As world leaders gathered in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972 for the UN Conference on the Human Environment, they were facing a planet in crisis. Acid rain was falling on cities. Oil spills were fouling the oceans. And forests were being clear-cut into oblivion.
The Stockholm meeting, considered to be the first global environmental summit, would mark the start of a unified effort to protect the planet, leading to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Environment Day.
In the five decades since, countries have worked together to repair the ozone layer, protect the oceans, and phase out deadly forms of air pollution.
With the planet preparing to celebrate the 49th World Environment Day on 5 June, experts say the world must quickly rekindle the spirit of multilateralism that led to those successes.
“We are asking too much of our planet to maintain ways of life that are unsustainable,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. “History has shown what can be achieved when we work together and put the planet first.”
With that in mind, here is a closer look at some of the world’s biggest environmental milestones – all driven by science and multilateralism.
1. Fighting deforestation
For five decades, countries have partnered to protect the world’s forests, many of which are under threat from farming, mining and illegal logging. (Forest cover the size of Portugal disappears every year.) At the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, more than 100 world leaders committed to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, vowing to marshal almost $20 billion in public and private funding to support the cause.
Full story: Inside the global effort to save the world’s forests
2. Mending the ozone
With a continent-sized hole forming in the ozone layer above Antarctica, states joined together in an unprecedented global effort to save the planet’s primary protection from the sun. Today, the ozone layer is slowly mending, sparing 2 million people annually from skin cancer. The breach is expected to close by the 2060s.
Full story: Rebuilding the ozone layer
3. Protecting our seas
With pollution threatening the future of the world’s oceans, UNEP launched its Regional Seas Programme in 1974. At the time, it was an unprecedented effort to unite countries in a common environmental cause — and one that would shape future treaties, like the Paris climate change agreement. Today, 150 countries are part of the programme, which is helping to prevent pollution, protect marine animals and chart the effects of climate change on the oceans.
Full story: How the world is helping to safeguard its oceans and seas
4. Slowing down desertification
As climate change makes many places hotter and drier, greenspaces are descending into desert. Some 3.2 billion people are affected by land degradation, many of them already poor and marginalized. States have spent decades working to revive fertile land overtaken by the sands, including an ambitious effort to build a “green wall” across Africa.
Full story: From Chile to China: The global battle against desertification
5. Unlocking finance for nature
UNEP has united more than 450 financial institutions in a global campaign to fund the transition to a greener, more sustainable world. In the past year alone, member banks have provided loans to 113 million vulnerable people and advised 15,000 companies on how to adapt to a changing climate. The push, led by the UNEP Finance Initiative, comes at a crucial time: it will take $100 trillion through 2050 to help the global economy transition away from fossil fuels.
Full story: Why financial institutions are banking on sustainability
6. Curbing food waste
The way the world produces food exacts a heavy toll on the planet. Almost 70 per cent of the water humans use goes to farming and the food sector is responsible for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Despite all those resources, the world is facing a dual crisis of hunger and obesity. A staggering one-third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted. To help change that, UNEP is leading a concerted global effort to make sure food systems are easier on the planet and healthier for people.
Full story: Why the global fight to tackle food waste has only just begun
7. Eliminating leaded fuel
When leaded petrol was invented in the 1920s it was hailed as a miracle fuel that would power a new generation of cars, planes and motorcycles. The problem: it was highly toxic and wherever it went, cancer, heart disease and stroke followed. But thanks to a two-decade-long campaign led by UNEP, the world would eventually wean itself off of leaded fuel, saving an estimated 1.2 million lives a year.
World Environment Day on 5 June is the biggest international day for the environment. Led by UNEP and held annually since 1973, the event has grown to be the largest global platform for environmental outreach, with millions of people from across the world engaging to protect the planet. Take part in Earth Action Numbers, put your environmental actions and events on the interactive world map, and share your personalised social media cards on your channels.