Earth Day
Join our experts in reflecting on the most pressing environmental issues today, and learn about what everyone can do to help the planet.
7 questions
1. Is the Earth's climate really getting worse?2. Should ecology and ecoliteracy be core to the school curriculum?3. Are rainforests in trouble?4. How can I get the best beach holiday at the least cost to the planet?5. What is more ecologically sustainable: taking the Tube or the bus?6. Is fracking damaging for the environment?7. What can consumers and fashion companies do to address environmental and ethical concerns within the fashion industry?

The earth’s climate is getting worse for some people, and better for others. But even when you can say the climate is getting better – since warmer temperatures means it’s less freezing – the benefits are arguable, because that warmer weather brings more extremes. The more energy you put into the atmosphere, the more moisture can be held, which means more storm systems, and more floods. That’s the direction that we’re heading in. 

"The ice caps are melting, which means more sea into the ocean, and for some populations, the rising sea levels around islands, particularly in the Pacific and Indian oceans, means they’re in peril, it’s as simple as that."

Global warming can be natural too, but currently we believe it’s man-made, which is forcing the agenda. The ice caps are melting, which means more sea into the ocean, and for some populations, the rising sea levels around islands, particularly in the Pacific and Indian oceans, means they’re in peril, it’s as simple as that. Not only will rising sea levels cause economic problems, but migration in some shape or form, which could then affect areas such as Bangladesh, where big populations live. If you project forward, you have to include cities such as Miami and London, so we have got to be careful where we are going with this. That’s why it’s such a big subject, and the Paris climate convention and all the protocols associated with it. 

We’re saying, OK, human beings may well have messed things up, we’re going to revert that, and most people are in favour of that, even China and India nowadays, but Trump looks like he’s going backwards with whatever statistics he’s reading. But year on year, the temperature is going up. 2016 looks like being the warmest global temperatures on record, as was 2015, so the evidence is mounting. It’s up to me, or people in better positions than me, to convince people like Trump and others of how important this is. 

"Year on year, the temperature is going up. 2016 looks like being the warmest global temperatures on record, as was 2015, so the evidence is mounting."

The subject should be part of the curriculum in every single school. Learning about weather fronts, and lows and highs, is the basic understanding. They should include climate change, and man-made consequences, or the potential consequences. And then when they grow up, elect people who can do something about it rather than the opposite.

2/7 Should ecology and ecoliteracy be core to the school curriculum?

A school curriculum is quite a complex thing - many people have different views and ideas as to what it should contain. The definition of a curriculum is simply ‘the subjects comprising a course of study’, which immediately implies that we have divided up the potentially vast amount of knowledge that a student could learn, into separate compartments – the subjects. In medieval Europe the curriculum was mostly Latin and Greek and the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic; later, subjects like arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy were added.

This subject division transformed slowly into what most people would now expect: reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, other languages, chemistry, physics and biology and so on to produce the traditional curriculum. This creation of subjects, dividing knowledge into separate silos, continues throughout all formal education, with the number of subjects proliferating and splitting. In my original subject of study, mathematics, there are at least 48 major subdivisions - and experts in one of these subdivisions are unable to understand the experts in another.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, the vast range of knowledge is just that, it is too vast for anyone to know everything. There are many contenders for the title of the last man (sic) to know everything that was to be known in their day: Aristotle, Erasmus, Da Vinci, Kant to name some but once we got past the 18th century things really took off and now we might soon be heading towards the point where knowledge is doubling every 12 hours.

What has all this got to do with ecology? Why should this subject be privileged above others and be consider as part of the core, alongside what others might say are part of the core, subjects like arithmetic and English, why choose ecology over say music for a core subject?

Perhaps we ought to look at what a curriculum could be from the perspective of what type of person do we want to emerge from the process of schooling. What knowledge then should a student learn? Of course we want good, kind, caring and thinking people to emerge. So shouldn’t the curriculum be shaped to answer some pretty big questions? Questions like: Who am I? What are my values? Where do I come from? How do I work? How does the world work? What is happening in the world and what is shaping the future? How do I look after myself? How can I be a good person? How can I contribute to others? How do I think?

