Opinion Article for OpticaPro Magazine No. 244, September 2023

The Equation of Ecoanxiety

The European Green Deal sets an ambitious target for all Member States, aiming for climate neutrality by 2050. Aware of the significant challenge ahead, the European Commission has implemented various mechanisms, from concrete legislative packages to mobilizing funds— one trillion euros in public and private investment— to achieve this objective. The European Green Deal, introduced in 2019, encompasses areas such as clean energy, sustainable transport, energy efficiency, agriculture, and biodiversity protection. Goals of the European Green Deal include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting renewable energies, improving energy efficiency in buildings, combating pollution, and developing a circular economy.

It's evident that mere ideas or environmental goodwill are insufficient to attain climate neutrality. A rapid, maximum-speed sprint, accompanied by binding legislative regulations across all member states, is indispensable. The Objective 55 package aims to adapt and regulate EU legislation concerning climate, energy, transport, and taxation. This parametrization aims to achieve a net reduction of at least 55% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. With appropriate legislation, clear and measurable goals, governments can compel businesses to adapt their activities to comply with regulations.

In the last decade, global economic performance prompted acrobatic reformative policies in developed countries, driven by the increasing geostrategic importance of Asia, particularly China. China's rise as an economic power has reshaped the industrial production and international trade axis, shifting away from the United States. This power struggle has taken various forms, from restrictions on technology imports to recent disputes over territorial claims in the South China Sea and explicit U.S. support for Taiwan's autonomy.

Expectations of greater convergence among emerging countries towards richer economies have been largely contradicted. Economic slowdown, particularly since the second decade of the 21st century, exacerbated by the pandemic crisis and more recently the war in Ukraine, coupled with the largest energy crisis in the last century, has led to uncontrolled inflation and highly restrictive monetary policies by central banks. The social consequences of these financial dynamics are devastating, affecting not only low-income populations but creating widespread social crises, increased poverty, and protests against the cost of living, inadequate wages, and the right to decent housing.

Numerous factors of instability inducing a perception of insecurity weigh on society today. Recent graduates face difficulties entering the job market, with academic qualifications often not aligning with available opportunities, leading to low wages and hindering personal and social development. This has consequences not only for lower-income individuals but also for societal well-being in general.

Society is undergoing profound transformation marked by knowledge, innovation, and technology over the last 50 years. This transformation has influenced how we think and act, with significant changes in mobility patterns, urban space dynamics, global individual interests, trust in technological security, and increased purchasing power, leading to a widespread demand for air travel. However, the environmental impact of this mass use of transportation, particularly air travel, has led to increased atmospheric pollution and ecosystem compromise.

Today, concepts like social and environmental consciousness are widespread and integrated into people's daily lives. Developed environmental awareness is crucial for individuals, communities, and societies to adopt practices contributing to carbon neutrality. Sustainability has become a critical factor influencing commercial relationships between organizations. Supply chain scrutiny by Western brands has become a priority, focusing on transparency, human values, eradication of child labor, and inclusion, among other aspects.

Consumers increasingly choose products that align with ESG principles, looking beyond brand notoriety to scrutinize labels for expiry dates, composition, origin, and manufacturer's social policies. However, claims of environmental friendliness are not always accurate, with many companies engaging in greenwashing campaigns. Studies show that consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, but high production and certification costs, exacerbated by inflation, often hinder their eco-friendly choices.

The narrative shifts to an individual's experience in adopting sustainable practices. A friend, driven more by technology, modernity, and cost control than a genuine interest in carbon neutrality, recently decided to purchase an electric vehicle. The ritual that typically follows such a significant purchase, a kind of social trophy, led to a family outing along the Douro River. Due to inexperience or lack of skill, the friend unintentionally let the power indicator drop below reserve, resulting in a lengthy ordeal to find a compatible charging station, call for a tow, and reach the destination nine hours later than planned. This incident illustrates how unprepared we still are for the sustainability challenge, despite lofty speeches about achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Renowned scientist Václav Smil, a Czech-Canadian political analyst, and professor, raises doubts about the speed of transitioning to a green economy. The race against time, the tangible effects of climate change, and unrealistic decisions by authorities, given society's heavy dependence on fossil fuels, create a complex scenario. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine prompted some EU countries to backtrack on green economy achievements, resorting again to dirty fuel and coal-fired power plants.

The collapse or abrupt discontinuation of fossil fuel-dependent infrastructures would be catastrophic, not only in terms of material costs but also the social and human impact on communities relying on fossil energy. Despite advances in renewable energy development, we remain highly dependent on fossil fuels, posing challenges to the envisioned transition towards an inclusive and equitable energy shift for all.

Plastic, a derivative of petroleum, plays a crucial role in human activities, from health and construction to transportation, food industry, and automotive sector. Its prevalence, especially in disposable items like condoms, masks, and syringes, raises questions about the environmental impact and the importance of plastic in critical situations. The world relies on plastics for various applications, and its absence would have profound implications.

The World Health Organization estimates that around 300 billion people (optimistically speaking) suffer from vision problems, with nearly 50% of them due to refractive errors. The prevalence of myopia is growing, and by 2050, half of the global population is predicted to be nearsighted. Coupled with other vision impairments, glasses and contact lenses have become essential. In Portugal alone, 55% of the population, approximately 4.5 million people, use eyeglasses, according to a 2020 market study.

The majority of materials used in the optical industry are petroleum-derived, produced from synthetic polymers. While there's a growing use of sustainable materials like bioacetates and recycled plastics, achieving a balance in the production chain remains challenging, leading to difficulties in tracking products at the end of their lifecycle. The AASO (Association for Sustainable Optical Actions) emerged from a group of individuals with humanistic concerns and a sensitivity to sustainability. Recognizing the consistent use of plastic in the optical industry, they aim to find practical solutions to transform the sector's environmental impact.

Preventing industrial production to serve the ongoing visual health needs of populations is not realistic. However, promoting information among end consumers, encouraging them to become active participants in waste management, and directing purchases towards more ecological products are feasible initiatives. The AASO is developing a Circular Economy program for waste collection throughout the country, to be implemented in 2023, known as the Waste Collection Circuit (CRR). The association believes that controlling the optical waste circuit, guiding it towards recovery, recycling, or incineration, is crucial for environmental sustainability.

In the current scenario, reaching the ambitious target of a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 requires comprehensive efforts. Legal mechanisms alone are not sufficient; individuals' awareness is the catalyst for a successful battle against climate change, ensuring that the ecoanxiety equation results in a better future for our children.

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