Starting with a global pandemic, the year 2020 has been eventful. It is one that history will not forget soon. Individuals, corporate bodies, and governments all over the world all experienced our fair share of challenges. As the year ends, it is time to look at how well we cared for the environment in the midst of everything else. And also, to consider how we can kick start a more sustainable 2021.
In 2020, there have been environmental crises, including forest fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods, resulting in a loss of lives and properties. Despite how challenging 2020 has been, we can take some important lessons from it into the new year.
Regardless of how much we did for the environment individually, next year can be even better. But before we get ready to do better in 2021, we ought to see how we fared so far.
Many times when people mention the word “forest,” we think of wild animals and unfamiliar plants. We may not quickly see forests as a resource that benefits us directly. However, forests provide sustainable food production, water supply, and employment. Further, they are essential allies in our fight against climate change. Deforestation is still at 10million hectares per year2. Although this is an improvement over 16 million hectares per year of the 1990s, it is still unsustainable.
Some experts suggest that the covid-19 lockdown affected waste management negatively. They say that the stay-home order intensified panic buying and consumption of single-use commodities. This has increased plastic pollution, contrary to the sustainability goals of many of the affected countries.
A new global treaty to tackle plastic pollution gained massive support this year, although the US and UK are yet to get on board. The agreement will operate much like the Paris Agreement for climate change.
In 2019 Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and India were the top five most polluted countries. Not much has changed, according to this report by Numbeo. Afghanistan may emerge as the country having the most polluted air in 2020, with a pollution index of over 93.
In February 2020, the UN launched what they have called the “largest real-time air quality databank” to measure particulate matter. The bank merges information from over 4,000 data providers, including air monitoring agencies and individuals across the world.
In California, essential farmworkers who pick vegetables and fruits worked on, despite the soot and smoke from wildfires. These workers risked severe health consequences as there had been no plan to protect them in such situations.
A 2020 FAO report states that about 3.2 billion people live in agricultural areas with acute water shortages.
The report also noted that freshwater resources have declined by over 20% per person. Meanwhile, the UN warned that billions would suffer food shortages because of poor water resources management and increasing demand for water.
Chemical and plastic pollution has not reduced significantly despite various clean-up and awareness campaigns.
In 2020, the US’s central regions experienced a lot more flooding, while over 5000 homes in the UK also flooded. The heaviest rains recorded in the last two decades in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, caused landslides and flash floods that took about 66 lives.
In the Philippines, a volcanic eruption and typhoons caused severe damages. Typhoon Vamco killed 42 people in Manila and the surrounding provinces. The region also experienced the worst flooding it has seen in recent years. The Taal volcano erupted on the 12th of January, killing 39 people and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
Hurricane Laura hit the island of Hispaniola, sweeping through Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and parts of Texas and Louisiana, causing 77 deaths along the way.
Natural disasters are sure to be aggravated by climate change.
2020 marked the sixth consecutive year with extended hurricane seasons. It is also the year with the most rapidly intensifying storms. Out of the 13 storms that hit, ten quickly intensified, and a few were devastating for the land and people they passed over. Scientists noted Hurricane Sally, and Eta’s effects amplified because they stalled as they were making landfall. NCEI scientist Jim Kossin says that warming ocean temperature is the reason for the hyperactive 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.
While some areas are suffering because of too much water, about 1.5 billion people live in areas affected by extreme water scarcity or even drought. One reason for this is climate change, which has led to inadequate rainfall in these places.
As Trump's administration draws to a close, the EPA and other environmental agencies are finally establishing policies that will reshape environmental regulations in the US after three years of proposals. President Donald Trump is criticized for his take on environmental issues and for leaving the Paris Agreement. As the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the US should be at the forefront of the fight against global warming and not walking out of a global alliance against climate change.
He holds the opinion that the environmental impact review process under the National Environmental Policy Act slows down critical infrastructure projects. He called the process “burdensome.” Under his administration, they opened public lands and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration3. Researchers at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law have put together a list of 159 actions of the president that promote fossil fuels and reduce environmental protections.
The environment is our most precious resource; it provides our food, shelter, and other materials for basic needs. Humans are healthier, happier, and more productive in a clean and thriving environment. The environment is vast but not indestructible. If we are not careful, we may destroy it.
In its 2020 report, State of Food and Agriculture4, the FAO, states that there is a need to transform the way we produce and consume food. This is because agriculture is the most prominent force of deforestation.
Currently, we meet our food demand through unethical agricultural practices like the large-scale conversion of forests into one-crop plantations. Deforestation is also causing a loss of biodiversity. Scientists say that even when we replant degraded areas, they may not support the same species as before. This could lead to the permanent loss of some species. For example, palm oil production has led to the loss of forests and biodiversity in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Plastic pollution is still an enormous problem. Although cheap and readily available, plastic is not good for the environment. It pollutes the ocean and endangers humans and wildlife.
