8 things Earth Day ever did for the environment

The first eco-protest to go viral turns 45 today. We look back at the environmental movement’s greatest achievements

By Alex Pashley

Earth Day is credited with spawning the modern-day environmental movement.

The grassroots protest that saw tens of millions turn out on the Mall in Washington DC made leaders sit up and take notice.

They were calling for better protection of the natural world, from curbs on water and air pollution to safer waste disposal.

Out of it came the the landmark passage of the Clean Air Act and the creation of US green regulator, the Environmental Protection Agency.

Today president Barack Obama will travel to Florida’s Everglades, the most vulnerable state to sea-level rise, to hammer home the US’ strategy.

Those listening will be rather different than in 1970.

“Who even is the environmental movement today?” asks Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit and former BBC environment correspondent.

In the UK, organisations like the Church of England and British Medical Association are debating fossil fuel divestment, while the Women’s Institute now concerns itself with energy efficiency, Black told RTCC.

“That’s the most profound transformation we’ve seen in 45 years,” he said.

So in those last 45 years as global warming has continued a relentless climb, what good has come out out of it?

1. The Ozone layer is showing signs of restitching itself

ozone layer_nasa

(Photo: NASA)

The life-giving, UV ray-blocker is thickening once again, UN scientists revealed last September. Ozone levels have risen 4% in “key mid-northern latitudes at about 30 miles high”, helped by a the Montreal Protocol’s key ban on chemicals in aerosols and refrigerators in 1987.

2. Acid rain has receded

Trees stripped by acid rain  in the Great Smokey National Park which straddles Tennessee and North Carolina (Flickr / Keith Hall Photography)

Trees stripped by acid rain in the Great Smokey National Park which straddles Tennessee and North Carolina (Flickr / Keith Hall Photography)

Sulphur dioxide emissions have plunged 60% over the last 20 years in Europe, slashing a major threat to forest and lake ecosystems. In the US, the Clean Air Act achieved similar results.

3.  Endangered animals make a comeback

(Flickr / Gregory Smith)

(Flickr / Gregory Smith)

Humpback whale populations have rebounded after reckless hunting put them on the endangered list in 1970. The US government proposed this month to move 10 of 14 species off the list. The Aleutian goose and American crocodile are other success stories.

4. Air pollution has cleaned up its act

Air pollution from a factory in Toronto (credit UN)

Air pollution from a factory in Toronto (credit UN)

Emissions of 6 top air pollutants fell 62% in the US from 1980 to 2013, according to the EPA. That’s even more impressive when squared with a 145% rise in GDP and 95% climb in total miles traveled over the same period – transport being one of the main sources of dirty particulates.

5. Pesticides banished

Bald eagle (Flickr / Jim Bauer)

Bald eagle (Flickr / Jim Bauer)

The pesticide DDT once decimated bald eagle populations. making eggs too thin to survive. But since curbs the birds of prey have seen a resurgence, and were removed from from the Endangered Species List in 2007.

6. Open air nuclear tests no more

A nuclear test ijn California in Nevada in 1951 (Flickr / International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons)

A nuclear test in Nevada in 1951 (Flickr / International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons)

The US conducted 434 nuclear bomb tests between 1945 and 1963, according to the NRDC, Bloomberg reported. As countries grew wise of the hazards of nuclear fallout on civilian populations they moved to outlaw it, resulting in the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty. Its successor, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty outlawing all nuclear explosions was ratified by the UN in 1996. Though China and US still haven’t signed.

7. Leaded gasoline has tanked

(Flickr / Cindy-Cornett-Seigle) - lead

(Flickr / Cindy-Cornett-Seigle) – lead

Used to smooth out “knocks” when gasoline ignites, lead was found to cause mental retardation in children and damaging the nervous system of adults. The proportion of American kids with elevated levels in their blood fell from 88% in the late 1970s to 1% in the mid-2000s.

8. Maritime protected areas are growing

(Flickr / Asands) Blue lined snapper shoal

(Flickr / Asands) Blue lined snapper shoal

Gabon and the US have pioneered new marine reserves, National Geographic reported. But just 2.1% of the world’s nurseries are covered. Last year NatGeo launched its Pristine Seas Mission last year to pressure governments to safeguard the last wild spots of the ocean.

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