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World Environment Day 2020
June 5 @ 8:00 am - 5:00 pm
World Environment Day is a day of celebration. It is a day upon which, for over forty years, people the world over have advocated and acted for a healthy environment. From beach clean-ups to mass tree-planting to marches, individuals, communities and governments have come out to stand shoulder-to-shoulder for our planet.
This year, we cannot take to the beaches, forests and streets. We must stay at home, keep our distance and mark World Environment Day virtually. This is because we all stand in solidarity with those suffering from the global pandemic. We need to protect the sick, the poor and the vulnerable from the worst ravages of this disease. In particular, our thoughts are with the Americas, where the pandemic is now hitting hard.
I pay tribute to Colombia, this year’s World Environment Day host nation, for making this event happen, and to the many thousands of advocates honouring this day with their own virtual events during these difficult times.
While these online celebrations are a tribute to human commitment and ingenuity, the fact that we have to do it this way means something is terribly wrong with human stewardship of the Earth. This virus is not bad luck, or a one-off event that nobody could see coming. It is an entirely predictable result of humanity’s destruction of nature – which will cause far greater suffering if left unchecked.
Humanity’s unhealthy relationship with nature
The science does not lie. We can tell much of the story of the damage our species has wrought with a few facts.
- Humanity has altered 75 per cent of the Earth’s ice-free surface.
- Since 1990, 420 million hectares of forest, equal to three times the size of South Africa, have been lost.
- Nearly a million species face extinction, while the illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest illegal trade crime in the world.
COVID-19, which was transmitted from animals to humans, is a direct warning that nature can take no more. COVID-19 is zoonotic, a type of disease that transmits between animals and humans. We are facing it in large part because humanity’s expansion into wild spaces and exploitation of species brings people into closer contact with wildlife. COVID-19 may be one of the worst, but it is not the first. 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases are of zoonotic. origins. Ebola, SARS, the Zika virus and bird flu all spread from animals to people, often due to human encroachment on nature.
But zoonotic illnesses are not the only warning sign that the degradation of nature is threatening health, peace and prosperity.
As ecosystems and biodiversity fall to cities, agriculture, infrastructure, climate change and pollution, nature’s ability to provide food, oxygen, clean water and climate regulation plummets. This directly impacts human health and wealth.
Meanwhile, the climate emergency has not gone away. CO2 levels in the atmosphere hit an all-time high in early May. In April, the World Meteorological Organization said temperatures have increased 1.1 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. We are seeing the consequences in bushfires, acidifying oceans and locust invasions – which could push millions of people in East Africa into hunger.
And while greenhouse gas emissions may dip this year because of lockdowns, we should not celebrate. Think of the atmosphere as a bathtub, and emissions as the water that flows from the tap. We have only turned down the tap slightly. The tub is still filling. This means, as Joseph Stiglitz and other luminaries recently said, we face going out of the COVID frying pan into the climate fire.
COVID-19 recovery packages can spark change
So, lockdowns are not a silver lining for the environment. They have, however, shown that nature can still flourish, if we give it the chance. During the lockdowns, we saw air pollution clear and nature coming out of hiding – from penguins wandering the streets of Cape Town to kangaroos bouncing through Adelaide. This gives us a glimpse into how much better our lives could be if we lived in harmony with nature. But we need to make this happen in a way that lasts.
Now is not the time to set aside environmental laws and norms in the name of recovery, as we have seen done in some places. We need to strengthen environmental protection to build back better. We have the opportunity to do just that.
Today, on World Environment Day, I call on all everyone to work together to protect the nature that supports us all. The stronger our planet’s life support systems are, the better human health and wealth will be.
It is, without a doubt, time for nature.
By Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme