Earth Day and the climate crisis

Friday, April 22, 2022

A University of Waterloo press release.

Many view the first Earth Day as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Water Institute member Sarah Burch, Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Governance and Innovation, discusses its relevance more than 50 years on. She is the executive director of Waterloo's Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change and a lead author of the recently released report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that assesses the science related to our changing climate.  

Listen to Sarah Burch's full interview on the Beyond the Bulletin podcast, available on Earth Day.

The UN Climate Report stated that there has been a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in some countries. Is that promising news?

The global picture is that we've seen the largest average annual increase in greenhouse gas emissions that we've ever seen in human history. So globally, greenhouse gas emissions continue to go up. However, the flip side is that we're seeing real evidence for the first time of sustained greenhouse gas reductions in around 20 countries. Those reductions are unfortunately swallowed up by the global increase, but they do show us that it's possible. They show us that good climate change decisions and policies are having a real effect, and we have a template to follow.

Earth Day is a day when individuals show support for environmental protection. Does it still matter when so many years after the very first Earth Day we continue to have serious environmental problems?

Earth Day began as a moment to reflect on the natural environment and the impacts that we were having on that. What I appreciate about our conversation today is that we're starting to talk about all the important ways that climate change and other environmental problems like it are not simply environmental problems, they're people problems, they’re social problems. So I think Earth Day gives us pause to think about how much a part of nature humans really are and to re-examine our relationship to nature and what it means to have a just, inclusive and sustainable society. The IPCC report kind of sets the stage for Earth Day as a moment of reflection, on how far we've come and how far we need to go. What the IPCC report demonstrates really powerfully is that the solutions that we need are already available. And so Earth Day offers us this opportunity to have a conversation about the behaviours we need to change, the politics that we need to change.

How much is it the responsibility of individuals to get us to reach that target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius?

The IPCC tells us that individuals and individual choice control 40 to 70 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions. But the report concludes that in many ways, our hands are tied as individuals. We're locked into high-carbon ways of living because our cities are designed the way they are. So it's actually collective decisions that are made by governments at all levels that would unshackle us from those high-carbon pathways and allow us to unleash the potential of individual choice.

The theme of Earth Day 2022 is Invest In Our Planet. Can we buy or spend our way out of the climate crisis?

We can't consume our way out of this crisis. I do think, though, that the IPCC report shows that we are underspending on this transition by 300 to 600 per cent. So our investment, our finance, the flow of funds need to go up by a factor of three to six to really accelerate this change at the scale we need. And that's investment in renewable energy, and in the technologies, the industrial processes, the vehicles, all of this that we need as part of the transition. So that kind of spending is absolutely crucial. It’s a huge justice issue because we know that the poorest countries globally are the hardest impacted by climate change and don't necessarily have the resources that they need to leap over this dirty phase of development towards a cleaner renewable-energy path. And that is a responsibility of wealthier industrialized nations like ours.