In light of the recent political action brought about by activists such as Greta Thunberg, and explicit documentaries like David Attenborough’s Climate Change the Facts, the environment is taking centre stage in the media. The Youth Climate Change strikes and Extinction Rebellion movement are working, and today there’ll be a forced vote in parliament to try to declare a national environmental and climate change emergency.
We and Mrs Dougall feel like this is a call for us and our school to start taking environmental issues more seriously. Starting with our Mayday for nature weekend. In the Weekly Mailings you’ll find a link to the WWF carbon footprint calculator, plus an environmental audit, to look at how our families can live more sustainably. School is also going to be making more changes and let us know if you want to get involved in them.
But now to help kick-start the conversation, I’m going to hand over to some students and staff who want to tell you about the environmental issues that matter to them the most. We hope this empowers you to think about the issues that concern you and how to start making changes.
Plastic and plastic waste is such a big topic right now, but what are the real facts? Since the 1950s, around 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced worldwide. And only 9% of it has been recycled. So 91% has ended up in our landfill or our rivers and oceans. Normally, plastic in landfill sites can take up to 1000 years to decompose. Plastic bags can take anything 10–1000 years and plastic bottles 450+ years.
There are 12.7 million tonnes of plastic in our oceans. This includes everything from plastic bottles to bags and micro-beads. That’s a truck load of rubbish a minute. Big pieces of plastic are choking and entangling turtles and seabirds and tiny pieces are clogging the stomachs of creatures who mistake it for food, from tiny zooplankton to the whales and other fish that eat them. This now means that unintentionally, we are eating plastic too. Has anyone been to the beach recently? If you walk along a coast line, there is bound to be plastic. From fishing nets and plastic bags to microscopic pellets, it’s there.
Most people see global warming and climate change as something that happens gar away in Antarctica, where ice caps are melting and animals go hungry. We’ve probably seen lots of photos and documentaries about the effects we have on our planet, like David Attenborough’s new series Our Planet, which is on Netflix right now and I would recommend. These things are happening fast and they’re important but many aspects of the climate crisis go completely overlooked. For example, it is estimated that by 2050 200 million people will have been displaced by climate change, and in this century coastal towns and cities will begin to really see the effects of the sea level rising as what has been labelled cities ‘sinking’ underwater like London, Shanghai and New York. Millions of people are already feeling the effects of global warming because droughts and flooding have meant people have left their homes behind and have started to migrate to find work for themselves but often they end up in slums with no money. A real example of someone made homeless by climate change is Golam Sarder. Golam grew up in a fishing village in Bangladesh but it has since been heavily flooded and he can't go home. National Geographic wrote in their article about his new life that he doesn't even know what global warming is, and yet he has been forced to work far away from home in Dhaka for fifteen hours a day in a brick factory.
In countries like ours we can afford to take action. Unfortunately, right now no government treats climate change as a crisis. We need to start by pressuring governments and industries with big carbon footprints into making changes that they are still ignoring because of the huge profits they make. If we can all participate by signing petitions, being active environmentalists and taking the problem into our own hands at school to limit the damage we're doing, we can tackle the crisis before it becomes irreversible by 2030. We need to think about what we do as individuals and how we can limit our carbon footprint as a school. This starts with small things like saving paper by using email to submit work more often and stopping food going to waste at lunch. We can also all propose new ideas like substituting plastics we use in the school kitchen and the plastic bottles we buy at breaks with other materials that are eco-friendly, for example, we could just have our own jugs of infused water which wouldn't cost anything. It's important to remember that we've been doing research and developing new technology for decades and some of these ideas are now ready to use. All of the facts are right here, we just to put them into practice because we don't have as long as we think to help save where we all live.
One issue we should all be concerned about is ambient air pollution – that is, the outside air we breathe every day. Air pollution can have both short term and long term effects on our health but, since it is not always visible, we might not be aware of it. According to the World Health Organisation ambient air pollution accounts for an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths each year due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases. Around 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed the World health Organisation’s guide limits. The worst affected are low- and middle-income countries but ambient air pollution affects all of us. According to Public Health UK, air pollution is one of the UK’s biggest killers, causing an estimated 36,000 early deaths each year and putting an enormous burden on the NHS.
Although some air pollution comes from natural sources, e.g. forest fires, the contribution from human activities far exceeds natural sources. The way we travel, heat our homes, generate power, manufacture goods, and deal with the waste we produce all lead to pollution. In July 2018, the death of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah was linked to illegally high levels of air pollution. It was the first time a direct connection was made between a person’s death and local air pollution. Ella – who was an asthma sufferer – lived 25m away from London’s South Circular Road. She often walked to school along this road or, when she was driven, would sit in long traffic jams. During the three years leading up to her death, she suffered several seizures which coincided with peaks in air pollution.
We can all help to reduce this kind of pollution – we can use public transport, car share, turn off our car engines while waiting for someone etc. Most emissions of ambient air pollution come from local or regional sources but under certain atmospheric conditions air pollution can travel long distances across national borders over a number of days, thereby affecting people far away from the original sources. As a result, global cooperation is needed to tackle this problem.
