Between the global pandemic and social distancing, Earth Day 2020 is going to look different than it ever has before, as many of us will be tuning into celebrations through a virtual screen or a socially distanced walk.
With COVID-19 disrupting all semblance of normalcy and routine in the world, the organizers of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary celebration ditched their usual live concert and gathering on Capital Mall for the April 22 festivities, rescheduling it for October.
The group announced the first “Digital Earth Day” for the 1 billion people around the globe who normally participate in events to mark the day.
The gamut of events is vast: there are talks, lectures, presentations, concerts, immersive campaigns and even virtual visits to National Parks. The events themselves raise questions about the immense environmental benefits of virtual meetings.
EarthDay.org’s website boasts it will be “the world’s largest online climate conference ever held,” and will span from April 20-25. The overall theme for Earth Day 2020 is climate action. “Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.
The website has a local live event tracker. In addition to the main event, there are 584 events registered around the globe for Earth Day 2020. Organizers include influencers, individuals and groups. The 584 does not take into account the scores of organizations and grassroots groups coordinating their own digital gatherings.
A unified response to an environment in crisis
When it was founded on April 22, 1970, “Earth Day was a unified response to an environment in crisis — oil spills, smog, rivers so polluted they literally caught fire,” the movement’s website reads. They claim that 20 million Americans “took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for our planet.”
Earth Day Live 2020 (a different group from EarthDay.org) is moving online, too. Scores of climate change activists and voices including Al Gore and Joaquin Phoenix will be gathering over a three day live stream “in an epic moment of community and hope for the future,” the event’s website states.
“On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we will demonstrate our collective power and unity through community building and storytelling. This first day will focus on amplifying the voice of indigenous leaders and youth climate activists who are leading the movement to halt the climate crisis.”
There are also more immersive events and campaigns, which ask people to more than just tune in and sit on their couches.
The World Wildlife Fund is running a digital campaign called #ArtforEarth. As they tweeted, “During the week of April 20, we invite you to create nature themed artwork and share on social with #ArtForEarth.”
NASA launched a campaign for the 50th anniversary of the holiday called #EarthDayAtHome. “As we physically separate ourselves by necessity,” NASA wrote, “we can still collectively appreciate the wondrous beauty of our planet.
“To help get you started, NASA has collected numerous activities to help you observe ‘Earth Day at Home.’”
Hyundai is running a #DarkSelfieChallenge in honor of Earth Day: “Join the #darkselfie challenge and shed light on climate change. Turn off all the lights off and take a selfie but with the flash on. One small action can make a big difference,” the campaign reads.
A growing global trend of digital activism
The notion of moving nature celebrations online plays into a growing global trend of digital activism, which has grown along with the prevalence of social media. Actress Jane Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays have recently gone digital. Fonda had planned to take a two-year hiatus from acting to tour the country and get out the climate vote. Despite travel being out of the question, she’s still finding ways to draw attention to climate issues through digital platforms.
Climate activists are adjusting to having to do their work online instead of in person due to social distancing. While face to face trust is vital for this kind of large-scale activism, climate activists are finding ways to maintain their momentum from the web.
While there are definitely challenges to digital existence, and even more to digital activism, there are some upsides, which are especially relevant in light of Earth Day.
In April 2019, Zoom published an Earth Day blogpost “How video meetings are helping reduce environmental impact.” The piece lays out how Zoom partnered with the Chorus.ai conversation intelligence platform to “do the math on just how much video meetings can reduce the environmental impact of a standard business meeting.”
The environmental benefits of virtual meetings
According to the infographic they produced, a one hour virtual meeting emits 0.1 lbs. of CO-2, whereas a flight from San Francisco to New York, for example, emits 1,367 lbs. Of CO-2.
As the Zoom data and story explain, there are much more carbon emissions that come with work travel than just the flight. After crunching all of these numbers, it would take 32 trees a full year to offset that one business trip. On the flip side, it takes one tree just two months to offset the emissions from a virtual meeting.
Dr. Peter Arnfalk, a senior lecturer at Lund University’s International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics, conducted a research project that yielded similar results. He worked with 86 public agencies in Sweden to replace their travel policy with virtual meetings to reduce carbon emissions. The study tracked multiple agencies virtual meetings over several years.
After the first four years of running the project, CO-2 emission from travel per employee in agencies that continued to travel to meetings increased by 9.4% on average. In contrast, the equivalent emissions decreased by 10.2% in the agencies that adopted a virtual meeting policy during the same period.
A new way forward
If this year’s digital Earth Day events are successful, it could raise questions about the potential environmental benefits of virtual meetings as well as activism. If activists can successfully mobilize people from their homes, this could be a new way forward in a post COVID-19 era.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) tweeted “We are all in this together and we’re all on this planet together. No matter where you are in this world, we are connected by our challenges.”