With climate change, plastic pollution and the threat of a sixth mass extinction, humanity has become even more disorganized.
But when people, political groups and nations decided to unite, they were also able to address some of the worst environmental problems facing humanity, such as eliminating the ozone hole, improving air quality and saving several species from imminent extinction.
“We know how to clean up our mess, it all depends on whether we decide to do it or not, and what our priorities are,” said Professor Cheryl Kirschenbaum of the University of Michigan.
On Earth Day, the Associated Press asked more than 25 experts what they think about the environmental problems that humanity is trying to solve.
“There have been tremendous successes,” said Rob Jackson of Stanford University. It’s easy to get tunnel vision with everything that goes wrong, and there are many things that need to change quickly. But it’s great to celebrate the successes of the past here in the United States and around the world. »
Here are four successes that are most often mentioned.
Heal the ozone layer
Repairing a hole in the ozone layer was, of course, the first choice of the interviewed specialists.
“At that point, countries that normally compete with each other realized that they faced a common threat and decided to find a solution,” said Carol Brauner, former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In the 1970s, scientists discovered that some chemicals used, in particular, for cooling, destroy the ozone layer, which protects the Earth from ultraviolet rays associated with skin cancer.
The ozone layer was depleting everywhere, opening a hole over Antarctica. This has not only increased the risk of skin cancer, but also cataracts and profound changes in ecosystems around the world, recalls Jason West, a climatologist at the University of North Carolina.
“This is the first time we have addressed a problem for which we were responsible and which threatened the survival of the planet,” said Jackson of Stanford.
In 1987, countries around the world signed the Montreal Protocol, the first treaty of its kind to ban atmospheric chemicals. Today, all countries have signed an agreement, and 99% of these harmful chemicals are no longer used, “saving two million people from skin cancer each year,” said Inger Andersen, program manager. Agency (UNEP).
The ozone hole over Antarctica has continued to grow for about twenty years, but has been slowly healing over the past few years. UNEP predicts full recovery by the end of the 2030s.
Although the Montreal Protocol is a great success, the fight against climate change is different. Companies that produce ozone-depleting chemicals have simply started producing substitutes. But for global warming, “it’s more of an existential threat to oil companies,” Jackson said.
Cleaner air and water
In most industrialized countries, the air is much cleaner and healthier than it was 50 or 60 years ago, when big cities were suffocated by smog and waterways served as landfills.
It is estimated, for example, that various laws passed in the United States have reduced the prevalence of health problems such as cancer or asthma, saving millions of lives and saving the health care system trillions of dollars.
The number of deaths related to air pollution has increased from approximately 95,000 per year in 1990 to 48,000 in 2019.
Solar and wind energy
The rapid decline in the cost of solar and wind energy, which do not produce greenhouse gases, surprises experts and gives them hope that the planet will be able to get rid of hydrocarbons that cause global warming.
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in the period from 2010 to 2020, the cost of solar energy in residential areas fell by 64%, and the cost of solar energy production in utilities by 82%.
“Solar energy is becoming a major energy technology, and it’s becoming more affordable,” Jackson said. It is cheaper than almost any other type of electricity generation. »
Ten years ago, few believed that the cost of solar or wind energy would decline so quickly, several experts said, citing large-scale investment in the United States, Germany and other countries to fight the 2018 recession.
Bald eagle, peregrine falcon, bustard and humpback whale – each of them, each of which is an environmental success.
All of them were once on the verge of extinction and were protected by law. In some cases, there are so many of them now that some consider them harmful or problematic.
“Conservation efforts will save some endangered species,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University. We are learning to protect them. »
Experts welcome laws and regulations around the world to ban the killing and trafficking of endangered species and to prevent the destruction of much-needed habitats.
The ban on DDT, a pesticide that affected the entire food chain, also had much to do with it, as the product weakened the eggshells of many birds of prey.