By Atayi Babs
This year’s International Earth Day comes at a time all our attention is on the COVID-19 pandemic which is proving to be the biggest test the world has faced since the Second World War. The impact of the coronavirus is both immediate and dreadful but there is another deep emergency to be concerned about – our earth’s unfolding environmental crisis.
Coronavirus appears to be running a short 100 metre race while climate change is on a marathon. At the end of the day both would have killed huge numbers and alongside our economy. Biodiversity is in steep decline and climate disruption is approaching a point of no return. As if to drive the message closer home, a large swathe of dead fish is being washed ashore on our coastline in the Niger Delta these days.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we have the toughest and the grimmest reminder of nature’s revenge. From Apapa to Port Harcourt, From Lake Chad to River Benue, the fog has cleared; the soot has abated, the air is simply sublime and we can see the blue skies and the birds are just loving it. Chirping birds have now replaced our loud, honking cars.
It is my belief that as we lockdown to deal with this mutant virus that is killing people and making our world tragic and horrendous, nature appears to be reclaiming her space.
What is further clear to us on this Earth Day is that this joy of nature has come at an enormous and unacceptable human cost to millions in the world, who have lost their loved ones to the virus or are seeing their livelihoods collapse.
We may say with absolute conviction that this is not the way we want to clean our air or our water ―however desperate we were for this to happen. In a very long while, we get this sense and smell of what clean air, clean rivers and exuberant nature means. We must remember this time as the way we want it to be, when our lungs can inhale and exhale without the stress of toxins.
We must also remember that at the current levels of pollution, it took as much as shutting down everything to get sootless blue skies. Yes, this is what it will take.
It is hoped that this lockdown will never have to repeat as it is now part of the darkest days in human history. But we must add that if we want to have clear skies, our governments at both federal and state levels, private sector and civil society must work together to ensure right livelihoods as well as our right to breathe.
I believe that the time to act decisively in protecting our planet from both the coronavirus and the existential threat of climate disruption IS NOW.
Greenhouse gases, just like viruses, do not respect national boundaries. The current crisis is an unprecedented wake-up call and we need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.
To achieve this, we must realise that we need to get vehicles off the road, but not people. It will require fast-tracking everything Nigeria can do in order to move people, not cars, at speed, convenience and safety. Public transport in Nigeria will now have to take into account concerns about personal hygiene and public health.
Nigeria must also set ambitious goals, far beyond the tokenism in our Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement, so we can, before 2030, upgrade our systems so that 70-80 per cent of the daily commute across our cities, is through high-speed and low-emission transportation ― from trains to bicycles.
I believes that an accurate Nigerian response lies not in shutting down, but shifting all industries to clean fuel, by starting with natural gas and then ramping up with all combustion moving to electricity from much cleaner power generation.
In this COVID-19 times, we have seen disorder and disruption at scales we never thought would happen in our lifetime. So, now we need to fix what is broken in our relationship with nature.
Should Nigeria rebuild her economy with more smoke and more pollution because we need speed and scale to get back on our feet? This then is the biggest challenge in the coming days!
Nigeria must do things differently, recognising what COVID-19 has brought to light. We must work together to save lives, ease suffering and lessen the shattering economic and social consequences.
The future, like never before, is in our hands. Nature has spoken. Now we should speak gently back to her. Tread gently on mother Earth.
Happy Earth day!