Does Earth Day Matter? Taking Stock of Where We Are in 2011

By Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., CO2 IMPACT

Well, here we are again, Earth Day 2011.  Some of the readers of this weekly series on Climate Capitalism are well aware of my general dissatisfaction with the role that events like Earth Hour and even 350.org actually have in moving the needle on massive issues like climate change.

Most people assume that I share the same opinion about Earth Day.  When asked about it recently, I had a hard time immediately explaining why I have some affinity for Earth Day and not for other events put on by world-class organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and 350.org.

After some reflection I realized that some of my apparent hypocrisy on this relates to a sentimental value I have for Earth Day.  The first Earth Day was held on April 22nd, 1970, the same year I was born-yes if you are counting that means I will be 41 this year, just like Earth Day.  That means that for more than 40 years, activists, students, concerned citizens and politicians have used Earth Day as an opportunity to discuss environmental issues around the globe.  Earth Day has become an institution focused on protecting Mother Earth.

Another reason I am fond of Earth Day is that historically it has had a strong political orientation to it. In fact, one of the “Fathers of Earth Day,” Gaylord Nelson, was a U.S. Senator from the state of Wisconsin.  The kernel of the idea for Earth Day came when Senator Nelson encouraged President Kennedy to take a five-day, 11 state “conservation tour” to raise political and public awareness for environmental protection.  You may ask why do I care about the political origins of Earth Day?  The reason is that getting political action on environmental issues, particularly climate change, is something I consider to be one of the key ways we can move the needle on climate change.

So the question becomes, beyond being a highly recognized day on the calendar each year to discuss the environment, has Earth Day accomplished anything meaningful?

The 1990 Earth Day event was a trigger for bringing recycling into the mainstream.  Earth Day throughout the years has of course been the impetus for the education of millions of youth, raising their awareness of our impacts on Earth’s ecosystems.

But yet, where are we really with regards to human’s appreciation about our impacts on the planet, and our resolve to reduce those impacts?  Let’s consider progress on corporate and public policy.

Actually on the company side, I think many of the large and small companies around the globe are in fact doing a much better job than they were, say at the turn of the century and much better than they were doing when Earth Day was started.  CSR, sustainability and ecological footprint were not even in our lexicon back then.  Nearly 70% of all Global Fortune 500 companies are producing annual CSR reports.

Since 2003, the number of companies voluntarily reporting their carbon footprint through the Carbon Disclosure Project has risen from 235 to 3,050 companies in 2010.

Don’t get me wrong, we have a long way to go to have the world’s economic engines, private companies, embrace what Ray Anderson of Interface did more than a decade ago-“to de well by doing good.”  We still have our examples of companies acting irresponsibly such as BP’s oil disaster in the Gulf and the poor safety record at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

On the political side we have had our ups and downs too.  The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, put binding emissions reductions targets on more than 30 industrialized countries and resulted in the creation of a regulated carbon market worth more than $140 billion annually.  Several countries and regions have passed legislation to phase out some or all fossil fuel over the next decade.   For example,  Germany and Canada’s Province of Ontario are phasing out coal-fired power plants.  Sweden has a stated goal to be fossil-fuel free by 2020 and while they may not make there are some Scandinavian towns already on their way, like Kristianstad, Sweden and Samsø, Denmark’s renewable energy island.

Despite some real progress on the political side around the globe, we do not have to look beyond America’s borders for lots of failure. The U.S. has yet to commit to a cap and trade program or even to put a price on carbon.  President Obama, who came into office with lots of promises regarding carbon reductions and clean energy, has largely failed to live up to expectations.  Of course I am not sure any human on this planet could actually pass much meaningful legislation on any remotely controversial topic such as climate change and the environment through the partisanship in today’s congress.

So, are we better off on the environmental front than we were when I was born?  As far as public awareness and meaningful action by many companies and governments, I’d say yes.  However, most metrics of our net environmental impact such as carbon footprint, ecological footprint, loss of biodiversity and rates of deforestation would all suggest that we are winning some battles but losing the war.

Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

This series will use the hashtag #climatcaptlsm

 

Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.Twitter: boydcohen