Earth Day lessons for California

Earth Day lessons for California

The Eureka Reporter, April 24, 2008

SACRAMENTO — Earth Day events here were rather different this year. Car dealers showcased their latest hybrids, hippies were little in evidence, and the crowd was more upscale. There was even, yes, valet parking for bicycles. The baleful note of past events was missing and for that there is some justification.
According to the most recent figures, the areas of the nation with the highest pollution have improved the most. Los Angeles has gone from nearly 200 high-ozone days during the 1970s to fewer than 25 such days a year today. Many areas in the Los Angeles basin are smog-free year-round.

In January, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) released a study concluding that cancer risk from air toxins had fallen 17 percent over the last seven years. The most significant gains came in places with the highest level of air pollution emissions, such as rail yards, ports and areas near freeways.

In 2006, the last year for which figures are available, greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the USA fell by 1.5 percent. The 2006 emissions data for other nations have yet to emerge, but it is likely that the United States is the only industrialized nation where GHG emissions fell, and that was in a non-recessionary year. There is also good news on the waterfront.

“Status and Trends of Wetlands in the United States,” a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, confirms that the United States is now gaining wetlands at the rate of 32,000 acres a year — over the last decade. That squares with a 2005 data set from the Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Inventory, which showed a net gain of 26,000 acres per year.

For the first time since 1916, whitefish are reproducing in the Detroit River. Leon Carl of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center explained that “The return of lake whitefish to the Detroit River is partly the result of 40 years of pollution prevention and control activities in the Detroit/Windsor metropolitan areas.” Similar efforts have paid off in other areas.

The Aral Sea, once an environmental disaster, is in recovery. Over the last few years, the Aral Sea’s volume has grown back by 30 percent, two-thirds of the way to the level of 42 meters considered necessary for its natural ecosystem to be viable once again. Fish are slowly returning, and there are plans to begin restocking the Aral with additional native species.

On Earth Day 2008, global environmental progress is not limited to water. Even the United Nations noted grounds for optimism in two recent reports. The U.N.’s “State of the Future” report notes that “People around the world are becoming healthier, wealthier, better-educated, more peaceful, and increasingly connected and they are living longer,” and the U.N. expects this positive trend to continue.

The U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization issued its latest “State of the World’s Forests” report, offering a positive outlook even in regions such as Africa that are still experiencing forest loss. Net forest loss continues to decline globally and has been reversed in Asia. The U.N. notes: “even in regions that are losing forest area, there are a number of positive trends on which to build.” For example, net deforestation in Brazil has fallen by two-thirds over the last four years.

More information may be found in PRI’s “Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, 2008.” Meanwhile, the Earth Day events in California’s capital validate certain trends.

The more upscale crowd confirms that it is the affluent society that does not want to be the effluent society.

Economic growth is consistent with environmental improvement. Better still, an upbeat can-do spirit now challenges apocalyptic gloom as the default position. Problems remain, of course, but policy-makers should build on what is already working to provide a cleaner environment for all.

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