World Environment Day or World Emergency Day?

It is an environmental emergency across the world now



June 4, 2020

/ By / Pune

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The importance of urban forest cannot be overstated in view of the sharp decline in the tree cover around the world and rise in the degraded land (MIG Photos/Varsha Singh)

In line with the theme of this year’s World Environment Day, urban forests could become instrumental in protecting biodiversity and cleaning up the Earth at the same time.

Friday marks the 46th World Environment Day (WED), a global event coordinated by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) where  I led the most successful global programme of capacity building of the 146 developing countries that resulted not just in ‘flattening’ but reversing the rising curve of Ozone Layer Depletion. Over the past few years, the ozone layer has been on the path to recovery. Unfortunately, we have not managed to repeat that success in dealing with other global environmental issues.

This year World Environment Day is being observed in the midst of global emergency of Covid-19. As if an unprecedented pandemic were not enough by itself, this year we also have on our hands several other emergencies locust attacks, hurricanes, violation of human-rights, apartheid, war-refugees and of course political upheavals. In such dangerous crisis, I consider that it to be a particularly bold move by UNEP to decide that theme of this year’s WED would be ‘Celebrating the Biodiversity’!

When Intergovernmental Science-Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem (IPBES) in its 2019 report stated that over one billion bio-species were under threat of extinction and that rate of extinction today was hundreds of times more than the average of last 10 million years, what exactly what is there to celebrate?

Even though it has been more than four decades since the WED has been observed worldwide, it’s a matter of grave concern that the global ecosystem has dangerously deteriorated and many of which have even crossed planetary boundaries and over-burdened the Earth’s carrying capacity. Scarcity of water and air pollution, both with a root cause of climate change, are just about couple of examples of daily nightmares which human society is struggling with.

According to the United Nations, four out of every 10 people in the world are impacted by water scarcity and already Cape Town a city in South Africa of more than 40 million people has become a leading symbol of a ‘no-water-town’ of the modern society. It is estimated that nearly 20 major cities in the world including Beijing, Bengaluru, Tokyo, London and Miami (scheduled to hold the next G7 meeting) will soon be without drinking water. As per WHO, nearly seven million deaths occur due to indoor and outdoor air pollution. A new report from the NITI Aayog, Government of India’s top most think-tank said, that India is currently suffering from the worst water crisis in its history.

May be because of the global lockdown, we humans for the first time started watching the biodiversity so near to our own habitat that we have grabbed over the centuries from these diverse animals and plants. Are we celebrating our newly acquired ability to understand the meaning of biodiversity?

I also look at WED from another angle. The environment is currently in state of emergency. In reality, today environment and emergency have become synonyms! Nothing has demonstrated the existence of these synonyms more clearly than the decision made by Beijing University and IIT-Gandhinagar to carry out a benchmark study of biodiversity in their campus. Other universities are coming forward and using the framework developed by the Terre Policy Centre under Smart Campus Cloud Network (

Recognising the high proportion of degraded land in India and its useful links between Biodiversity and Forest, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared last year during the UNCCD (United Nations Convention for Combating Desertification) that India would enhance its target of restoring the degraded land by 5 million hectares. That does not appear to be a big enhancement, but the direction is clear. Restoration can be done by a variety of ways. Afforestation is one of them.

In this regard, the Terre Policy Centre has successfully established an urban forest in the middle of India’s mega city-Pune within four years. The project, initiated by Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, involved afforestation of degraded land, which otherwise would have become part of the growing concrete-jungle that Pune has become over the last two decades. Now there stands an urban forest on nearly 20 hectares of land, in the midst of high rises and office complexes.

The project has been carried out by Terre in collaboration with Tata Motors and Persistent Systems from the private sector and the state government’s forest department. Volunteers from universities and colleges under SCCN come on weekends for voluntary service to water the plants and cut the unwanted grass

More than 20,000 indigenous trees now form a forest where thousands come for walks. The trees absorb nearly 130 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide and produce 562 tonnes of oxygen annually. As the country and indeed the world celebrates the World Environment Day, we hope that the concept of urban forestry would rapidly catch up across the globe. Not only is it a very efficient way of reducing pollution and especially cutting carbon emissions, they also are the best way to protect and enhance biodiversity hotspots even in the middle of megapolises.

(Rajendra Shende is a former director of UNEP and currently chairman of Terre Policy Centre and advisor to Media India Group)



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