June 5 is observed as World Environment Day every year. It is a day to raise worldwide awareness and prompt action for the protection of our steadily worsening environment. Since its inception in 1974, the day has developed into a global platform for public outreach in over 100 countries.
The World Environment Day is a day for people to make their contribution to save the Earth. This is done in a variety of ways. From clean-ups in Tokyo to tree planting in Zimbabwe, the Environment Day was celebrated with zeal around the globe. With a theme of air pollution, China hosted the international day of action. Xi Jinping, the country’s president, was clear in his call for international cooperation: “Humankind only has one planet. Environmental conservation and sustainable development are the common responsibility of all countries. China will work with any and all to implement the 2030 agenda to protect our only planet.”
Hundreds of thousands of people took to social media to participate in the World Environment Day, including government leaders. Many made pledges to change their lifestyles for a cleaner tomorrow. A charter for sustainable apparel called “Made in Switzerland” was launched by some of Switzerland’s biggest textiles companies; Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a ban on single-use plastics in national parks, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a special statement promising to accelerate the country’s plan to phase out coal by 2030.
In Europe, celebrations started with the launch of the report “Air Pollution and Human Health: The Case of the Western Balkans” in Sarajevo, accompanied by the presentation of the “Sarajevo Air” app, which helps citizens plan a journey that avoids the most polluted areas. Across the Middle Eastern nations of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, youth-led flashmobs drew attention to the issue of air pollution right before the start of Eid festivities.
In a message, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged all people to reject single-use plastic items, and warned that growing levels of plastic waste were becoming unmanageable, saying “every year, more than eight million tons end up in the oceans.” Plastic, which is rampantly polluting our water bodies, harming marine life and posing a threat to human health, has been one of the major concerns of environmental bodies this year. Nearly one-third of it is not disposed of properly and ends up clogging drains and choking the environment.
Plastic can persist in the environment for nearly a thousand years before it fully disintegrates and keeping this in mind, many organisations and governments are looking for alternatives to tackle the problem. With plastic making up 10% of the total waste generated, half of it is disposable or single-use. This presents a major problem as it is non-renewable and its manufacture and destruction exposes individuals and environment to many toxins, including carcinogens.
Air pollution kills 800 people every hour or 13 every minute, accounting for more than three times the amount of people who die from malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS combined each year. Household air pollution causes about 3.8 million premature deaths each year, the vast majority of them in the developing world, and about 60% of those deaths are among women and children. Over 93% of children worldwide live in areas where air pollution exceeds WHO guidelines, with 600,000 children under 15 dying from respiratory tract infections in 2016.
Air pollution is responsible for 26% of deaths from ischemic heart disease, 24% of deaths from strokes, 43% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29% from lung cancer. In children, it is associated with low birth weight, asthma, childhood cancers, obesity, poor lung development and autism, among other health defects. Over 97% of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet the WHO minimum air quality levels, and in high-income countries, 29% of cities fall short of the guidelines.
Despite growing evidence of catastrophes posed by climate change, we are not taking necessary steps to arrest the rot. In 2015, the Paris Agreement stated that the responsibility for halting climate change rests with each nation. Its aim was to reduce global warming to below 2°C — unfortunately, we are not even close to achieving the goal, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase
Like other parts of the world, the Environment Day was also celebrated in Pakistan with seminars and symposiums to sensitise the masses to the threat of rising pollution. In the past few years alone, we have witnessed our rivers and oceans clogged with toxic sewage, chemical waste and plastic. Increasingly, glaciers are melting in the upper reaches of our mighty mountains, causing flash floods and heavy rainfall and flooding that destroy standing crops. At the same time, climate changes in the form of intermittent droughts and heatwaves kill vegetation, animal and human life.
That Pakistan is the world’s seventh most vulnerable country to the risks of climate change is a well-known fact. For the past few years, several parts of the country have been enveloped in thick smog at certain times of the year, presenting a health emergency. According to a Washington-based report, Pakistan is second only to India and China when it comes to mortality rates connected to poor air quality. Today, Pakistan has a prime minister who refers to himself as an environmentalist. But this idealism needs to be translated into short and long-term policy measures to make a real change in the situation.