If we are to equip students for life then a deep appreciation of process is essential and another word for process is ‘system’; we need an appreciation of how everything is interconnected and interdependent

If the curriculum were shaped like this then we can easily map the traditional subjects into these broad questions: biology, embryology, genetics, chemistry and physics, nutrition all contribute to the question ‘How do I work?’ Most of these questions, however, are about processes, we have a worldview that is about change and flow. I work, I am alive, because I emerge from a flow of materials, energy and information. If we are to equip students for life then a deep appreciation of process is essential and another word for process is ‘system’; we need an appreciation of how everything is interconnected and interdependent, how everything has a history and is on a pathway to something uncertain. Learning that we are part of many different systems that support us, as we contribute back to them, must be at the core of a life-focussed curriculum.

And so at last we get to ecology. The planet is a vast, self-regulating system, from the microbes in the soil to the elephant tearing up grass for dinner, everything is connected in this wonderful, complex and emergent ecology. We humans are well and truly embedded in this ecology. And that is why I believe placing ecology and systems thinking at the core of a life curriculum is vital.

Perhaps it is vital for another reason as well. What we have done, and continue to do, to our planet is transforming, disrupting, and in many cases destroying our ecological systems. The biggest threat from these massive disruptions is climate change. Our activities are on such a large scale in such a tiny amount of time that we are likely to knock the whole planetary ecosystem into a different phase, a period of significant global warming (if we haven’t already done so). That will create serious stresses and cause huge shifts in – you guessed it – all our ecosystems.

We can change, if enough people have the ability to understand how this all works, how it all connects, then we might set to and prevent further damage and at the same time we can restore and regenerate ecologies – we can work with the system rather than see the system as something to exploit for just our own short term gain. We all need to fully understand ecology.

To communicate in ecological terms is essential, we need to speak a common language if we are to discover ways to regenerate systems and to restore the damage. Ecological literacy (or ecoliteracy) is about understanding the principles of how ecosystems work and about understanding how to build a sustainable human society. The pursuit of sustainability requires everyone to be ecoliterate – hence it should be at the core of all curricula.

3/7 Are rainforests in trouble?

The world continues to lose many millions of hectares of forest — including tropical forests — each year. In fact, an area of forest the size of a football pitch (about 2 acres) is lost every 2 seconds.

According to conservative estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), nearly 130 million hectares of forest was lost between 1990 and 2015. While the annual rate of global deforestation has slowed somewhat since the 1990s, we are still witnessing alarming rates of deforestation in regions like Africa, South America and Indonesia. For instance, in the Brazilian Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, deforestation started to rise in 2015 for the first time in nearly a decade.

So what is driving rainforest loss and degradation? The answer depends a lot on the region in question.

In South-East Asia, expansion of palm oil production has been a major factor. In the Peruvian Amazon, on the other hand, gold mining is a leading cause of deforestation. Meanwhile, in the Congo Basin, home to the world’s second largest rainforest, there are a number of threats, including industrial-scale logging, mining and (increasingly) palm oil production.

So the short answer is yes, rainforests are in trouble. 

One of the biggest problems leading to deforestation is that the people who are best placed to protect and nurture the rainforest – the indigenous people and forest dwellers who have lived there for generations – often have no rights to their own land. Particularly in the Congo Basin, governments maintain ownership of the land, allowing them to allocate vast expanses of rainforest to logging, mining and agro-industrial expansion. In addition, government agencies in these regions often struggle to monitor the activities of extractive industries and to ensure that companies fulfil their social and environmental obligations and respect human rights. This leaves both rainforests and their inhabitants extremely vulnerable.

So the short answer is yes, rainforests are in trouble. And that fact becomes all the more alarming when you consider just how important rainforests are — to the climate, to biodiversity and especially to the millions of people who depend on rainforests for their lives and livelihoods.

• Climate

About 10% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the destruction of forests. In fact, deforestation is the second biggest driver of anthropogenic GHG emissions in the world.

• Animals and biodiversity

Rainforests are home to about 80% of the world’s land species. They are home to many animals on the ‘Red List’ of threatened species. In the Congo Basin, for example, these include the lowland gorilla, the forest elephant and the okapi, to name just a few.

