The first day of most of the environmental training courses that I deliver tend to start off with ‘doom and gloom’ about how our species is trashing the planet. This occurs in many ways from climate change to polluting watercourses and biodiversity loss at an alarming rate. We are even currently living through a mass extinction event. This is the right approach. I guess students need to understand environmental problems early on in a course. However, I often think that we should consider actions that have taken place to improve the environment over the years. There is quite often a feeling of hopelessness in people when delivering a totally negative message, which is not always conducive to fixing such problems.
The problem we have today can quite often be overwhelming. There is a significant feeling of helplessness when it comes to achieving environmental improvements. It gets to the point in some individuals as to ‘why should we bother?’.
Positive environmental case studies do give us hope that huge problems can be solved if there is sufficient will and resources thrown at them. For example, climate change is all the rage at the moment. I don’t think I have seen so many stories in the media regarding the topic. Largely as a result of COP 26 occurring as I write this post. Let’s face it, climate change is a huge problem. Arguably it is the greatest environmental issue that we have ever faced on the planet – but it can be beaten. We have solved problems such as this before. We should have some semblance of hope that if we mobilise and take significant action now it can be beaten.
Let’s now take a look at a couple of case studies that show environmental problems have been solved.
We know for quite some time that the release of certain gases such as CFCs causes significant depletion of ozone in the atmosphere . Ozone in the atmosphere is a very good thing that protects us from ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Too much UV increases the risk of skin cancer and has other negative implications. In the 1980s it was discovered that an ozone hole occurs over Antarctica, so there is zero ozone in this area at certain times of the year. It should not be like this. However, governments and others came together and developed solutions to this problem in an efficient and effective way by phasing out and eventually banning ozone depleting substances under the Montreal Protocol. ODSs are very persistent in the atmosphere but there is already evidence to show that the ozone hole is shrinking.
Acid rain was also a significant issue in developed countries across the world up until recently. It is an issue that is caused by the release of sulphur and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. In the 1980s in the developed world large quantities of sulphur dioxide were pumped into the atmosphere which would react with water in clouds and increase acidity of rain causing damage to sensitive ecosystems. Such pollutants could be blown thousands of kilometres from their source.
The UK, for example, was known as the ‘Dirty man of Europe’ as such emissions from the burning of coal would transfer over to Scandinavia and other areas and decrease pH and cause much damage to pristine lake and forests. Most developed countries have solved this problem by introducing laws and techniques to reduce the amount of sulphur dioxide released into the atmosphere in addition to the move away in some countries to cleaner fuels such as natural gas.
I think the focus is currently correct in society that we should definitely communicate the damage that we are doing to the environment in a very big way. However, I would like to see more on the positives of what we can do with references to positive case studies from the past.
John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MIEMA
With over 19 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.