by Ms Catherine Constantinides
South Africans will join millions around the world in commemorating World Environment Day on 5 June, and World Oceans Day on 8 June 2021. A year ago we were in the throes of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Today, the world is beginning to open up as more countries, including South Africa, successfully roll out vaccination programmes.
Many activists and lobbyists have raised the alarm that other very important issues have taken a back seat amidst the pandemic. As the world battled against COVID-19 and spared no effort to develop successful vaccines, amongst others, the conflicts around the world in Ethiopia, Israel-Palestine, gender-based violence, chronic hunger and unemployment have continued unabated.
Climate change and environmental sustainability is one such issue. Before COVID-19 became an omnipresent issue, world leaders and climate activists had declared 2020 a “super year for nature”, anticipating the outcomes of several global climate conferences set to chart a course for slowing climate breakdown and protecting biodiversity over the next decade. Time seems to be running out since, according to the 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report, environmental degradation is accelerating worldwide and more than a million species are at risk of extinction.
Although the year did not yield the anticipated outcomes, global lockdowns of varying intensities seemed to provide the environment with a reprieve, as human movement decreased.
A range of studies have shown the positive impact of the global lockdowns on the environment, including amongst others, fewer animals being killed on the roads, in the air or sea; a recovery of some animal populations; the disruption of hidden, generally illegal supply chains that destroy wild populations, including those that fuel the wildlife trade; and recovery of air and water quality.
Of course, the lockdowns have also had some negative effects. These include animals in sanctuaries, and other wildlife facilities having limited care and funds for such protected areas drastically reduced due to being closed or having fewer visitors. Fears are also increasing that illegal poaching will increase due to the economic hardships brought on by the pandemic. It has also been reported that the deforestation of parts of the Amazon Rain forest continued at an alarming rate and illegal fishing is on the rise in the Philippines and Brazil.
The oceans have not been spared from the effects of the pandemic. Masks and other forms of personal protective equipment used to mitigate against the spread of the virus have inevitably found their way into marine systems, due to their improper disposal. This will contribute to, amongst others, microplastic contamination in marine and freshwater environments, which will impact the health of aquatic animals, plants and inevitably humans.
There is also the danger that marine animals will consume these items. You may recall the December 2019 story of a Sperm whale that died after beaching itself on the Isle of Harris, in Scotland with a 100kg “litter ball” consisting of various plastic items in its stomach.
It is extremely worrying that masks and PPE are not being disposed of properly because they are generally manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials, which can persist in the environment for decades to hundreds of years.
Appreciating the importance of the ocean, as well as the scale of degradation happening on our watch, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has declared 2021-2030 the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. This will provide a common framework to ensure that ocean science can influence how we protect and safeguard our oceans and their inhabitants.
For some time now, it has been acknowledged that ocean health cannot be separated from the health of the planet in general. Renowned oceanographer, Sylvia Earle put it succinctly saying, “With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea. No matter where on Earth you live. Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by the sea.”
We must also caution against thinking that environmental sustainability can be achieved merely by ticking items off a checklist or agreements between countries. The work to repair the environment and to change patterns of behaviour must be active, conscious and sustained. Interestingly, our efforts to contain the pandemic are dependant on social behaviours that require us to be accountable to each other.
While we realise that we need to create awareness and repair the disconnected and broken relationship we have with the environment, we need to balance this with our agency to return to ‘normal’, promised by the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out.
We are fortunate that the scientific community has been able to develop a few vaccines that have been shown to protect us from serious illness and death.
Being vaccinated gives us the opportunity to safely get back into nature and travel. The past year has been difficult and it will be good to begin to do some of the things that have brought us joy and happiness in the past, it will be good for our well-being and mental health to have a change of scenery, and more importantly, do so with freedom. We should also play our part and help those over the age of 60 to register to be vaccinated so that they too can move around more safely and confidently. When the next phase of the vaccination programme opens, we should all also register to be vaccinated.
When we are vaccinated and can move around safely, what choices will we make about our interaction with the environment? Will we behave with more awareness, will we actively repair our broken connection with the earth?
The United Nations Secretary-General last year urged the international community to, “keep our promises for people and planet.”
While political will is crucial to our success in safeguarding and nurturing our environment for generations of the future, just as important is each of us choosing to play our part, daily and consistently. Our children deserve to inherit the environment and all that it offers us. Let us make this pledge this World Environment and World Oceans Day.