World Environment Day, which falls on Saturday (June 5), is one of the principal vehicles through which the UN aims to promote awareness and focus political attention on the environment.
This commemorative day was one of the products of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held on June 15-16, 1972, in Stockholm, Sweden.
The conference was also intended to attract the attention of policymakers, who — it was hoped — would take into account the importance of issues related to the environment when making their decisions.
Since 1972, the environment is celebrated on June 5 every year, and each year the celebrations are held in a different location.
This year, Rwanda — a country of exceptional biodiversity that has made huge strides in environmental protection — will host the celebrations over three days.
From Hollywood stars to schoolchildren, millions of people on every continent will take action for the planet on World Environment Day.
Under the theme: ‘Many Species. One Planet. One Future', this year's event will celebrate the incredible diversity of life on Earth as part of the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity.
Thousands of activities will also be organised worldwide, from Hong Kong to Ivory Coast, with beach clean-ups, concerts, exhibits, film festivals, community events and much more.
However, although World Environment Day is celebrated every year, it has not yielded much fruit in terms of improving the environment, or in neutralising potential threats. The major issues that may result in climate change and other calamities are still present — and there seems to be no real solution.
The UN has failed to persuade leaders to abide by the principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, produced in 1992. Its most recent attempt, at the Copenhagen summit in 2009, also failed to reach a consensus on limiting carbon dioxide emissions, which threaten the environment by creating a greenhouse effect. The UN has also failed to prevent tens of wars in different locations around the world since its environment programme was announced. In any war, the biggest victim is usually the environment.
The strongest voice on environmental issues does not belong to the UN, but rather to civil society organisations in various European countries. Germany has been the major player, with its civil society organisations contributing significantly towards spreading awareness about the environment. Some of these organisations have even transformed themselves into political parties advocating environmental issues, and they strongly influence political decision making.
Movements that promote environmental issues and organise worldwide campaigns to pressurise governments have flourished; they also play an important role in exposing those who bend environmental rules and regulations.
These movements have gained popularity amongst the youth because they defend causes that interest all human beings, regardless of their national, religious or ethnic affiliations.
There are also strong indicators that environmental issues and calls to protect the environment are gaining governmental interest, as numerous countries now have a ministry for the environment.
Moreover, sustainable development and the protection of natural resources have become major points in planning the future of countries.
We are also witnessing plans and projects to transform renewable solar or wind energy into electrical power.
However, the most important step that was taken in this context was the establishment of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) in January 2009.
Based in Abu Dhabi, Irena promotes the sustainable use of all forms of renewable energy. Acting as the global voice for renewable energy, Irena facilitates access to all relevant information, including technical data, economic data and data on the potential of renewable resources. It also shares its experiences on best practices and lessons learned regarding policy framework, capacity-building projects, available finance mechanisms and related energy-efficiency measures.
Nevertheless, there is an important element that is lacking — the human factor.
The environment does not consist of just water, air and land. Ecologically speaking, it includes the living creatures.
Efforts by international organisations to spread awareness about the importance of preserving endangered species are highly commendable. However, they do not give the same care to the most important creature in the world — the human being.
According to statistics issued by international organisations, including UN agencies, there are three billion people around the world, mostly in Africa, who live below the poverty line. Moreover, there are more than one billion who do not have access to clean drinking water, education and health care.
Human suffering was exemplified by the Israeli pirate attack against the Freedom Flotilla. This occurred in international waters while the flotilla was heading to Gaza to deliver humanitarian aid to about two million Palestinians living under Israeli siege. The fact that people are living under this siege just shows the helplessness of the international organisations.
World Environment Day is an occasion that calls for contemplation of the role played by individuals, establishments and governments. We need to abandon our antagonistic attitude towards the environment and adopt a new, eco-friendly culture.
Dr Mohammad Akef Jamal is an Iraqi writer based in Dubai.