful to remind ourselves that other people in the past have succeeded and that society has succeeded too, both nationally here in the U.S. and also internationally.”
These are the four most successful successes and one key aspect that so many ecological wins share in common.
HEALING OZONE HOLE
Scientists, officials, and experts in environmental policy chose to fix ozone depletion as their top priority.
“It was a moment where countries that usually compete with each other grasped the collective threat and decided to implement a solution,” former EPA chief Carol Browner said in an email.
Scientists in the 1970s had discovered that a certain class of chemicals, often used in aerosol sprays and refrigeration, was eating away the protective ozone layer in Earth’s atmosphere that shields the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation linked to skin cancer.
Jason West, University of North Carolina atmospheric researcher, stated that the ozone layer was thinning all over Antarctica, creating a hole in the atmosphere. This could lead to increased skin cancer cases and cataracts, as well as widespread changes to ecosystems across the globe.
“It’s the first time we created a planet-killing problem and then we turned around and solved it,” Stanford’s Jackson said.
The Montreal Protocol was signed by all countries in 1987. This was the first treaty of its type to ban ozone-munching substances. At this point every nation in the world has adopted the treaty, 99% of the ozone-depleting chemicals have been phased out, “saving 2 million people every year from skin cancer,” United Nations Environment Programme Director Inger Andersen said in an email.
For decades, the ozone hole over Antarctica has been worsening. However, it has slowly begun to heal over the past few years in fits and starts. The United Nations Environment Programme projects that the ozone ” will heal completely by the 2030s.”
While activists point to the Montreal Protocol as a hope and example for the fight against climate change, it’s not quite the same. In the case with the banned ozone-sapping chemical, the corporations that made them also made their replacements. But with climate change, “it’s more of an existential threat to the oil and gas companies,” Jackson said.
CLEANER WATER AND AIR
The air in the United States and most of the industrialized countries is cleaner and clearer today than it was fifty or sixty years ago. This was when major cities such as Los Angeles were choked by smog and other dangerous microscopic particles. Lakes and rivers were also dumping grounds, especially in Ohio, Michigan, and Canada.
“We would go to Lake Erie when I was young and play on the beach and there would be dead fish everywhere. We would have dead fish fights,” Stanford’s Jackson said.
In the United States the Clean Air Act of 1970 and further EPA regulations issued in 1990 “effectively cleaned our air,” UNC’s West said. Similar legislation was passed in 1972 for water.
“This has led to fewer health conditions such as cancer and asthma, for example, and saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars in health care costs,” Syracuse University environmental sciences professor Sam Tuttle said. “That means healthier people, more productive fisheries and a healthier and more attractive environment for all of us to enjoy.”
Tight restrictions on tiny particles alone decreased annual U.S. air pollution deaths “from about 95,000 in 1990 to 48,000 in 2019,” West said.
In 1955, the smog levels in Los Angeles reached 680 parts per million. They have fallen to 185 parts/billion in the past couple of years, but are usually much lower.
It’s not just air outside. Sacoby Wilson, University of Maryland environmental health scientist and former chief of the EPA, said that restricting indoor smoking has huge public health benefits.
On the water, Brown University environmental scientist J. Timmons Roberts also grew up on Lake Erie and stopped going to the water because of the dead fish: “Regulations and cooperation between the U.S. and Canada really made the difference and now there’s genuine eco-tourism there and thousands of walleye and other fishers come out every summer.”
SOLAR AND WIND POWER
Experts are amazed at the rapid fall in solar and wind energy prices, which do not produce heat trapping gases. This has given them hope that the world will be able to get rid of coal, oil, and natural gas that are causing global climate change.
According to the National Renewable Energy Lab, residential solar power prices dropped 64% between 2010 and 2020, while large-scale utility solar power production prices dropped 82% between 2010 and 2020.
Solar “is becoming a dominant energy technology and it’s becoming cheaper,” Jackson said. “It is cheaper than almost all other forms of electricity generation.”
Jackson, Kirshenbaum, and others stated that few people believed solar and wind prices would plummet so quickly ten years ago.
Experts credit renewable energy subsidies for pulling the world out from the 2008 Great Recession, particularly in Germany and the United States.
Each environmental success story is a story of environmental success.
All of them were once at the edge of extinction and were placed on the endangered species protection list. They are now all on the endangered species list. In some cases, they can be considered a nuisance or a problem for other species.
“Conservation efforts are clawing some endangered species back from the brink,” Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm said. “We are learning to do this thing called conservation.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed 96 species of endangered species, 65 of which were taken off the list because they had recovered.
Experts credit the effectiveness of laws and regulations in preventing the trade and killing of endangered species, as well as protecting the habitats of these animals and plants.
Robert Howarth, Cornell University environmental biology professor, said that another important change was the ban of DDT pesticide. This caused thinning eggs in birds of prey such as eagles and peregrine falcons.
Many of these key successes in the United States were fueled by laws and actions taken during Republican administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Bush.
“All these major milestones, including the creation of the EPA, were bipartisan, but unfortunately today we can’t seem to get that stuff done,” said Christie Todd Whitman, who was an EPA chief during a Republican presidency. “Sadly, Republicans don’t seem to care about these issues anymore everything is so hyper-partisan now that (the) GOP seem to be Neanderthals on the environment.”
Kirshenbaum, a former staffer in Congress and director of Science Debate, stated that often when a Republican is President, the rest of America moves left and becomes more supportive of environmental action. What’s important is cooperation and buy-in to big issues from all sides, experts said.
The treaty to heal the ozone hole is an example of what working together can accomplish, Syracuse’s Tuttle said: “This agreement proved that the international community could come together to create an enforceable framework to tackle an environmental problem of global significance.”
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