• Conflict and criminal activity

Four out of every five conflicts over the last 50 years occurred in biodiversity hotspots like rainforests. The pillaging of rainforest resources such as timber, ivory and minerals (like diamonds) has often fuelled conflict in poorer countries. In fact, illegal logging alone amounts to £23billion each year.

• Livelihoods

Hundreds of millions of people live in the world’s rainforests, and nearly a billion people worldwide depend on the rainforests for food, shelter, medicine and income.

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4/7 How can I get the best beach holiday at the least cost to the planet?

The big thing about how you’re going to get the greenest or most eco-friendly holiday is how you get there. By most measures, the bus is the most eco-friendly way to travel, but realistically, that tends to limit where you go a bit. So the train is the next best, most eco-friendly way to travel which is actually going to be useful.

You’ve got to stay in the UK but you’ve got loads of options. There’s Cornwall, Devon, plus South and West Wales which are regularly voted as having some of the world’s best beaches. It depends what kind of beach you want too. You’ve got Norfolk if you want very unspoiled beaches with lots of nature and wildlife or the more traditional end-of-the-pier ones, or Northumberland which has amazing castles and islands. You’ve got all that without even leaving Great Britain.

  • Cut out that carbon-spewing flight and take the train to St Ives, Cornwall: a prime staycation destination for the nation

You can also go further afield if you take the train to Europe. You can get the Eurostar to Paris, then the fast train to the South of France – it’s about six hours to Nice. It’s also just over six hours to Barcelona. Once you get to Barcelona, you’re on the high-speed Spanish network so you can get all round the country that way. Once you get to Nice, you’ve got beaches coming out of your ears and once you get to Barcelona, you can take a local train and an hour up the coast you’ve got all the resorts of the Costa Barcelona which are particularly good for families. If you head a little bit further north, then you’ve got the Costa Brava too, which again has more beach resorts than you can shake a lilo at.

  • Europe by train: amazing, unspoilt Cadaques on the Costa Brava (where Salvador Dalí used to live) is only 10 hours from London by rail

Then there are ferries. You can get to the Netherlands and the north coast of France really easily. If you can get public transport there at either end and be a foot passenger, then that’s even better than driving on and off. Normandy has some lovely coast and Brittany has some amazing beaches. The Glénan Islands just off the coast of Brittany look like they are straight out of the Caribbean. They are just incredible, and have amazing white sands and turquoise sea. Maybe not quite as warm as the Caribbean sadly, but they are just stunning.

  • It’s not the Caribbean, it’s actually off Brittany: France’s astonishing Glénan Islands

Or there are the Isles of Scilly which are similarly stunning and look straight from the pages of a Caribbean holiday brochure. You can get the ferry from Penzance. So train to Penzance, then ferry over to the islands, then boats between the islands.

If you do want to travel even further afield, you will have to take a plane. It might sound a bit funny to talk about eco-friendly ways of taking planes, but there are greener ways of doing it. If you fly on a newer plane like the Dreamliner, they burn up to 20% less fuel so they’re much more eco-friendly than the older ones.

British Airways list on their website which routes they fly with the Dreamliner. There’s only a few beachy ones though – they go to a couple of the Emirates, Oman and Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is the closest as it’s only a four hour flight and it’s wonderful, it’s got great beaches and nightlife, or it’s really easy to get down to Eilat from there, which is all beach resorts. It’s worth checking with other airlines and tour operators too as to whether they have Dreamliners and which routes they fly on.

  • Tel Aviv: only four hours from the UK on a greener Dreamliner, and packed with beaches and nightlife.

If you can’t take one of the newer planes, take a direct flight, because it’s the take-off and landing that have the most environmental impact. If you’re going somewhere where it touches down en route or you have multiple legs, then your journey will have a bigger impact. If you wanted to say, go to the Caribbean, which has some of the best beach holidays in the world, then look for direct flights to the likes of Antigua or St Lucia. With the Indian Ocean, look at somewhere like Mauritius that you can fly straight into, rather than the Maldives or the Seychelles. Once you get to those places, you’re going to have to take a seaplane or something else to get to your island.

The other thing to remember is the accommodation once you get there. GreenHotelWorld which shows you eco-friendly hotels launched last year. There’s also Green Globe which certifies businesses that genuinely have green and sustainable tourism policies.

