Balloons blow: the environmental impact of traditions

Tasmania has some of the world’s most pristine beaches, but like all coastal regions they are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, which often brings with it plastic debris and other garbage that has floated out to sea.

Yesterday I was walking at one rather secluded beach in Hobart’s east when I spotted a bright pink balloon complete with plastic ribbon entangled in a bush offshore. It had obviously floated there from a nearby party as it was still inflated.

What would happen if that party balloon made its way out into the ocean? Well, according to the CSIRO balloons are the “marine debris item that has the highest chance of killing seabirds if eaten, and 43 percent of short-tailed shearwaters have plastic in their gut.” What’s more, the CSIRO predicts that 95 percent of all seabird species may be ingesting plastic by 2050.

The Tasman Sea is a global hotspot for impacts of marine debris on seabirds.

This is not news, however. I’m sure you have heard about the major issues plastic and other debris cause to our marine life and coastal habitats. Yet, it continues to be a problem, as I witnessed yesterday.

What can we do about it? One effective way to tackle plastics debris in our oceans is to curb and eventually stop plastic use. This is dependant on a lot of factors including effective policy, education, and waste management. However, people’s attitudes and behaviours are the most important because mindful consumption of resources will lead to a plastic-free, and more ecologically sustainable society.

In the meantime, when looking for balloons for the next birthday party, Sustainability Victoria has put together a shortlist of some wildlife-friendly balloon alternatives, which includes bubbles for the kids, and flowers, which can be rehomed for decoration and then composted.

Changing habits is about keeping in the forefront of our minds, the impacts we have on our environment with our daily actions and decisions, and changing those accordingly.

It involves society as a whole rethinking our role in nature, so that we may effectively lessen our ecological impacts.

After all, these impacts are cyclical. Microplastics, plastic debris, and other contaminants are making their way into the food chain, and therefore having wide-ranging impacts on human health.

UPDATE: Website Balloons Blow (nothing to do with this article or its title) is a great resource for the impacts of balloons on wildlife, including education resources and a fantastic list of alternatives https://balloonsblow.org/environmentally-friendly-alternatives/

Celebrating Biodiversity, means Respecting Nature as Equal

Today, June 5, is World Environment Day. The theme for 2020 is “Celebrating Biodiversity”. What does that mean exactly?

Biodiversity is the complex web of more than 8 million species on this planet that are vital to our existence. One million of these plant and animal species is facing extinction if we don’t change our way of life.

Every species on the planet is important in maintaining healthy and balanced ecosystems. Every. Single. One.

Protecting this biodiversity is essential for our health, wellbeing, livelihoods, protection and security. We are part of nature. Our lives literally depend on it.

According to the IPBES, the five main drivers for biodiversity loss are: land use change; overexploitation of animals and plants; climate change; pollution; and, invasive species introduced through globalisation. These drivers are all human induced.

The UN says, “Nature is sending us a message: to care for ourselves we must care for nature. It’s time to wake up. To take notice…it’s time for nature”

Yes, it is time for nature. It is time then to start recognising and respecting that nature is not just a resource to be exploited exponentially for our own human wellbeing. There is a nature-society continuum at play. If we do not respect nature as equally as we respect ourselves, we throw out that delicate balance.

This is what we have been doing. One of the consequences is climate change and its related impacts.

In 2008, Ecuador made the historical decision to give Rights to Nature. This afforded a legal status to nature that recognised nature as an actor. The Rights of Nature has since resulted in a global movement to move away from the idea of nature as property under the law, towards a legal recognition that “nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.”

Affording nature rights, is more than just a legal protection, and it is certainly more than just a symbolic gesture. It is also a call for civilizational change. In Western society, we are all so used to seeing nature as a resource for our own good use, that we forget what might happen if it no longer exists.

This means that at a societal level, we also must recognise the wellbeing of nature as equally as our own, and change our habits, behaviours, attitudes and practices accordingly. After all, we need nature, more than it needs us. It is impossible to imagine life on earth without clean drinking water, land to cultivate and harvest food, trees for oxygen…

We just have to look at how nature has started to recover during COVID-19 lockdowns to be able to imagine how nature would do just fine without us.

As the UN also says, “it will take not just one, not just a village, but an entire global community to change this trajectory.” It involves rethinking our role on this planet and what we can do to ensure sustainable change.

Want to learn more? Here are some resources:

Earth School http://www.ted.ed.com/EarthSchool

Reduce plastic pollution http://www.cleanseas.org

Reduce your carbon footprint http://www.anatomyofaction.org

Reduce waste http://www.myzerowaste.com

Learn about the Rights of Nature http://www.rightsofnature.org

Climate emergency requires changing the value of the environment

Last June Hobart City Council joined 623 other jurisdictions and local councils (including 22 in Australia) in 13 countries to declare a climate emergency, becoming the first Australian capital city to do so.

So what exactly is a climate emergency? Many political and climate scientists state that emergency policy measures towards zero emissions are a necessary measure to try and stay within the ‘safe operating space’ for the climate at around 1.5°C warming or 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon concentration. Declaring a climate emergency means making a commitment to radical carbon emissions reduction. It means that government puts climate and environmental policy central, rather than as an add-on.

Although there is no single definition of a ‘climate emergency’ making a binding commitment to an urgent speed transition to zero emissions is a significant step in climate policy. By declaring a climate emergency, local councils like Hobart City Council demonstrated leadership to act on climate change that is lacking at the federal level. Local councils can start the ball rolling on climate emergency initiatives, putting pressure on state and federal governments to do the same, proving a promising avenue for wide scale urgent climate action.

Declaring a climate emergency is not just a symbolic act of recognition, it requires making some tough decisions that break away from ‘business-as-usual’.

A departure from ‘business-as-usual’ means major shifts in policies (not limited to) for manufacturing, transport, land use, tourism, and economic investment; as well as vast changes in individual social and consumer behaviours, which in turn requires a focus on education. Including climate change and ecological values in curriculums is vital in educating our next generation of climate leaders. This policy and behavioural shift means not taking the most cost-effective option in public spending, but making choices that value the environment over the bottom line.

With so much political recognition of the need to put the environment and climate change front and centre of policy, a declaration of a climate emergency can be a pathway to make transformational change in the way local governments approach development, scaling that up nationally, and ultimately having an impact on the role the environment has in the human world.

A climate emergency requires all of us – individuals and governments – to rethink our relationship with nature.

The traditional approach of viewing nature as a commodity has proven itself to be far from sustainable. Take, for example, Buen Vivir which in Ecuador led to a world first development policy recognising the Rights of Nature. This approach steers away from the wellbeing of human beings at the centre of decision-making, valuing environment and human wellbeing equally.

In other words, we are no more important than our environment, and unless radical action to safeguard the latter is taken urgently, life on this planet is under severe threat.

The changes that need to be made are not necessarily going to be uncostly, but one just needs to compare the ultimate cost of not acting on climate change. Governments have the opportunity to integrate some of these costs into post-COVID stimulus plans.

It is no longer a radical utopic idea, but something that needs to happen – especially relevant under the declaration of a climate emergency.

There is a joint policy-behavioural responsibility to act, though governments, particularly at the local level must facilitate that through policy action including looking at the structures and spaces that allow for transformational change, not just rhetoric. The economic challenges related to the current global pandemic might result in the latter. It is up to all of us to push for change.

That said, we need a substantial amount of political will combined with people power to tackle the climate emergency; and it is the actions of both our political leaders, and of individuals thinking collectively that will help determine what this looks like in the coming years, especially faced with challenges like COVID-19.