The 5th of June is World Environment Day. It is the United Nations Day for promoting and encouraging awareness and action all over the world to protect the environment. Over the years, World Environment Day (WED) has grown into one of the largest global platforms for environmental public outreach and is observed in more than 150 countries. This year due to the Covid- 19 pandemic, the day will be celebrated and commemorated through its first ever online-only campaign.

Even though the day this year might remain a bit subdued and may not receive adequate exposure due to the pandemic, yet the digital celebration will in no way demean or diminish the great significance of World Environment Day. The date was set by the UN General Assembly in 1972 on the first day (5 June) of the Stockholm Conference on Human Environment. The conference was convened to focus on “stimulating and providing guidelines for action by national governments and international organizations facing environmental issues”.

Two years later in 1974, the first meeting was held with the theme “only one Earth”. Even though the day’s celebrations have been held annually on 5 June since 1974, the idea of rotating the centre of these activities through selecting different host countries started in 1987. For 2019, the host nation was China and the theme was “Beat Air Pollution”. The theme was chosen as air pollution was killing about seven million people annually. For 2018, the host nation was India and the theme was “Beat Plastic Pollution”.

Oceans of the world were getting choked with plastic waste which was killing millions of marine animals, from sea turtles to whales. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has estimated that by 2050, there would be more plastic than fish in the seas. The Government of India pledged to eliminate all singleuse plastics by 2020. So far, the progress has remained tardy. India had hosted the 2011 World Environment Day for the first time with the theme “Forests: Nature at your service”.

This year Colombia in South America is hosting the day in partnership with Germany. The theme is biodiversity. About one million plants and animal species are facing extinction in today’s world. According to the UN Environmental Programme, “2020 is the critical year for national commitments towards preserving and restoring biodiversity as the UN Decade (2021-2030) on Ecosystem Restoration is intended to massively scale up the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems”.

The selection of the country is based on valid reasons. The topography of Colombia is dominated by the Andes mountains. To the south-east lie vast lowlands, drained by the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. Colombia has the second-highest level of biodiversity in the world lagging only behind Brazil which is about seven times bigger. Colombia is the only country in South America with islands and coastlines along both the Pacific and Atlantic (Caribbean Sea).

San Andres is a coral island in the Caribbean that is part of Colombia. In 2000, it was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The purpose of the declaration was to ensure that the ecosystem, extremely rich in biodiversity, is well preserved and conserved. Overall, Colombia sustains close to 10 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity. The 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, resulted in a treaty on biological diversity. It was a multilateral treaty.

The protection and conservation of the diverse range of species of animals and plant life and their habitats was the objective of the agreement. The treaty obligated the signatory states to conserve biodiversity, ensure its sustainable development and provide for fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the use of genetic resources. The treaty came into force in December 1993. It was ratified by 196 states and the European Union. All the UN member states had ratified the treaty except for the US. The US had signed the treaty but has not ratified it.

The treaty recognised for the first time in international law that conservation of bio-diversity was a common concern for humankind and was an integral part of the development process. The treaty was made legally binding and countries that joined it were obliged to implement its provisions. The treaty reminded the signatory countries that natural resources were not infinite but should be used for the benefit of humans in such a way and at a rate that must not lead to a significant decline of biological diversity.

2010 was the International Year on Biodiversity. That year, the occasion was hosted by Rwanda with the theme ‘Many species, one planet, one future’. Enthused by the success of the awareness campaign, the UN on 22 December 2010 had declared 2011- 2020 as the UN Decade on Biodiversity. 2020 is the last year of the decade. A successful awareness campaign on preservation and restoration of biodiversity will be a harbinger and happy beginning for the 2021-30 decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Biodiversity is the diversity of life on Earth. It is essential for the healthy functioning of the ecosystem. Habitat loss and overexploitation driven by rapid population growth are the primary causes of biodiversity loss which is now happening up to ten thousand times faster than before. “We are in the bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption that could push half of Earth’s species to extinction in this century” said E.O. Wilson, American biologist and naturalist. World Wildlife Foundation’s latest Living Planet Report estimates that the planet has lost 60 per cent of all vertebrate wildlife population since 1970.

More than half of all birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish have been extinct in just 50 years. During that time, the world’s population has more than doubled, increasing from 3.7 billion to over 7.7 billion today. Invertebrates are not faring any better. A German study found that flying insect populations including pollinators have crashed by threequarters since 1989. The 2016 State of Nature report concluded that the United Kingdom was one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

Ever more people need ever more space. As population increases, cities and industrial areas grow exponentially fragmenting the remaining habitat and leaving isolated islands for natural populations of plants and animals, too small to survive. According to a scientific assessment, only one quarter of land areas and one-third of oceans remain relatively free from human activity. Humankind’s relentless consumption of natural resources such as timber, oil and minerals and search for more agricultural lands to meet unsustainable consumption patterns of the developed world and feed the ever-increasing population continue to destroy natural habitats around the world.

A new study has shown that with growing population, humanity will require 80 per cent more food by 2100. Wildlife habitat is crumbling under the weight of human footprints due to changes in the use of land. Biodiversity loss is attributable to several causes but by far the single largest factor is habitat destruction driven by exploding numbers of human population and unsustainable consumption. Biodiversity poses an urgent and existential problem. Some of the recent events, from bushfires in Brazil, the US and Australia to locust infestation across East Africa and now the global pandemic demonstrate the interdependence of humans and all other living things that are connected in the web of life.

Nature is sending mankind a message, specifically that mankind is on the verge of a breakdown. It is time to wake up. It is time to take notice. It is time to reformulate man’s relationship with Nature. It is time to restore equilibrium between man and Nature. The treaty on biodiversity is the international agreement intended to protect Nature. It does not address the human population. It is the human beings who are failing to meet the objectives and targets of the treaty with devastating consequences.

The future of humanity is endangered by humanity itself. Now that this is known, action is necessary right now. This is the age of Anthropocene. Humankind is the most important element of existence. It is vital that people understand this and endeavour to create a better world habitat for a safe and dignified existence for one and all. All nations must cooperate to protect and conserve the biodiversity. It is time for Nature. There should be peaceful coexistence between Man and Nature. This is the message of World Environment Day 2020.

(The writer is a former central civil service officer who retired from the Ministry of Defence)