Celebrating Earth Day in 2021: Science says we need to do more, technology shows it is possible

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Since 1970, we have celebrated Earth Day on April 22nd every year.  The day is a reminder of the unique environmental challenges of the current times, and the need for continually making smart investments in sustainable technologies, forward-thinking public policies, and the need for ensuring environmental awareness and education.

The theme for Earth Day 2021 is “Restore Our Earth”, which focuses on the natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking that can restore the world’s ecosystems. More than one billion people in 192 countries participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world.

The way we interact on our planet with the environment has a significant effect on vector-borne diseases. For a decade now we have entered a new era of pandemics, driven by the H1N1, chikungunya, Zika, Ebola, and various coronaviruses, such as COVID-19, that can spillover from animal hosts and infect humans. Though the causes for these pandemics are complex, one of the main drivers can be identified in the climate crisis, which is shaking up the natural world and rewriting disease algorithms on the planet.

Thawing permafrost in the Arctic is releasing pathogens that have been dormant for thousands of years. In addition, the emergence of new pathogens from animals is considered to be strongly linked to climate change-induced migration patterns. Through intensive agriculture, habitat destruction, and rising temperatures, some creatures are forced to migrate to more hospitable environments, making contact with animals and humans they have never crossed paths with before. These random encounters can allow viruses to jump species and originate new diseases and pandemics.

Stimulus packages and recovery responses to the COVID-19 crisis provide a massive opportunity to not simply reset the world economy, but to transform it. “COVID recovery and our planet’s repair can be two sides of the same coin”, UN Secretary General António Guterres urged in his State of the Planet speech in December 2020 (UN).

On Earth Day 2021, which also coincides with the fifth anniversary of the opening for signature of the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, the United States is convening the Leaders’ Climate Summit on Climate, to galvanize efforts by the major economies to tackle this crisis.  The Summit could be one of key milestones on the road to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) later in November in Glasgow, United Kingdom. During the Summit, forty world leaders are expected to underscore the urgency – and the economic benefits – of stronger climate action and highlighted examples of how enhanced climate ambition will create green jobs, advance innovative technologies, and help vulnerable countries adapt to climate impacts.

The current pandemic has been an accelerator for the uptake of technological solutions in aviation. The pace of development and implementation of green technologies is unparalleled, and ICAO has been in the leadership of driving the green recovery of aviation, by ensuring that an ambitious decarbonisation path for the sector is enabled.

Aircraft today are 70% quieter and 80% more fuel-efficient than in the 1960s, showcasing how the aviation sector has constantly evolved its technology to respond to societal aspirations, making it more efficient and environmentally sustainable. While this continuing evolution will be required, only the introduction of radical, disruptive, revolutionary innovation will be able to deliver the aspiring levels of decarbonisation required.

ICAO is now leading and achieving the collective sectoral goal of 2020 carbon-neutral growth by implementing a basket of measures that includes green technologies, sustainable fuels, operational improvements, and CORSIA – ICAO’s Global Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, the first global market-based measure for a sector.

While ICAO`s priority is and will remain, in-sector measures to reduce emissions, CORSIA is a complementary measure to ensure the achievement of carbon-neutral growth. CORSIA implementation is on track and ICAO completed all necessary steps for the start of the pilot phase on 1 January 2021. States have at their disposal all of the relevant ICAO CORSIA documents and tools to enable them to implement their CORSIA-specific requirements. This is a major milestone for the beginning of offsetting CO2 emissions under the Scheme. Aircraft operators with international flights between those 88 States that have volunteered to participate in CORSIA will start offsetting, following the provisions of Assembly Resolution A40-19 and Annex 16, Volume IV. At the same time, we have seen significant progress from States on the implementation of the CORSIA Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (MRV) procedures, despite the unique challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the interest of ICAO’s “No Country Left Behind” initiative, ICAO carries out a number of capacity-building and assistance activities. These assistance activities are most often related to the ICAO State Action Plan initiative and CORSIA. Successful examples are the GEF funded, ICAO – United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) project “Transforming the Global Aviation Sector: Emissions Reductions from International Aviation” and the European Union funded, ICAO – EU project “Capacity Building for CO2 Mitigation from International Aviation”, and the “Assistance, Capacity-building and Training for the CORSIA Programme (ACT-CORSIA)”.

Last year ICAO celebrated the 10th anniversary of the State Action Plan (SAP) Initiative, created to provide States with the capacity and tools to develop national strategies to contribute to the achievement of the ICAO global aspirational goals. In the framework of this initiative, ICAO provides continuous support to its Member States through technical support, the organization of training sessions, and the development of guidance and various tools. As of April 2021, 120 States representing over 97% global RTK have voluntarily submitted their State Action Plan to ICAO.

Assembly Resolution A40-18 encourages States to prepare and update action plans by June 2021, and States are now in the process of developing or updating their State Action Plans in order to reflect the current rapid changes and innovations occurring within the aviation industry.

Following a request from the 40th session of the ICAO Assembly, and inspired by several announcements for zero carbon emission by 2050, ICAO is currently assessing the feasibility of a climate global long-term aspirational goal for international aviation (LTAG), along with roadmaps.

ICAO Member States will be engaged in the ICAO Global Aviation Dialogues (GLADs), organized from 10 to 14 May 2021 in a series of five regional events, in order to raise awareness and discuss current and future work on LTAG at ICAO.

One hundred initiatives, plans and solutions to reduce in-sector aviation emissions were presented at the 2020 ICAO Stocktaking event, one of the most important events for the discussion of new disruptive technologies that will shape the future of aviation. ICAO is continuing to engage with all stakeholders to facilitate the development and accelerated implementation of these initiatives under the ICAO Coalition for Sustainable Aviation.

The 2021 Stocktaking event will be held from 31 August to September 2nd and will be followed by the green recovery policy event on September 3rd. A series of ICAO monthly pre-stocktaking webinars are paving the way towards the Stocktaking and the pace by which we are witnessing the development of electric and hydrogen planes, new processes for generating sustainable aviation fuels and clean energy, or development of green infrastructures for the sector, is unparalleled.

Along with technologies, it is also imperative that the right policies, legal frameworks and infrastructure are in place, as well as the international regulations for their certification are developed by ICAO.

To mark Earth Day, ICAO has released two publications of the Eco-Airport Toolkit e-collection, focusing on climate resilient airports and water management at airports. With this e-collection, ICAO provides States with practical information on key aspects of airport planning and design in order to take informed decisions when financing a new airport infrastructure project or environmental management enhancement programmes.

The earth’s environment is our future and this is a defining moment to protect it. Science says we need to do more, the technology says it is possible. This requires all of us to work together as a global community in an unprecedented manner, coming together every day in the spirit of Earth Day, to make the dream of a sustainable world a reality.


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