Air pollution is still causing many premature deaths, and with the coronavirus pandemic, our respiratory health is more vulnerable than ever. In India, firefighters have had to spray over 7,000,000 liters of water in places with dangerous air pollution levels.
Research suggests that the COVID-19 lockdown and its halting of several industrial activities have caused water quality to improve in some places in India1. This proves that a cleaner and safer environment is possible if we are willing to make the changes required.
There is so much work to do if we want to leave a safe and productive planet for the future generation. That is why sustainability is essential. Here are a few things you can do to live more sustainably in the coming year.
Shopping can be fun but purposeful shopping is even more satisfying. When you go shopping in 2021, look for ethical products made to last with little or zero impact on the environment. This requires that you make your purchase decisions be made with your budget in mind and the planet’s as well. One way to buy sustainably is to avoid single-use products if there are multiple-use alternatives.
You can also choose to buy second-hand as a priority avoiding the need for the manufacture of new goods in the first place. The rise of online thrift stores is a testament to this growing trend and helps make second-hand shopping easy from the comfort of your home.
Deals may be great, but cheap isn't always best. Instead of buying lots of cheap stuff, buy a few quality ones that will stand the test of time. Generally, very affordable clothing has low quality; you end up having to replace them all too soon. Read up on fast fashion and even consider joining the slow fashion movement. Buying quality items can save you waste. Also, try to cut out impulsive buying as you are most likely to buy something you don't really need.
If you are not already living a plastic-free life, 2021 is the year to give it a trial. There are organic alternatives for most plastic products that you can try switching to. Choose products made with biodegradable materials. Of course, you need to know what’s biodegradable and what’s not to do this. Always check the ingredients* label of a product you are buying; you can tell if the product will decompose or not.
If you can't live 100% plastic-free for any reason, then try a significant reduction in how much plastic you consume. Reuse your plastic bags and fix your broken plastic items.
Much of the broker stuff you throw away you can likely fix. In the coming year, make a habit of fixing things instead of just tossing them in the dustbin. We understand that it is often cheaper and easier to buy a replacement but let's not think about only your wallet. What about the environment? All the new stuff is costing the planet precious resources, most of them non-renewable.
Learning some basic repair skills can also come in handy if you genuinely plan on living more sustainably. A few YouTube videos or a crash course can help you learn how to fix simple damages. Like a broken zipper or small clothing tears.
Recycling & the 4Rs helps us to conserve both our financial and material resources. Almost anything can be recycled or reused; clothes, shoes, plastic bags, and even food waste. There are many ways to go about giving items an extended lease of life. You should take some time to research how you can use some of the seemingly “useless” stuff lying around your house, repurposing it for another application.
Furthermore, you can shop around for items without the waste. This year why not give zero waste good a try including everything from makeup through sunscreen for summer. You can even source sustainable toilet roll.
We can only recycle some things industrially, so make sure you sort out your waste appropriately. This way, such materials can find their way to recycling factories. In 2021 commit to making the most of your items before thrashing them. Remember that it is good for you and the environment.
Trees are great for the environment. They provide habitat to a lot of animals and help fight climate change. If you have the opportunity to help plant more trees in the coming year, take it. And if you can’t plant one, support those who do. There are several tree-planting campaigns all over the world.
In the coming year, we expect that in line with the FAO recommendations, Agribusinesses will keep their commitment to deforestation-free commodities. And companies that have not decided to go deforestation-free will do so. So if you own a company that cuts down trees, try looking for alternatives in hemp or bamboo. Or get committed to reforestation.
Make it a point to promote ethical practices, first by practicing them yourself and supporting those who do. In the coming year, try to ensure that your goods and services are procured fairly. When you underpay service providers and devalue products produced locally, it makes you the same as those big corporations that exploit workers. Supporting local industries will improve the local economy and improve livelihood.
You should also try to avoid companies that have a reputation for human rights violations and negative environmental impacts. In many low-cost countries that manufacture commodities for big brands, they may treat workers unfairly and improperly dispose of toxic waste. Make a choice not to buy products made under such hazardous conditions, shop only socially and environmentally responsible products.
Living sustainably is important. It is the only way to preserve our environment and reverse environmental problems like climate change and pollution. If we live sustainably, then future generations can inherit a livable planet, not one that is exhausted and contaminated.
|Sarkodie, S.A., Owusu, P.A. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on waste management. Environ Dev Sustain (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-020-00956-y|
|The State of the World's Forests, FAO, UN Environment Programme, 2020|
|State of the Environment 2020. EELP. Harvard Law School.|
|State of Food and Agriculture. FAO (UN), 2019|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.