Reflections on Earth Day

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By Hsiu-Ting Tang

Illustration by Sun Shan

English translation by Wei-Hsin Lin

April 22, 2021 will mark the 51st anniversary of Earth Day. Back in the 1970s when environmental movements were flourishing in the States, Earth Day was being gestated as a way to speak out for nature’s rights. It motivated people around the world to reflect on the relationship between mankind and the environment as well as initiated the concept of sustainable development. In 1983, the United Nation set up the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, then leader of Norway’s Labor Party. The report the Commission produced four years later, titled Our Common Future, led to the UN’s 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In this historic conference, talks about sustainable development took place for the first time. Discussions between participating countries centered on how they could maintain economic growth while also pursuing environmental sustainability and social justice. What were the feasible action plans? Dr. Brundtland was widely credited with giving sustainable development a formal definition, and her contribution to this field won her the inaugural Tang Prize in Sustainable Development in 2014.     


Since 1992, international conventions were signed one after another, with the hope that every country could get out of the vicious cycle of conflicting with and laying blame on each other and instead try to reach a consensus with a positive and forward-looking attitude, collaborating with each other for “our common future.” At the moment, the most pressing issue facing all of us is global warming, a crisis that not only affects the whole world but whose devastating impact could also be felt for many generations to come. With global climate accords such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol coming on the scene in succession, the effort to slow down global warming is almost equated with that to reduce carbon emissions. It is the duty no country can shirk. However, things didn’t fare as well as expected. After the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, global carbon emissions kept increasing, global temperatures kept rising, and record-breaking extreme weather events such as gale-force winds, droughts, heat waves, and snowstorms kept occurring. As international treaties still lack a strong enforcement mechanism, sustainable development remains a distant dream. 


In 2016, the Kyoto Protocol was amended and upgraded for what would eventually become the Paris Agreement. Parties to this agreement are encouraged to submit their intended nationally determined contributions (NDCs), decided by weighing their abilities to reduce carbon emissions against the pace at which their economies develop. While this new provision may seem to improve the viability of each country’s plans for carbon reduction, the Agreement itself actually sets a more unattainable goal: to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2℃, or preferably to 1.5℃. It means in practice, the global carbon emissions have to decrease by 50% by 2030, and we have to achieve net zero emissions or carbon neutrality by 2050. Is this possible?  


Pao-Kuan Wang, distinguished visiting chair professor at the Research Center for Environmental Changes of Academic Sinica, has long focused his attention on climate change. With no intention of mincing his words, he pointed out that the Paris Agreement didn’t have a powerful binding force, each signatory has its own calculations, and many major economies are thinking up possible ways to lower their targeted NDCs in order to avoid cutting carbon emissions. Therefore, judging by the current situation, the goal of net zero is as elusive as pie in the sky.


Still, we have reason to be optimistic about breakthroughs in green technologies that can result in more rapid reduction in carbon emissions. But to achieve energy transition as well as industrial and social transformation is as much the government’s responsibility as it is ours. On April 22 Earth Day, events will again be held across the globe to remind us of our love toward this planet. Celebrated primatologist and winner of 2020 Tang Prize in Sustainable Development Jane Goodall examined the relationship between humans, animals and the environment, suggested that we adopt a lifestyle more conducive to sustainable development, and on 2018’s Earth Day, proposed eight things we can do to protect earth. For each one of us, every day should be Earth Day. So, after this April 22, what action will you take?



About author Hsiu-Ting Tang

  1. Hsiu-Ting Tang graduated from National Taiwan University’s Department of Forestry and Resource Conservation and obtained her MA degree in Media and International Development from the University of East Anglia. She worked at the New Vision and Rhythms Monthly and is now a contributor to the New Vision
  2. This article is the result of a project collaboration between the Tang Prize Foundation and New Vision. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.