The final thing is to try and offset the environmental cost of your holiday – because when it comes down to it, travel is always going to have an impact. Have a look at some of the offset programmes like planting trees, so that even if you haven’t had the most eco-friendly trip, you can balance things out a bit.

Travel journalist Cathy Winston edits 101 Singles Holidays and video-blogs family-friendly holidays on YouTube as MummyTravels

5/7 What is more ecologically sustainable: taking the Tube or the bus?

You have to keep in mind that when it comes to thinking about the environment, it gets really complicated. It’s not a matter of energy used/person, there are other factors to keep in mind. Consider this:

Are we comparing when they are both full or when they are empty? Because the carbon footprint of your journey is also dependent on how many other people are sharing the transport with you. If we talking strict averages, based on data from 2008, London Underground’s carbon footprint was equivalent to approx. 93 grammes CO2 per passenger kilometre. Alternatively, a typical Euro III double deck with a diesel particulate filter produces 1384.3 grammes CO2 per kilometre – so if you’ve got more than 15-20 people on the bus, then it would be more or less the same. However – test results vary from real life. More people on the bus = more weight, more traffic = more carbon emitted, longer stopping at bus stops = more carbon, and finally it even depends on how quick the bus driver accelerates.

What do you mean by “sustainable” – Are you looking at carbon emissions? Because if so you need to look beyond the journey itself and at the emissions caused for the entire process. Your journey is only possible because a train/bus and all its components had to be designed, built, assembled, exported, and finally put into use and maintained. 

"You need to factor the total lifecycle of each the tube/bus and its components and then divide it per number of people it takes over the entire lifecycle. This has not been done and is not easy to do."

What about the resources? Minerals, metals, water, land are all important components that factor into sustainability – it’s not all about carbon. What materials have been used in the construction and maintenance of the whole system? How were they extracted? What happens to these resources afterwards?

You need to also consider the infrastructure system. So while roads use resources to be constructed and maintained, they are not constructed only for busses. Cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and others use these roads. For the subway, the tunnels, and the emissions used to construct the system, is only borne by the tube. The resources, energy, and other costs in the original construction also need to be factored in.

In short – public transport is better than taking a private car, but stick to walking/cycling if you really want to be sustainable. Even then, you got to think about how you are getting your calories back, because if you eat a meat-heavy diet, then the environmental damage from growing food for these lot calories outweighs the emissions saved by walking.

6/7 Is fracking damaging for the environment?

The fracking industry admits that there have been problems in the past due to bad practice and poor technology, but the supporters of fracking claim that has all now been remedied. However, most companies acknowledge that inevitably there will be leaks and spills in the future. How safe is it? It depends on your definition of safe.

Because fracking is a relatively new technology, not all of its effects are fully understood and there are a lot of data gaps in the studies that have been carried out. The truth is that it is not yet possible fully to understand what effects fracking has on the wider environment or on humans.

The effects could be local, national or global. They may relate to air pollution, to water pollution or to possible damage to the soil. In the UK we have had test sites and pilot runs but we don’t yet have fracking at a commercial level. Most fracking has taken place in the US, where researchers and hydrologists say we don’t really understand what the cumulative effects of, say, waste water from the fracking process will be on the environment. The United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA) produced a report that concluded that it would not be a problem, but then a scientists’ advisory board looked at the report and said USEPA was in no position to make that claim and there was evidence of local water pollution.

Fishermen are concerned about possible pollution in rivers. In the US, vets have tried to tease out the possible effects on farm animals and on wildlife. There are still lots of data gaps but there were cases in Louisiana where leaked fracking fluids led to the deaths of cows. Cattle were quarantined in Pennsylvania. Naturally this leads to the question, what might the risks be with regard to the food chain?

“Lab tests indicate that there are a significant number of fracking fluids that can cause cancer and affect the development of reproduction in humans and wildlife.”

There have also been problems with air pollution. It’s hard to prove cause and effect but there have been associations with high levels of benzene in areas where fracking goes on, and with increased asthma rates. But again, these studies are not conclusive – they just indicate possible links.

