Op-Ed: Earth Day 2021 Presents a Chance to Reflect on Our Mistakes, Refocus Our Efforts Toward a Cleaner Future

Thursday, April 22 marks 51 years since the creation of Earth Day, a day established with the goal of educating people about environmental issues plaguing our planet. 1970 was a different era of environmentalism, filled with foundational legislative action like the Clean Air and Water Acts. The Environmental Protection Agency was created in the same year. Ineffective waste management leading to pollution, use of toxic pesticides in agriculture and a general carelessness toward the environment tormented America. 

But the problems we faced in the 70s have not disappeared, in fact, many of them have only been amplified by the world’s rising population and the seemingly endless energy demand. Carbon dioxide levels dropping in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic while humans sheltered in place have proved to be a band aid, a temporary fix, in the greater fight against climate change. As the world begins to reopen, we are once again faced with the reality of mankind’s largest threat. 

We have made great strides in the last 51 years. We have explored the frontiers of technology, pushing the envelope to make our society more sustainable through efficient transportation and cleaner energy sources to power our homes, schools and businesses. Natural gas,

which, admittedly, has its flaws, has become a household fuel and serves as a great bridge to more sustainable alternatives. Coal plants are shutting down across the country. Scientific advancements in alternative fuels like hydrogen and propane have proven to be viable alternatives to gasoline and diesel. Innovations like these can be more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly than fuel sources our society has relied on in the past.

Now is the time to commit to science and to a stable future for the next generations. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, we should look forward into the future instead of aiming to get “back to normal.” Forward is the only way, the only chance we have, to prevent the worst effects of climate change. We know we must hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent a runaway climate catastrophe, so we have no more time to waste. 

Almost 30% of our country’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. If we can affect this sector, we can make a massive change in our emissions. This Earth Day, devote time to learning about technologies being developed to reduce emissions and make our energy and transportation systems more efficient. The Clean Cities network provides educational material and hosts events surrounding the transitions of fleets to alternative fuels, an integral part of changing the U.S.’s course. 

Education is the first step, but our planet is now in a stage far beyond what self-education can do—we need action. Contact your elected representatives about your concerns, organize with local activist groups and make choices in your personal life to support emissions reductions.  

I often hear questions about why we should risk a switch to cleaner energy alternatives, when we already have the infrastructure to support a petroleum/coal/dirty fuel economy. I always ask in response; how can we refrain from this risk when the only other option we have is to continue to pollute the air we breathe and the Earth we share? The time has come to choose, and we must now choose humans, our environment and the viability of future generations over tradition and convenience. 

By Jenna Spray
Intern, Chicago Area Clean Cities

Jenna is a second-year journalism and legal studies student at Northwestern University. In addition to pursuing NU’s Institute for Sustainability and Energy’s undergraduate certificate, she hopes to use her passion for writing, policy and the environment to help create a better world.

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