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World Environment Day has been celebrated annually on 5 June for the past fifty years. This significant day aims to raise awareness and inspire action to protect our environment. It all began in 1972 during the UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm, where the concept of Environment Day first took shape.

Since 1973, millions of people worldwide have united every year on this date to commemorate the event. Each World Environment Day focuses on a specific theme, and this year, the spotlight is on finding solutions to combat plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution has become a grave environmental crisis, with the world producing over 400 million tons of plastic every year, of which less than 10 per cent is recycled. To put things in perspective, back in 1950, the global plastic production was only around 2 million tons.

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Limit global warming

Shockingly, approximately 14 million tons of plastic waste finds its way into our oceans annually, posing a significant threat to more than 800 marine and coastal species. In 2022, during the Nairobi conference, 175 UN member-states endorsed a resolution to put an end to plastic pollution and establish an international legally binding agreement by 2024.

While this resolution is undoubtedly historic, it remains uncertain whether the increasingly divided world can meet this self-imposed deadline and commit to such an agreement.

Plastic pollution is just one of the critical environmental challenges we face today. In recent years, the public discourse and policy-making have primarily revolved around mitigating climate change by reducing carbon emissions.

While climate change does worsen environmental problems, it is crucial to acknowledge that it is not the sole cause of our massive environmental crisis.

The relationship between climate change and environmental stress is complex and multifaceted, sometimes acting in harmony and other times creating conflicts. Moreover, even if we successfully limit global warming to 1.5°C, it will not resolve all our environmental challenges.

Unsustainable practices

The world is grappling with population growth, inequitable resource distribution, and unsustainable development, which contribute to severe environmental issues and a growing scarcity of renewable resources such as land, water, forests, and clean air.

Concerns about the planet’s environmental health have persisted for more than five decades, whereas the fear of global warming or climate change has only emerged in this century. Despite the focus on limiting global warming, we have witnessed limited progress in reversing the planet’s deteriorating environmental health.

By 2050, the global population is projected to reach 9.8 billion, which will increase the demand for food by 70 per cent. Currently, nearly 828 million people worldwide suffer from food insecurity, and this number continues to rise exponentially.

Unsustainable agricultural practices, including excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, contribute to soil erosion, resulting in the loss of a staggering 68 billion tons of topsoil annually worldwide. Water scarcity exacerbates land degradation and further aggravates food insecurity. Already, two-thirds of the world’s population faces water shortages, with approximately 1.1 billion people lacking access to clean water.

Forests, our planet’s lungs, are being decimated at an alarming rate. If we continue on this trajectory, we may be left with a mere 10 per cent of the world’s forest by the end of the decade.

Countries like Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Indonesia are experiencing the highest levels of deforestation as land is cleared for agriculture and livestock farming. This destruction of forests not only erodes our planet’s biodiversity but also threatens numerous species that rely on these habitats.

Overfishing is another significant issue plaguing our oceans, pushing many fish species to the brink of extinction. Approximately 30 per cent of commercially fished waters are now considered “overfished.” As more than three billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein, overfishing directly impacts both the health and economic well-being of many communities.

While the world is currently focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to the fear of climate change, it is essential to recognise that outdoor air pollution also claims the lives of 4.2 to 7 million people annually.

Maintaining a strong emphasis on addressing environmental stress can help us both adapt to and mitigate climate change. However, with the current predominant focus on climate change and the transition to renewable energy, some actions taken to reduce carbon emissions inadvertently cause environmental damage. For instance, many countries prioritise biofuel production as an alternative to fossil fuels, leading to increased food insecurity and deforestation.

Safeguarding our planet’s future

In the name of clean energy, large dams have also regained popularity. Yet, these dams result in massive population displacement and inflict severe environmental harm. Moreover, the decomposition of vegetation in these reservoirs releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases, including the highly potent methane.

Another favoured route in the energy transition is wind power. However, wind turbines pose a threat to wildlife and, in some cases, disrupt the economic activities of indigenous communities. Nuclear energy, promoted as clean and sustainable, overlooks the fact that we are still struggling to find a foolproof method of disposing nuclear waste. Furthermore, a nuclear accident could cause environmental devastation on a massive scale.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day on June 5, with a specific focus on finding solutions to plastic pollution, it serves as a reminder that the climate crisis is not the sole environmental crisis we face. Transitioning to renewable energy is not the only policy focus we should have.

The magnitude of our environmental challenges demands a multifaceted approach that involves all countries and all individuals. While everyone must play their part, it is imperative that the world comes together, collaborates, and takes unified action to safeguard our planet’s future.