Researchers are trying to make sense of what the toxicity of fracking fluids would be in various combinations and at various levels. The answer they are getting back is that from lab tests we know there are a significant number of fracking fluids that can cause cancer and be endocrine-destructive, which means affecting the development of reproduction in humans and wildlife.

There are significant questions about regulation because to regulate you need to know what the effects will be in terms of air, water and soil pollution and the range of chemicals that might be used over a period of time. It’s worth bearing in mind that we have to look at medium and long-term assessments of risks. Something might be sealed in and absolutely fine now, but what will happen in 10, 30 or 50 years time when pipes corrode and start leaking?

In Scotland, where I live, there is currently a moratorium on fracking while the Scottish government carries out a major public health assessment and considers reports on issues such as public health, climate change, the decommissioning of wells, traffic, etc. They are taking a very evidence-based approach, which is very wise given the limitations and data gaps in the existing studies.

“What we do know is that if we carry on extracting fossil fuels at the rate that we are doing, there is no way that we can hit our climate change targets – and we will be in serious trouble.”

If you look at the environmental effects of wind farms, say, against fracking, the same issues don’t exist. There are no air or water pollution risks and it actually is a sustainable energy source. Communities may object to wind turbines for other reasons but at least we know they are safe.

Essentially, a lot of environmental scientists think we need to be looking from a global perspective at sustainable energy sources, and in the medium-term fracking will not be that. In the US, they have just decided that from an environmental point of view controlled fracking is a lesser evil than using coal.

Ultimately, the honest answer is that we know that fracking will be damaging to the environment. The debate is whether it will have low-level or significant effects. The worry is that it will be some time before we know the answers. But what we do know, from a global perspective, is that if we carry on extracting fossil fuels, including shale gas, at the rate that we are doing, there is no way that we can hit our climate change targets – and we will be in serious trouble.

7/7 What can consumers and fashion companies do to address environmental and ethical concerns within the fashion industry?

The impact of the fashion industry on the environment and people is overwhelming. However so much can be done to confront the problem from both a consumer and business perspective.

From a consumer standpoint it means asking questions. It is not just about the clothes you wear but taking responsibility for how you care and dispose of them. When purchasing brand new garments, look at how they are made and question the longevity. Buying long-lasting, well made clothes is much better than fast fashion. Notice brands and fashion lines that are sustainable. The selection won’t be as great at the moment but purchasing these clothes encourages the brands to produce more and to a higher standard. Also look out for designer makers and smaller businesses dedicated to creating longer lasting garments that have the added bonus of being original and often bespoke.

Look out for organic cotton and question retailers that don’t stock it why.

  • Do you know the story behind the contents of your wardrobe?

Consider charity shops and buying vintage on ebay. Purchasing clothes online is more environmentally friendly than driving to a shopping centre in a car. Favourite garments with visible wear and tear, try to get them repaired. Lower the washing temperatures and work out whether you really need to wash an item after just one wear. Change washing powders to environmentally friendly brands which are better for your water supply and for your health.

At the point of getting rid of a garment question whether it can be taken to a charity shop a recycling bin or a clothes bank.

It is also good to ask your favourite brands and retailers directly, in person, in comment boxes or even writing to customer services. If enough people question, companies have to change. Even consider writing to your MP.

In turn businesses need to take responsibility and help consumers, particularly the big brands. They need to invest in R&D to change how products are produced and to entice consumers to alter behaviour patterns. Greenwashing needs to stop.

  • Consumers have the power to make choices that persuade companies to start behaving ethically

One of the issues that so often puts people off embracing sustainable clothing is the lack of choice and design. So often when business create sustainable ranges they don’t look as good as their other lines which is not encouraging for consumers who naturally want to look great in the clothes they wear. This is in fact why my colleagues and I started the research based sustainable consultancy ao textiles. We felt that designing sustainably should and can still be equally as beautiful as mainstream design. Although we specialise in the luxury sector, this same principle can be applied to any market area. It is a matter of investing time and research.

Ultimately working sustainably is about transparency and working together. As this is the opposite to how the fashion industry normally works, the whole sector needs a dramatic shift. Brands need transparent supply chains. It is not possible to design and produce clothes that are 100% kind to the environment yet but this is the goal everyone in the industry needs to be working towards.