With climate change, plastic pollution and a potential sixth mass extinction, humanity has done incredible damage to the world.
But when people, political factions, and nations came together, they also solved some of these man-made environmental problems, including healing the ozone hole, cleaning up perpetually polluted air, and saving many species on the verge of extinction.
“We can be good at cleaning up our mess, it’s whether or not we choose to be and what we prioritize,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, an environmental sustainability researcher at Michigan State University.
For Earth Day, The Associated Press asked more than 25 environmental scientists and policy experts, including two former heads of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the current director of the United Nations Environment, to share their top stories about environmental problems the world has solved.
“There are incredible success stories,” said Stanford University environmental scientist Rob Jackson. “It’s easy for us to get tunnel vision when things are going wrong, and there are a lot of things that need to change quickly. But it’s wonderful to remember that other people in the past have been successful and the company has been successful as well, both domestically here in the United States and internationally.
Here are the four most often cited successes and a key aspect that so many green victories have in common.
CURE THE OZONE HOLE
Solving the depletion of the ozone layer was by far the first choice of scientists, officials and experts in environmental policy.
“It was a time when countries that usually compete with each other seized on the collective threat and decided to implement a solution,” former EPA chief Carol Browner said in an email.
Scientists in the 1970s discovered that a certain class of chemicals, often used in aerosols and refrigeration, ate away at the protective ozone layer in the Earth’s atmosphere that shields the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation linked to skin cancer. skin.
The ozone layer was thinning everywhere, creating a hole over Antarctica, which threatened not only an increase in cases of skin cancer, but also cataracts and widespread changes in ecosystems around the world, said Jason West, an atmospheric scientist at the University of North Carolina.
“This is the first time we’ve created a planet-killing problem, and then we’ve turned around and solved it,” Stanford’s Jackson said.
In 1987, countries around the world signed the Montreal Protocol, a first-of-its-kind treaty that banned ozone-depleting chemicals. By this point, every nation in the world has adopted the treaty, 99% of ozone-depleting chemicals have been phased out, ‘saving 2 million people each year from skin cancer,’ says program director of the United Nations Environment, Inger Andersen, in an email.
The ozone hole over Antarctica worsened for a few decades, but in recent years it has slowly begun to heal in spurts. The United Nations Environment Program predicts that ozone will “fully disappear by the 2030s”.
If activists point to the Montreal Protocol as a hope and an example for the fight against climate change, it is not quite the same thing. In the case of banned chemicals that deplete the ozone layer, the companies that made them have also replaced them. But with climate change, “it’s more of an existential threat to oil and gas companies,” Jackson said.
CLEANER AIR AND WATER
In the United States and much of the industrialized world, the air is much cleaner and clearer than it was 50 or 60 years ago, when big cities like Los Angeles were choked with smog. and even more dangerous microscopic particles in the air. And lakes and rivers were dumping grounds, especially around Ohio, Michigan and Canada.
“We used to go to Lake Erie when I was young…and play on the beach and there were dead fish everywhere. We would have dead fish fights,” Stanford’s Jackson said.
In the United States, the Clean Air Act of 1970 and its follow-up in 1990 with EPA regulations “effectively cleaned our air,” said UNC’s West. A similar law was passed in 1972 for water.
“It’s led to fewer health problems like cancer and asthma, for example, and saved millions of lives and billions of dollars in healthcare costs,” said science professor Sam Tuttle. environmental studies at Syracuse University. “That means healthier people, more productive fisheries, and a healthier, more attractive environment for all of us.”
Strict restrictions on tiny particles alone reduced the annual number of air pollution deaths in the United States “from about 95,000 in 1990 to 48,000 in 2019,” West said.
In Los Angeles in 1955, smog levels peaked at 680 parts per billion. In the past two years they have reached 185 parts per billion, but are generally much smaller.
It’s not just the outside air. Former EPA chief William K. Reilly and University of Maryland environmental health scientist Sacoby Wilson say restricting smoking indoors has huge public health effects .
On the water, J. Timmons Roberts, an environmental scientist at Brown University, also grew up on Lake Erie and stopped going in the water because of dead fish: “Regulation and cooperation between the United States and Canada has really made a difference and now there is real ecotourism. there and thousands of walleye and other anglers come out every summer.
SOLAR AND WIND ENERGY
The sharp drop in the price of solar and wind energy, which do not produce heat-trapping gases, surprised experts and gave them hope that the world could wean itself off the coal, oil and natural gas that cause the global warming.
From 2010 to 2020, the price of residential solar power fell 64% and the price of utility-scale solar power generation dropped 82%, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab.
Solar power “is becoming a mainstream energy technology and it’s getting cheaper,” Jackson said. “It’s cheaper than almost any other form of power generation.”
Few people thought solar and wind prices would fall so rapidly just a decade ago, Jackson, Kirshenbaum and others said.
Experts credit renewable energy subsidies with lifting the world out of the Great Recession of 2008, especially in Germany and the United States.
THE THREATENED SPECIES
The bald eagle, American alligator, peregrine falcon, Canada goose and humpback whale are each environmental success stories.
All were once on the brink of extinction, put on the endangered species list for protection. Now they are all on the protected list and in some cases they are so abundant that people consider them a nuisance or cause problems for other species.
“Conservation efforts are recovering some endangered species,” said Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm. “We are learning to do what is called conservation.”
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has removed 96 species from the endangered species list, 65 of them because they have recovered.
Experts credit regulations and laws around the world with restricting the killing and trade of endangered species and preventing the destruction of critical habitats for these creatures and plants.
Another key change was the banning of the pesticide DDT, which rippled through the food chain, causing egg thinning of eagles, peregrine falcons and other birds of prey, said Robert Howarth, professor of environmental biology at Cornell University.
In the United States, many of these key successes were spurred by legislation and actions taken by the Republican administrations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush.
“All of these major milestones, including the creation of the EPA, were bipartisan, but unfortunately today we are failing to do this job,” said Christie Todd Whitman, who served as EPA chief for a Republican presidency. “Unfortunately, the Republicans don’t seem to care about these issues anymore – everything is so hyper partisan now that (the) GOP seems to be Neanderthals on the environment.”
Often when a Republican is president, the rest of the country shifts to the left and becomes more supportive of environmental action, while it shifts to the right and becomes more environmentally friendly during Democratic administrations, said Kirshenbaum, a former congressman and director of science debate. What’s important is cooperation and buy-in to big issues from all sides, the experts said.
The treaty to close the hole in the ozone layer is an example of what collaboration can accomplish, said Tuttle of Syracuse: “This agreement has proven that the international community can come together to create an enforceable framework for tackling an environmental problem of global importance.
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