7 min read / June 1, 2022 / Staff writer
Hint: it’s not Earth Day — it’s United Nations’ World Environment Day.
This year on June 5, more than 150 countries are expected to celebrate World Environment Day. “World Environment Day is a global platform for inspiring positive change,” organizers explained. “…This UN international day engages governments, businesses, civil society, schools, celebrities, cities and communities, raising awareness and celebrating environmental action.”
The United Nations’ Environment Programme first introduced June 5 as World Environment Day in 1972, making this year the 50th anniversary. And while celebrations didn’t officially begin until 1974, since then, organizers say World Environment Day “has grown to be the largest global platform for environmental outreach, with millions of people from across the world engaging to protect the planet.”
So, why have you likely never heard of it?
Different than Earth Day
While World Environment Day is the lesser-known cousin of the widely celebrated Earth Day (April 22), both days focus attention on making the planet healthier. Their missions are aligned, but not identical.
The main difference between ‘Earth Day’ and ‘Environment Day’ is that Earth Day aims to help protect the environment. Environment Day is the United Nations’ most important platform for raising awareness about the environment.
Created in 1970 by United States’ Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin, Earth Day is now organized by EarthDay.org, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit collective of more than 1 billion people. Working with more than 150,000 partners in more than 190 countries, the organization’s goal is to drive positive action for our planet.
The United Nations’ Environmental Programme (UNEP), which organizes and was created in conjunction with World Environment Day, focuses on climate, nature, chemical and pollution action. With headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, the UNEP also has outposts in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America and West Asia.
UNEP is governed by the UN Environmental Assembly, which was created in 2012 and is considered the world’s highest-level body that makes decisions about the environment. The UNEP works closely with 193 member states, as well as businesses and other environmental groups, and over 95% of its funding comes from voluntary contributions.
Each year, a different country hosts World Environment Day. This year, that honor falls to Sweden.
And while Earth Day often incorporates multiple themes, World Environment Day organizers tend to focus on a single theme. This year, that theme is “Only One Earth,” an homage to the 1972 Stockholm Conference, considered the first world conference on the environment. The 2022 theme invites participants to see protecting the planet as a global challenge and their responsibility. Organizers want the campaign to shine "a spotlight on climate action, nature action and pollution action while encouraging everyone, everywhere to live sustainably." Past themes have examined biodiversity, forests, and oceans, as well as plastic and air pollution.
World Environment Day origins
Even their origin stories distinguish Earth Day from World Environment Day.
Earth Day began in 1970 when 20 million people – an estimated 10% of the total population of the United States, at the time – stood in streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate against environmental harm caused by 150 years of industrial development.
Earth Day has been grabbing headlines ever since, most notably in 1990 when 200 million people in 141 countries were organized to make the day a global celebration, and again in 2016, when world leaders from 174 countries and the European Union gathered to sign the Paris Agreement, the first international accord that outlines steps to combat climate change and lower carbon levels by 2100.
The beginning of World Environment Day was a bit humbler than that mass demonstration on the first Earth Day. A small group of diplomats and lawmakers met in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972, for what became the historic United Nations Conference on the Environment.
“Stockholm represented a first taking stock of the global human impact on the environment, an attempt at forging a basic common outlook on how to address the challenge of preserving and enhancing the human environment,” one law professor later noted.
The conference led to the adoption of the Stockholm Declaration, a 26-point action plan for environmental assessment, management and international support. The plan also made 109 recommendations, including the observation of World Environment Day and the formation of the United Nations Environment Programme, appointed to oversee the global day of environmental awareness.
Celebrated for the first time in 1974, the theme for the original World Environment Day was “Only One Earth,” the same theme the organizer chose for this year. Shining a global spotlight on environmental issues and challenges, World Environment Day has grown into the United Nations’ flagship platform for environmental awareness and action, and year-round environmental outreach.
Last year, World Environment Day marked the launch of the United Nations’ Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, which calls for protecting and reviving world ecosystems. The end of the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration coincides with the deadline for Sustainable Development Goals and the year 2030 which scientists have identified as the last chance to prevent catastrophic climate change.
So far, more than 70 countries have joined the effort. And the United Nations has asked individuals around the world to use local resources and social media campaigns to join the movement.
This year, days before World Environment Day, global leaders will meet for Stockholm+50 — an offshoot of the Decade of Action. Commemorating the historic 1972 United Nations Conference on the Environment, according to the website, “The event aims to act as a springboard to accelerate the implementation of the UN Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, including the 2030 Agenda, Paris Agreement on climate change, the post-2020 global Biodiversity Framework, and encourage the adoption of green post-COVID-19 recovery plans.”
Why World Environment Day matters
Despite its unflashy footprint, the understated World Environment Day has spent 50 years building a significant legacy.
World Environment Day is a reminder for us to pause and reflect on our actions and their subsequent consequences on the planet.
“We are living in a world where averting our eyes from the climate crisis is not an option. That’s why public and private stakeholders are setting targets to reduce their carbon emissions. But it’s not enough, we need the world to come together. And there’s real merit in this.”
Banka called for turning to nature-based solutions and a nature-positive economy, while advocating for ecosystem restoration – an echo of the UN’s Decade campaign.
The day has even found allies in the art world. “By raising our voices to break the climate silence and using our platforms to call attention to the climate crisis, we can catalyze a wave of collective action,” said Miranda Massie, director of the Climate Museum, which partners with Rockefeller Center and the United Nations Environmental Programme for Flag Project. Now in its third year, Flag Project is an annual crowd-sourced art exhibition where the public is asked to submit flag designs that represent the World Environment Day theme. The selected flags are then displayed on the flagpoles surrounding the skating rink at Rockefeller Center.
Observing World Environment Day
Organized observations of World Environment Day, such as Stockholm+50 and the Flag Project, aren’t the only ways to celebrate the day. Individual actions are at the heart of environmental awareness.
Planting trees, starting a community garden or volunteering to collect trash are other great ways to celebrate World Environment Day. If you’re inspired and to want to start a community celebration, reach out to your local community garden or farmer’s market. Or, go a step further, and connect with global groups, such as UNEP, which offers a toolkit for community organizing.
Remember, taking action is more important than whether your effort is big or small, individualized or community based. The key is contributing, then amplifying your efforts by sharing on social media, in your off-line friend groups or at work.
“Without public awareness of the importance of the environment on a global scale, politics won’t pay attention to changing legislation to govern practices that may be hurting the environment,” a writer with Conserve Energy Future argues.
“When you create a group for World Environment Day, you aren’t just making something for June 5th. This is a year-round commitment to advocacy and action in your local area and, on a global scale, to promote and encourage environmental responsibility and the conservation of natural resources. While the debate may still go on about alternative fuels and recycling, the fact remains that what we do have [on Earth] needs to be conserved and preserved to even allow us something to argue over.”