Earth Day 2022: what are the biggest threats to our planet?

Annual event will highlight the importance of long-term ecological sustainability

People across the world are marking Earth Day 2022 with activities such as litter-picking, climate education, and discussions on how we can care for our planet better.

Earth Day is an annual celebration honouring the environmental movement's achievements and raising awareness of the importance of long-term ecological sustainability.

First held on April 22, 1970, it now includes a wide range of events coordinated globally by Earthday.org, including 1 billion people in more than 193 countries. The official theme for 2022 is Invest In Our Planet.

Let's take a look at the most critical environmental problems facing us and the dangers they pose ahead of Earth Day 2022.

Climate change

Man-made climate change continues to be one of the biggest threats to Planet Earth. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned this month that we must act "now, or never" to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

“This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies. We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5-degree Celsius limit that was agreed in Paris in 2015," UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said.

Prior to the Paris climate agreement, scientists had discovered that the Earth is heading for a 3-degree rise in temperature.

They determined that the Earth would be relatively safe, if temperatures were limited to 1.5-degrees above pre-industrial levels. Any warming beyond that would result in rising sea levels; hot-water temperatures that could kill swathes of marine life; stronger and deadlier storms; and a hotter climate with heavier rains, which would be detrimental for food security.

Temperature change isn't uniform across the world — so the impacts of global warming are being detected more heavily where warming happens at a faster speed: over land areas than oceans. Nasa says the most severe warming is happening in the Arctic during the winter and in the summer in the mid-latitude regions such as East and Central Asia and Central and Eastern Europe.

More female sea turtles are being born because the temperature of the sand the eggs are buried in, impacts the gender of the offspring. A rise in temperature as little as 3.3-degrees-Celsius is enough to create more females and drive sea turtles into extinction.

"While the plight of sea turtles is illustrative, it’s a fact that all natural and human systems are sensitive to climate warming in varying degrees," Nasa's Global Climate Change website says.

Tropical storm Ida was a clear reflection of the detrimental effect the climate crisis could have on humanity when it struck the US last year. It killed dozens of people, leaving over a million homes without power, and caused damage worth $10 billion.

US President Joe Biden issued what he called a climate crisis "code red" in the aftermath of Ida.

One of the most striking aspects of the horrific hurricane was the speed with which it grew.

This is because hurricanes derive their fuel from heat, so the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico acted essentially as an accelerant to create Ida, one of the worst tropical storms to hit the US since 1985.

“There’s so much energy stored there that, once you get a hurricane to form, you can feed it more energy and create a monster,” climatologist Barry Keim said.

In September, the UN Climate Change Conference (Cop26) saw major pledges by major players to limit the carbon footprint of some of the largest emitters, This included a pact on reducing fossil fuel subsidies, reversing deforestation and curbing methane emissions.

However, as the dust settled on the conference, reports began to show that much of what had been pledged did not reflect the reality on the ground.

Water scarcity

As flooding due to melting ice caps threatens the planet, experts believe that humans will fight future wars over water.

The UN has repeatedly called water scarcity a "security issue".

Water is essential to every single aspect of human, planet or animal life. So, when there is a lack of water, the dynamics between once-friendly nations can quickly change, and strong alliances on a much smaller scale can shift.

This is already playing out in the Middle East and Africa.

Ethiopia's Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile threatens to throttle its downstream neighbours Sudan and Egypt if a deal on water share isn't reached. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has repeatedly alluded to the use of force if Ethiopia does not stop taking unilateral action on the dam. In February, Ethiopia said it began generating electricity from the dam.

Tensions have been rising for years between India and Pakistan, who share six rivers among them under what is known as the Indus Water Treaty.

It took nine years of talks and diplomacy but, in the end, a solution was reached to split equally the number of rivers controlled by both countries. India has used violent armed groups in Pakistan as a reason for blocking what surplus water flows into Pakistan from India's rivers. Now, India is also building dams, further straining the relationship with its neighbouring country.

Water is so valuable that it can be used as leverage when taking over an entire country.

Knowing that Afghanistan's economy relies heavy on agriculture, the Taliban regularly attack infrastructure such as dams.

In the days leading up to the Taliban takeover of the country, the Afghan National Water Authority warned about threats to the 500-metre-long Afghan-India Friendship Dam, which provides 42 mega-watts of power and irrigation to 185,329 acres of farmland.

Before Herat fell to the group, the number of soldiers protecting the dam began to dwindle. In an interview with environment magazine Down to Earth, Ali Ahmad Osmani, Afghanistan’s former Minister of Energy and Water, said the number of soldiers went down by 70 per cent.

In 2020, 40-year-old Kamar Gul, who had fled her home in Badghis 20 years prior because of a drought, told The National Geographic: “It was easy for [the Taliban] to capture the area... Everyone was hungry.”

Overall, the UN estimates some 26 per cent of the world's population, or two billion people, lacked safe drinking water in 2020.

As droughts due to climate change continue, the Earth's population rises and consumption surges, more communities face what is called a "Day Zero" scenario where the water runs out.

Cape Town is such an example when, in 2018 South Africa's capital almost had the government shut off taps across the city because of dwindling reservoir supplies.

The year before, Italy's capital, Rome, was rationing water supplies as rainfall declined by 70 per cent.

Food insecurity

All of the above, in addition to emerging wars such the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have not only resulted in an increasingly food-insecure world, but also one where the cost of basic commodities such as wheat have soared to record levels.

Like the water crisis and climate change, food insecurity disproportionately impacts the world's most vulnerable populations.

Historic levels of hunger have improved, but starvation and malnutrition are not eradicated and may not be by even 2030 at the current rate.

In places such as Yemen, which has been at war for at least six years and has been subject to restrictions on food imports, hunger water shortages and turbulent weather have disturbed agriculture and food supplies critical for daily survival.

Add to that an unexpected global pandemic like the coronavirus, and the numbers become staggeringly high.

A worker cuts wheat with a sickle during a crop harvest in the Kasur district of Punjab province, Pakistan, on Tuesday, April 19, 2022.  Pakistan's food ministry issued a statement estimating this season's wheat output at 26.8m tonnes. Bloomberg

A UN report published last May showed that 20 million more people were in hunger levels of "crisis or worse" due to the economic fallout from the pandemic.

In Africa alone, 98 million people faced "acute food insecurity" in 2020, research has found. This means death, starvation, stunted growth in children and a continued need for humanitarian aid worth billions of dollars in developing nations.

Oxfam found that 11 people globally die of hunger every minute, surpassing mortality rates due to the coronavirus.

Overall, it is safe to say that while sweeping measures to curb any number of the problems above remain lacklustre. recycling and remaining conscientious of one's water and food-print may one day save lives.

Updated: April 22, 2022, 1:30 PM
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