Is it possible to heal the damage we have already done to the Earth?

The Earth viewed from the Apollo 8 lunar mission on Dec. 24, 1968. NASA

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to

by Scott Denning, Colorado State University

Is it possible to heal the damage we have already done to the Earth? – Anthony, age 13

Sometimes it may seem that humans have altered the Earth beyond repair. But our planet is an incredible system in which energy, water, carbon and so much else flows and nurtures life. It is about 4.5 billion years old and has been through enormous changes.

At some points in Earth’s history, fires burned over large areas. At others, much of it was covered with ice. There also have been mass extinctions that wiped out nearly every living thing on its surface.

Earth’s climate has varied from extremely warm periods with no polar ice caps to phases when much of the planet was frozen.

Our living planet is incredibly resilient and can heal itself over time. The problem is that its self-healing systems are very, very slow. The Earth will be fine, but humans’ problems are more immediate.

People have damaged the systems that sustain us in many ways. We have polluted air and water, strewn plastic and other trash on land and in oceans and rivers, and destroyed habitats for plants and animals.

But we know how to help natural processes clean up many of these messes. And there has been a lot of progress since people started waking up to these problems 50 years ago.

Graph showing economic trends since 1970 and decline in six major air pollutants.
Since 1970, the U.S. has greatly reduced air pollution even as its economy has grown dramatically. USEPA

There still are problems to solve. Some pollutants, like plastic, last for thousands of years, so it’s much better to stop releasing them than to try to collect them later. And extinction is permanent, so the only effective way to reduce it is to be more careful about protecting animals, plants and other species.

Reversing climate change

The most serious damage humans are doing to the Earth comes mainly from burning coal, oil and gas, which is dramatically warming its climate. Burning these carbon-based fuels is changing the fundamental chemistry and physics of the air and oceans.

Every lump of coal or gallon of gasoline that’s burned releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There it heats the Earth’s surface, causing floods, fires and droughts. Some of this added carbon dioxide dissolves into the oceans and makes them more acidic, which threatens ocean food webs.

Climate change is a problem that will get worse until humans stop making it worse – and then it will take many centuries for the climate to return to what it was like before the Industrial Revolution, when human actions started altering it on a large scale.

The only way to avoid making things worse is to stop setting carbon on fire. That means societies need to work hard to build an energy system that can help everyone live well without the need to burn carbon.

The good news is that we know how to make energy without releasing carbon dioxide and other pollution. Electricity made from solar, wind and geothermal power is now the cheapest energy in history. Cleaning up the global electricity supply and then electrifying everything can very quickly stop carbon pollution from getting worse.

This will require electric cars and trains, electric heating and cooking, and electric factories. We’ll also need new kinds of transmission and storage systems to get all that clean electricity from where it’s made to where it’s used.

The rest of the carbon mess can be cleaned up through better farm and forest management that stores carbon in land and plants instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. This is also a problem that scientists know how to solve.

The Earth will certainly heal, but it may take a very long time. The best way to start is with everyone doing their part to avoid making the damage any worse.

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Scott Denning, Professor of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

UNEP launching new sustainable land use finance impact directory

Read the full story from UNEP.

Financial institutions around the world can now measure the positive impact of their investments into biodiversity conservation, adaptation, mitigation, forest protection and sustainable livelihoods with the help of a new indicator directory and resources platform, launched today.

The Land Use Finance Impact Hub and its Positive Impact Indicators Directory – launched today by UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Climate Finance Unit and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) – has been developed with and for impact funds and sustainably focused financial institutions, and aims to support the rollout of effective industry frameworks to track the environmental and social impacts of land-use investments.

Three Wrens Distillery launches gin refill scheme

Read the full story at The Spirits Business.

English gin producer Three Wrens Distillery is offering a bottle refill scheme to increase the sustainability of the business.

Bringing back fire: How burning can help restore eastern lands

Read the full story at e360.

For millennia, North American ecosystems benefited from fire, mostly set by Indigenous people. Now, a movement is growing, particularly in the eastern U.S., to reintroduce controlled burns to forests and grasslands and restore the role of fire in creating biodiverse landscapes.

Cover crops more effective than insecticides for managing pests, study suggests

Read the full story from Penn State University.

Promoting early season plant cover, primarily through the use of cover crops, can be more effective at reducing pest density and crop damage than insecticide applications, according to a Penn State-led team of researchers.

In a newly published study, the researchers suggest that the best pest management outcomes may occur when growers encourage biological control — in the form of pests’ natural enemies — by planting cover crops and avoiding broad-spectrum insecticides as much as possible.

What we should be considering for circular building design

Read the full story at GreenBiz.

We spend over 90 percent of our time indoors. Most of you are probably reading this newsletter indoors. Have you ever spent time thinking about circularity in the built environment? The question I’m thinking about today is: Can buildings be truly circular?

We are a long way from that ideal future right now, so I took a look at some of the numbers for construction and demolition (C&D) and building waste, and suggest a couple strategies to move this sector towards circularity. 

Tarleton researchers work to remove microplastics from wastewater

Read the full story from Tarleton State University.

Tarleton State University researchers led by Dr. Rajani Srinivasan have demonstrated that combinations of food-grade plant extracts, including those from okra, aloe, cactus and psyllium, have the power to remove microplastics from wastewater.

Findings were presented at the March 20-24 virtual spring meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Amazon to have database on greenhouse gases

Read the full story from Agência Brasil.

A free-access platform with a wide diversity of data on greenhouse gas emissions in the Amazon is being built by the Research Center for Greenhouse Gas Innovation (RCGI), at the University of São Paulo (USP). The platform will combine variables that control the carbon cycle, in addition to providing assistance in analysis and studies into the region’s role in the global climate.

Currently underway, the first phase consists in the collection of remote sensing data, surface data, and already conducted modeling. Next, the researchers will begin to integrate the various databases and develop the artificial intelligence tools to extract qualified information from the system as a whole.

Roles of Selective Agriculture Practices in Sustainable Agricultural Performance: A Systematic Review

Ali, B., & Dahlhaus, P. (2022). “Roles of Selective Agriculture Practices in Sustainable Agricultural Performance: A Systematic Review.” Sustainability 14(6), 3185.

Abstract: Feeding the growing global population while improving the Earth’s economic, environmental, and social values is a challenge recognised in both the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Sustaining global agricultural performance requires regular revision of current farming models, attitudes, and practices. In systematically reviewing the international literature through the lens of the sustainability framework, this paper specifically identifies precision conservation agriculture (PCA), digital agriculture (DA), and resilient agriculture (RA) practices as being of value in meeting future challenges. Each of these adaptations carries significantly positive relationships with sustaining agricultural performance, as well as positively mediating and/or moderating each other. While it is clear from the literature that adopting PCA, DA, and RA would substantially improve the sustainability of agricultural performance, the uptake of these adaptations generally lags. More in-depth social science research is required to understand the value propositions that would encourage uptake of these adaptations and the barriers that prevent them. Recommendations are made to explore the specific knowledge gap that needs to be understood to motivate agriculture practitioners to adopt these changes in practice.

TikTok for physics: influencers aim to spark interest in science

Read the full story in Nature.

The UK Institute of Physics has turned to young social-media stars to get more schoolchildren excited about the subject.