One of the things that amazes me most about forests (and rainforests in particular) is their sheer productivity. Every square metre is packed to the brim with life, with plants and trees releasing a significant proportion of the oxygen that we breathe (in doing so taking in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide). Along with highly-adapted animal species they also showcase the incredible biodiversity that we as humans could gain so much knowledge and enjoyment from. And yet for the sake of short-term economic gain we are currently in the process of destroying our forests, and with them the ecological niches that have developed over thousands of years, the homes of ancient indigenous peoples and the plentiful supply of oxygen available in the air that we ourselves breathe.
But with public co-operation and engagement in developing good habits, this is a solvable issue. So why don't we solve it?
The answer is not that we are unaware of the damage that our actions are doing. In an increasingly globalised world we are bombarded with statistics from conservation campaigns and news stories (one that I'm sure many of us have heard being that the equivalent of a football field of rainforest is lost every 2 seconds). But I think there are 2 main problems, causing a general ‘passion fatigue’. 1. That it is incredibly difficult to find a tangible connection between the action of global forests and the physical composition of the air both that we breathe and that makes up our atmosphere, and 2. That no matter how many football fields are being lost each second at the moment there are still enough trees for plentiful and cheap supplies of paper and wood and enough oxygen to sustain even a rapidly expanding global population. It seems only natural to assume that the incredible wildlife and indigenous people of these areas also have enough forest to sustain them, even as it is unrelentingly cut away.
So, to put it into a new perspective: last year, global forest cover fell by 0.4%. Forests provide around 30% of the world's oxygen. So if we were to imagine them as similar to the ‘lungs of the Earth’, decreasing in volume by 0.4% of the original each year, at what point would we decide to act, especially considering that this is the only breathing apparatus that we have to pass onto our children and grandchildren? Similarly, it is the only home that generations of indigenous people have learned to thrive in, and the unique environment that has fostered the development of incredible biodiversity for the thousands of years before humans became the dominant species on our planet.
With recent campaigns such as the Extinction Rebellion gaining momentum across the globe, the importance of striking a balance between conservation of forests and vital economic development in lower-income countries is greater than ever before and everyone here has the power to make a difference.
In recent decades three species of bumblebee have become extinct and solitary bee populations have declined by 52%. Furthermore, 1 in 10 species of wild bee are currently facing extinction. This is extremely troubling as bees are critical pollinators – they pollinate 70% of the hundreds of plant species that feed 90% of the world.
If bee populations continue to decline, the food chain will be massively disrupted as we will lose all the plants pollinated by bees. This impacts both humans and animals alike. Two of the factors accountable for the decline of bee populations are pesticides and climate change.
Pesticides from crops reach bees via pollen and are extremely harmful as they are very toxic. They weaken and eventually kill bees. Climate change causes habitat loss due to drastic temperature shift, and encourages the spread of disease.
If all bees became extinct, it would take 20 years for all life on earth to die out, and only 4 for the human race to become extinct.
We can prevent this crisis from the comfort of our own gardens, by abstaining from pesticides, planting bee-friendly flowers and mowing the lawn less often. This encourages the growth of wild flowers, which are an essential food source for bees.
The environmental problems that our generation face often seem overwhelming, and it can be hard to know what we can actually do to help, especially as young people. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still have the power or responsibility to do something. Lifestyle changes and political action together can make a difference! Science says that things like our families switching to green energy, reducing meat and dairy consumption and flying less can help prevent climate change.
A mixture of activism and practical actions can make a difference to the loss of pollinators (as Alicia mentioned), we can support charities that buy up the rainforest and prevent deforestation and we can lobby to get biodegradable plastics to our cupboards now, not in 10 years’ time.
In school, we’re now developing a bigger student-staff partnership to address environmental issues, so thank you to the staff who approached us to get involved and thanks also to other groups like Debating Club for putting a greater emphasis on environmental issues. It all helps.
There has to be a rethink on what we think we’re entitled to. Here are some of the most effective things we can do individually to reduce our carbon emissions:
- Fly less. Flying, especially long-haul flights, emits a huge amount of carbon. One return flight from London to Sydney emits about 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide – roughly half the average person’s annual carbon footprint. Try to pick holiday destinations that aren’t so far away, or travel by car/train/boat instead.
- Get your family to switch to a green energy provider. It’s really easy and it means that your energy comes from sustainable sources such as wind and solar. And by switching you’ll be encouraging the vital expansion of green energy.
- Reduce your meat and dairy consumption. 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the meat and dairy industry and studies have shown that cutting out animal products is the single best way to reduce our carbon footprint. As a first step, try only eating eat meat a couple of times a week. It’s also healthier for us. School are going to be looking at this next year, but we can all reduce our meat and dairy consumption at home too.
- Become an activist.
- Donate your money rather than your time to environmental charities such as deforestation charities.
Katy (L6H) and the School Council Environmental committee