'We are inching closer to respect or even reverence for the planet'

Havering was ranked as having fewer than one per cent of its residents cycling at least five times p

More people have taken up cycling as we are learning to respect the planet - Credit: PA

As 2021 comes to a close, as people give and receive their presents for the festive season, I find myself reflecting on the greatest gift we have. This planet with its atmosphere and ecosystems has sustained life as we know it for millennia.

That sounds pious, but perhaps if there is a time for piety and reflection it is now. This year which has once again been one of disruption and change has shown us the fragility of the situation.

To point to just three climate-related phenomena: we’ve seen flooding in Germany that took the lives of about 200 people, with houses that had stood for centuries torn down and washed away. The “heat dome” in British Columbia was another terrifying event with temperatures rising to approximately 40 degrees for five days, killing around 500 people and with a fire finally burning the town of Lytton to the ground leaving nothing but ashes. Then, perhaps the most shocking: after a series of droughts, New South Wales was hit by an epidemic of biblical proportions, with millions of mice running rampage through homes and farms. The Panorama programme on these phenomena is well worth watching.

Maya de Souza shows the connection between investment and climate change.

Maya de Souza appreciates the greatest gift of all - the planet - Credit: Archant

However, in my view we are inching closer to respect or even reverence for the planet. We may be on that cusp of a transition. We’ve seen changes beginning to take hold: people working from home, cycling, walking reducing the impacts of travel, tourism has become more local, and diets have become more sustainable with increasing numbers of vegetarian and vegans (14% of adults by end 2020) and people simply eating less red meat. As our Dartmouth Park neighbours renovate their homes, I’ve seen a willingness to spend on insulating homes so they are fit for the 21st century. Councils like Islington and Camden are raising funds through social impact bonds to finance investment in our homes and facilities.

But what next – what’s needed for the year ahead? To me the challenge is scaling up to cut emissions from heating, to reduce electricity and fuel usage, and manage the embodied carbon in the materials we use and products we buy. To do so, we can introduce widescale insulation making use of new prototypes and experiment with new technologies like heat pumps, using new sources of funds like green bonds. We also need a shift to more sustainable diets, a determination to make cycling and walking cities and neighbourhoods work, and managing our consumption and use of materials to reduce carbon and wider ecological impacts. The shift we are witnessing will, I hope, lead to new norms.

To achieve this, sharing knowledge and expertise will be critical, whether locally or internationally. This brings us back to the culture of giving presents whilst also valuing that incredible gift we all benefit from – the earth with its atmosphere and ecosystems, the only planetary home we have.

Maya de Souza is an environmental campaigner and chair of the Dartmouth Park Neighbourhood Forum.