Another World Environment Day passed, reminding the world of the callousness with which humanity treats nature. Around 150 members of the United Nations organised events on Sunday June 5 to celebrate the day. The day has been celebrated since 1973 when a group of nations came together to address a fast rapid decline of the natural world. In the last five decades, the day is celebrated on different themes and goals linked to specific environmental issues. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) celebrates the World Environment Day every year with a designated theme. This year’s theme is ‘Only One Earth”.
The themes that followed the 1974 celebration aimed at macro-level issues that were focused on human settlements, water conservation and sustainable development (characterised by development without destruction). The year 1977 saw the depletion of ozone layer becoming an environmental concern that was accepted as the Montreal protocol in September 1987. The Montreal Protocol is an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of substances that are responsible for ozone depletion.
Evolution of environment day themes
In the initial years of 1980s, preservation of groundwater from contamination by toxic chemicals and management and disposition of hazardous wastes started dominated the World Environment Day themes. Similarly, 1985 and 1988 emphasized the role of people with a special focus on the youth as the preservers of environment. In 1986, the International Year of Peace, the day was themed “A tree for peace”, highlighting the growing need for conservation of the flora.
Reflecting on World Environment Day’s growing profile, political and religious leaders including French President François Mitterrand, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni took part in a global ceremony by planting a tree and stressing the links between conflict and environmental destruction. After the establishment of the Brundtland Report in 1987 which was popularised in the name of “Our common future”, the importance of climate change and global warming seemed to occupy global environmental narratives.
In 1990s, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, started influencing environment day themes with the cure to desertification and the promotion of sustainability. Unlike the 80s, this decade focused largely on environmental issues with micro agents such as individuals and society. Moreover, the resurgence of oneness and the realisation of solidarity got presented during the themes of the decade. In support of the International Year of the Ocean, the sea and marine life preservation hogged the limelight in 1998.
The twenty-first century started with a realisation of the need for action against the biggest global calamity, climate change. The environment day of 2000 did the ground work for a series of summits that led to the adoption of Millennium Development Goals. The decade re-emphasised subjects such as water conservation, ocean and marine life, desertification and carbon planning as the themes of environment days. Inadvertently, melting ice and increasing sea level created concern that many of the world’s largest cities might just disappear in the coming 50 years. On the other hand, the focus also shifted toward making cities clean and sustainable for the future.
The concept of green economy dominated the goals of environment days post-2010. Starting with beating plastic and air pollution, combating climate change and carbon footprints also became themes. Highlighting the need to manage scarce resources, the themes emphasized sustainable and futuristic consumption. Similarly, the linkage between society, individuals and environment influenced the environment day narratives. The preservation of wildlife and ecosystem restoration are expected to dominate the global narratives of climate action in coming years and decades.
Though the narratives built by the UNEP via the world environment day themes have succeeded in addressing vital issues, the global policymaking has so far overlooked the existing mismatch among the nations. Disparities in per capita income, economic growth, level of education and technological advancement are the biggest hurdles in achieving the goals promoted by different themes.
Global environmental policy has always created tussles between the developing and developed countries. Selective focus on developing countries is needed to preserve the environment without jeopardising their growth aspirations. Countries like Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan have hosted the world environment day functions several times, but no theme has highlighted the needs of these developing nations.
(Kaibalyapati Mishra is a research scholar at the Centre for Economic Studies and Policy, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. Views are personal.)