Let’s celebrate the 46th Earth Day, but tomorrow get back to bettering our future

This 46th Earth Day is unusual. The past year has delivered two major international outcomes that represent clear milestones in the evolution of our global approach to environmental problems. The Paris Agreement and 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development represent substantial opportunities to make progress toward improving human and environmental well-being.

On Earth Day, world leaders will gather at the U.N. in New York for a ceremony to formally initiate one of these milestones—the international climate agreement struck last December in Paris. For the first time, the Paris Agreement provides an international structure that allows and encourages all countries to participate in reducing global emissions, and to do so in a way that fits with their national development circumstances. Under the agreement’s architecture, targets from 188 countries have been submitted covering roughly 99 percent of global emissions. When compared to the 2000-2010 period, emissions growth from all countries is expected to slow by more than 50 percent between now and 2030. In addition, these commitments would drive declines in global average per capita emissions by 9 percent by 2030 compared with the levels in 1990. This is a notable departure from the previous effort at reducing emissions, under the different architecture of the Kyoto Protocol. That covered only 30 percent of global emissions and the world’s top three emitters did not sign on.

The commitments made under the Paris Agreement are not, by themselves, “enough” to mitigate the climate problem. But the agreement is dynamic; the first targets provide a substantial step, but there is a built-in recognition that the global pace of emissions reduction will have to accelerate to enable the world to meet goals for global temperature change and reduced risks of the most severe climate change.

To that end, the Paris Agreement provides a mechanism for increasing ambition over time, with an opportunity to present new targets every five years, and encouragement to revisit some near-term targets by 2020.  Already, in the U.S. emissions are down 10 percent from 2005 levels and are on track to hit the 2020 emissions target. The U.S. and China, the world’s top two emitters, have been leading globally, and worldwide acceleration of clean energy investment has driven down clean energy costs between 40-90 percent in the past five years. The deployment of hundreds of gigawatts of clean energy technologies as a result of the Paris targets will drive costs down further, making renewable energy like wind and solar cost competitive with, or cheaper than, fossil fuels in many new locations globally.

At a ceremonial moment like Earth Day, it is usual to celebrate the positive. But it is also worth asking if countries will even deliver the reductions that they have already promised. There are no sanctions if they do not. The Paris agreement does not force countries to do the right thing, but instead sets up a structure in which real people, local communities and business—the constituents of every country—acting in their own self-interest, can also contribute to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, this is not just a government-delivered program. It will require sustained broad engagement of all actors, who will be able to evaluate progress through a transparent and regular national monitoring system.

So it’s worth celebrating the Paris Agreement today in the same way we would celebrate other kinds of commitments for the future. We don’t know for sure that it will work, since it depends on subsequent actions and there are many hazards along the way. We do know that the agreement represents a promising, though incomplete, approach to addressing climate change. And we can be confident that the basic approach is about the best we can do in the current context of international coordination. What that means is that this agreement can’t solve the problem on its own. In coming years, the world’s nations, innovators, organizations, citizens, and other actors will have to push hard to build the right actions within this framework.

But since it is Earth Day, let’s also take a step back from the Paris Agreement and climate change, important and timely as they are, and look at the broader picture of planetary health. By the end of this 46th Earth Day, there will still be 1.3 billion people without access to electricity; air pollution will still cause millions of premature deaths per year; the loss of tropical forests continues to be a concern for biodiversity, human health, and climate; and even well-understood, solvable problems that should be completely and irrevocably consigned to our past—like lead poisoning—persist. From a blue marble perspective (remember the picture of Earth taken from space), we must confront a set of interlinked challenges that include improving human well-being in full concert with the Earth’s ecosystems.

In the four decades since blue marble picture, we have seen a gradual integration of the issues of environment and global development. Human well-being and environmental concern have always been linked, but from an institutional and process standpoint, many policy activities were divided between environment and other goals. Agencies, organizations, and advocates at the national and international level were divided into different camps, often not coordinating beyond their respective communities.

This has now changed, thanks to the agreement on Agenda 2030 and the articulation of a universal set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs will be an important roadmap for national governments, the private sector, international organizations, and others to prioritize and address the world’s most pressing issues—and for the first time, development and environment goals are explicitly considered together. As such, goals like poverty alleviation, education, health, and equality are integrated with clean water and sanitation, renewable energy, climate, and ecosystems. This integration in process, it is hoped, will lead to better integration in practice and therefore a more focused and effective approach to tackling global challenges.

One of the proximate inspirations for the first Earth Day was a major oil spill near Santa Barbara, California. This spill caused a massive public outcry and added to already heightened concerns about toxins in the environment, air and water quality, the relationship between ecosystems and human health, and the global environmental impact of humanity on the planet and on our own welfare. Forty-six years later, there is a prospect for a relatively rapid shift away from fossil fuels and an international approach that is targeting the goals of environmental and human welfare in a systematic way. Neither of the past year’s milestones will determine our ultimate success, but with the appropriate concrete steps of implementation in the coming years, they could provide what might be viewed—maybe from the blue marble perspective of, say, the 92nd Earth day—as a transformational opportunity.