Climate Action

Earth Day: What is it, when is it and why is it important?

Planet v plastics ... Earth Day 2024 is calling for a 60% reduction in plastic production by 2040. Image: Naja Bertolt Jens/Unsplash

Lindsey Ricker
Strategic Programming Lead, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
Hanh Nguyen
Ocean Industries Lead, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Earth Day takes place every year on 22 April and is one of the biggest environmental protest movements on the planet.
  • The theme of Earth Day this year is 'Planet vs. Plastics' - campaigners are calling for a 60% reduction in the production of plastics by 2040.
  • The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2024 finds that environmental risks make up half of the top 10 risks over the next 10 years.

“Good evening, a unique day in American history is ending. A day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival.”

Those were the words of US TV presenter Walter Cronkite as he described the aftermath of the first Earth Day back in 1970.

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Here’s what you need to know about Earth Day in 2024.

What is Earth Day and what is the theme in 2024?

Earth Day is an international day devoted to our planet. It draws attention to the environment and promotes conservation and sustainability.

Each year on 22 April, around 1 billion people around the world take action to raise awareness of the climate crisis and bring about behavioural change to protect the environment.

Participation in Earth Day can take many forms, including small home or classroom projects like planting a herb garden or picking up litter. People also volunteer to plant trees, join other ecological initiatives or take part in street protests about climate change and environmental degradation.

Official Earth Day campaigns and projects aim to increase environmental literacy and bring together like-minded people or groups to address issues such as deforestation, biodiversity loss and other challenges.

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The global theme for this year's Earth Day is 'Planet vs. Plastics', which recognizes the threat plastics pose to human health and with campaigners demanding a 60% reduction in the production of plastics by 2040.

From 23 to 29 April 2024, governments and NGOs from around the world will gather in Ottawa to continue negotiating the terms of the United Nations Global Plastic Treaty.

How did Earth Day begin?

Millions of people took to the streets of US cities and towns on 22 April 1970 in mass protests over the damage being done to the planet and its resources.

Amid the demonstrations, protesters brought New York City’s usually bustling Fifth Avenue to a halt, while students in Boston held a “die-in” at Logan Airport.

The environmental impact of the post-war consumer boom was beginning to be felt at that time. Oil spills, factory pollution and other ecological threats were on the rise, with little if any legislation in place to prevent them.

Earth Day has become a global environmental protest movement.
Earth Day has become a global environmental protest movement. Image: Unsplash.

The protests brought together people from all walks of American life – accounting for about 10% of the US population – to demonstrate and voice their demands for sustainable change. The Earth Day website calls it the birth of the modern environmental movement.

What led to the street protests in 1970?

Concerned about increasing levels of unchecked environmental destruction, Junior Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin suggested a series of “teach-ins” on university campuses across the US in 1969 to raise awareness of environmental threats.

Nelson was joined by Congressman Pete McCloskey and activist Denis Hayes to organize the teach-ins, but the group soon recognized an opportunity to broaden the event’s appeal beyond student populations.

The newly named Earth Day protest events attracted national media attention and support from around 20 million Americans across age and political spectrums, occupations and income groups.

What did the protests achieve?

The Earth Day demonstrations left an indelible mark on US policy. By the end of 1970, the US Environmental Protection Agency came into being and a stream of laws followed to help protect the environment. These included the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Clean Air Act.

Further legislation was soon introduced to protect water quality and endangered species, and to control the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides.

When did Earth Day go global?

Earth Day went beyond the US in 1990. Around 200 million people from 141 countries joined efforts to boost recycling around the world that year, paving the way for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

This “Earth Summit”, as it became known, led to the formation of the UN Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, along with the Commission on Sustainable Development to monitor and report on the implementation of Earth Summit agreements.

And as citizens were increasingly concerned with corporate impacts on the natural environment, big and small businesses started to feel the pressure to consider sustainability in their practice.

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Why is Earth Day important today?

As the millennium loomed, the Earth Day movement turned its attention to the growing reality of the impending climate crisis with a clear message for world leaders and business: urgent action is needed to address global warming.

It’s a message that is even more relevant today. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that without further immediate action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the world is on course for temperatures 3.2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. This level of warming would be catastrophic for the planet and all life on it, including humans.

The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2024 finds that environmental risks make up half of the top 10 risks over the next 10 years, with extreme weather events, critical change to Earth's systems, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse being the top three.

Global risks ranked by severity over the short and long term
Global risks ranked by severity over the short and long term Image: Global Risks Report 2024

Nature is our biggest ally in fighting the climate crisis and has slowed global warming by absorbing 54% of human-related carbon dioxide emissions over the past 10 years. Yet, we are losing animals, marine species, plants, and insects at an unprecedented rate, not seen in 10 million years. Threats from human activity for food production and ocean use, infrastructure, energy and mining endanger around 80% of all threatened or near-threatened species.

Earth Day has become a leading light in the fight to combat climate change and nature loss. As we celebrate its 54th anniversary, we must make use of this truly global movement to act, as citizens and governments, as consumers and businesses, and as individuals and communities. Our survival could well depend on it.

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