Earth Day 2024

It has been just over a week since International Earth Day, celebrated annually on April 22nd. This year’s theme was ‘Planet vs Plastics’, and involved clean-up events and learning opportunities about the damage done by plastic pollution.

Earth Day began in 1970 by Gaylord Nelson, US senator and environmentalist, and Denis Hayes, a graduate at Harvard University. Both had growing concerns about environmental damage in the US, such as that caused by a large oil spill in 1969 in Santa Barbara, California. Earth Day was their way to raise awareness about green issues on a national level.

On this first Earth Day, 20 million people in the US took to the streets. Within a few years of this first Earth Day, the US Environmental Protection Agency had been set up, and several laws, such as the Clean Air Act, had been established or strengthened. Twenty years later in 1990, the day became a global event, now involving over one billion people of all ages in nearly 200 countries, according to Earth Day organisers.

“Celebrating Earth Day is often the first environmental action for a lot of people,” says president, Kathleen Rogers.

The theme for this year’s Earth Day was ‘Planet vs Plastics’ with the aim to raise awareness of the harms of plastic pollution for human and planetary health. Previous years have had their themes cover a range of environmental issues. This year’s theme was inspired ahead of a UN treaty on plastics, which is expected to be agreed upon by the end of 2024 in which more than 50 countries, including the UK, have called for an end to plastic pollution by 2040.

However, Earth Day organisers intend to go further, calling for a 60% reduction in the production of all plastics by 2040, calling for consumers and companies to work against plastic pollution. This is significant because only 16% of plastics and plastic packaging are being recycled while the majority of plastics find their way to landfills, incineration sites, or our rivers and oceans. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) predicts that the consumption of plastics will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050, an alarming trajectory considering countries’ commitment to reduce fossil fuels.

Earth Day is cited as important in pushing environmental issues onto national and international agendas. This was seen in 2016 when Earth Day was chosen for the official signing of the landmark Paris Climate Accord, which had been agreed upon in late 2015, and was the first time that countries of the world had collectively agreed on targets to try to limit global warming.

“With a host of issues driving our environmental challenges down society’s priority list, events like Earth Day remind us of the long-term cost of short-termism,” says Yvo de Boer, former UN climate chief.

However, the day is also criticised for providing a false sense of progress. Many environmental issues are worsening or going unchanged, such as global temperatures and species extinctions, and so far, efforts have been unable to halt or reverse these trends. Even though the Earth Day 2024 Toolkit states that “recycling is not the answer” regarding this year’s theme of plastic pollution, combatting the issue of plastic requires long-term solutions which cannot be achieved in one day a year.

Another rising issue is greenwashing. Some individuals and companies use Earth Day to misleadingly promote their environmental credentials without making the real changes that are needed.

Greta Thunberg criticised greenwashing in 2022, stating that Earth Day “has turned into an opportunity for people in power to post their ‘love’ for the planet, while at the same time destroying it at maximum speed.”

So what is the point of Earth Day if it doesn’t really achieve anything?

Earth Day serves as a reminder of the importance of environmental conservation and sustainability, things that require year-round effort. Earth Day is simply a springboard for discussions surrounding these ideas to commit to solutions throughout the rest of the year.

So treat every day like Earth Day: start conversations about sustainability, organise events and protests for solutions to green issues, and slowly change can be made.


Featured image: Markus Spiske via Pexels

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