World Environment Day: we are sleepwalking towards catastrophe

The day exists to raise awareness of a problem and encourage action but humanity still has a long way to go

Turtle-tagging in the Gulf Green Turtle Conservation Project in the UAE
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Another World Environment Day is upon us tomorrow – yet another day when I wonder how we have ignored decades of scientific evidence and continue to put humanity on a collision course with disaster.

The United Nations has reported that one million plant and animal species face extinction in the coming decades and carbon emissions have increased again, instead of declining in line with the Paris climate accord signed by world powers in 2015. We have witnessed the surge of a youth movement, led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, demanding global action. Around the world, hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren walked out of lessons and protested with signs that read: "There's no planet B" and "the climate is changing, why aren't we?"

Last year, I moved to the UAE to join Expo 2020 Dubai. I had always been impressed by the Bedouin culture of sustainability and the UAE's progressive goals. On moving here, I quickly found peace hiking in the desert and diving with sea turtles in the Gulf of Oman. Then I came across a herd of camels surrounded by plastic bags and bottles and later found shreds of plastic drifting in the ocean – sad reminders of the destruction we are wreaking on our ecosystem and evidence of how our daily actions diminish life and our natural environment.

We make goals and innovate but the majority of us are still “business as usual” when it comes to polluting, our actions leading to rising sea levels, increasing global temperatures, water and food shortages, conflict over resources and climate refugees. Amid all this, World Environment Day exists to raise awareness of a problem and encourage action. Humanity still has a long way to go.

There is no doubt that action is needed and I am grateful to live in a country with a progressive strategy that looks to the future with optimism and has an unwavering commitment to fighting the climate crisis.

The Paris agreement and the UN's Agenda for Sustainable Development set 2030 as a deadline to reduce humanity's footprint on the planet. If we do not act together with dynamism and vision, we stand no chance of resolving a crisis that affects us all.

Strategies, goals and innovations are essential for progress but lasting change must be something we all seek in every area of our lives

Expo 2020 Dubai offers an ideal platform to answer that call. The next World Expo, the first to be held in the Arab world, aims to push the boundaries of traditional thinking. We will gather decision-makers, innovators, technology experts and – crucially – millions of people, in one place, for a timely opportunity to share inventive ideas that will have the power to deliver that sustainability agenda within the short time required.

From Norway’s focus on promoting clean and healthy oceans to the inextricable link between people and planet underscored by New Zealand and Brazil’s rich biodiversity and potential for sustainable production, more than 200 international participants, including countries, multilateral organisations, corporations and educational establishments, will share their ideas and innovations when Expo 2020 opens in October 2020.

This sort of collaborative approach is vital because only by working together can we continue to enjoy the benefits of progress and reverse the tide of environmental destruction.

The structures on the Expo site can offer and inspire solutions too. Clever construction and advances in technology provide a huge opportunity to incorporate sustainable elements in the way we design, build and service our communities.

For instance, Expo 2020 is trialling solar “trees” that rotate to follow the path of the sun, maximising clean energy and increasing energy production by 20 per cent. We hope these will be a plausible solution for other countries that also experience high irradiation. Imagine if we were to plant these trees across our most populated cities. To what extent could this multiply energy production and create savings in other energy sources?

The sustainability pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

At least 75 per cent of Expo’s buildings will be smart, with features such as smart metering and digital feedback across energy and water consumption, air conditioning, lifts, fire alarms and waste. Such tech solutions will be key to managing and reducing energy use in the future.

These are just a few examples. There are many more, because Expo 2020’s goal from the start has been to incorporate sustainability across every phase – from construction to how visitors experience the event, through to its legacy and global impact.

The site will be a sustainable destination in its own right. More than 80 per cent of Expo-built structures – all designed to meet global gold standards for sustainability – will continue to be used after the event, creating a benchmark for smart, resource-efficient cities of the future.

Solar Trees in Quran Park. 25 September 2016. WAM *** Local Caption ***  Solar Trees.jpg Solar Trees.jpg

And Terra, the sustainability pavilion at Expo 2020, will take millions of visitors on an engaging and emotional journey through our natural world, exposing the scale of destruction and shocking visitors into changing their habits.

Strategies, goals and innovations are essential for progress but lasting change must be something we all seek in every area of our lives. This starts by being aware of the harm our actions can have and what we can change in order to live in a more environmentally responsible way, because this is a global crisis that needs all eight billion of us to take drastic action, now. We must rise to the challenge. Until we have acted together to find our way out of this catastrophe, every day should be World Environment Day.

Jason Meininger was a senior aide to former US secretary of state John Kerry and is senior vice president – sustainability at Expo 2020 Dubai

US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) accompanied by aide Jason Meininger leaves a meeting with European Union Ministers of Foreign Affairs at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, Lithuania, on September 7, 2013.  Kerry traveled to Europe to court international support for a possible strike on the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons while making calls back home to lobby Congress where the action faces an uphill battle.   AFP PHOTO / POOL/ SUSAN WALSH (Photo by SUSAN WALSH / POOL / AFP)