June 5 is World Environment Day, begun by the United Nations 40 years ago to celebrate positive environmental action. This year’s host country for World Environment Day is Brazil, which is the site later this month for the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Nearly 9,000 activities have been registered on the WED site, ranging from a neighborhood soccer match in Chicago to a Corporate Greening Gala fundraiser in Namibia to a tree planting in Pune, India. (You can even send a Care2 World Environment Day e-card.)
World Environment Day is just a small part of the United Nations Environment Program and other agencies’ work for environmental protection and environmental justice. Since its founding in 1972, the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) has been active in the negotiations of numerous international agreements centered on environmental protection. This video briefly describes some of the milestones accomplished in the past 40 years; milestones in the control of trade in toxic chemicals, fostering biodiversity, establishing protected areas and linking environmental justice and human rights. UNEP created this video to highlight some of the complex international agreements, laboriously negotiated over years, that have led to progress on environmental protection:
It is all too easy to dismiss the grainy footage of earnest people in suits, the intricate bureaucracy and endless rounds of talks that entail action by the U.N. But for problems as globally encompassing and complex as environmental protection and climate change, international cooperation is essential
Underlying these international agreements is the understanding that human activities and commerce cannot continue with business as usual, without regard to the destruction of the natural world. This need to take a longer-term view of the consequences of human activity is encapsulated in the definition of sustainable development agreed to by the 1987 with the publication of the Brundtland Commission’s report, entitled Our Common Future:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It contains two key concepts:
- the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
- the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”
More recently, UNEP’s activities have focused on the need to decouple growth from the concept of economic prosperity, a necessary idea in a world of limited resources and a population of 9 billion people and growing, and one that will not easily find acceptance among world leaders and financiers.
Clearly the UN still has much work to do. Absent any better way to come to global consensus, or near consensus, on complex global problems, it seems appropriate for the organization and its constituents to pause to remember and appreciate its achievements this World Environment Day, and then settle back to work for the approaching Rio+20 Conference.