Credit: UNEP/Duncan Moore
07 Jun 2024 Story Climate Action

World Environment Day turns global gaze towards land restoration

The 51st edition of World Environment Day was a record-breaking success, with an unprecedented 3,854 official events and tens of millions of online engagements drawing attention to how humanity can counter three often-overlooked perils: land degradation, desertification and drought.  

“From Times Square to Trafalgar Square to bus shelters and airports in Beijing, Beirut and Osaka, to billboards in Botswana, Eswatini, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – World Environment Day is clearly on everyone’s mind,” said Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  

Many of the 5 June discussions focused on how restoring landscapes – a process that includes everything from planting trees to curbing pollution – can help end land degradation, which affects more than 3 billion people. 

Here is a closer look at six key takeaways from World Environment Day. 

1. It raised the profile of land degradation, desertification and drought, while showcasing the potential of restoration 

Land provides humanity with food, water and countless other things that make life possible. But more than one-fifth of Earth’s land area is now degraded. This affects some 3.2 billion people – 40 per cent of the globe – and weighs disproportionately on women and the poor. 

World Environment Day helped frame the loss of terrestrial ecosystems as the planet-wide crisis it is. As Andersen said: “Land degradation, desertification and drought are not only arid nation problems. They are global problems,” she said. 

But above all, the day was about solutions. In everything from high-level meetings to school field trips, experts, educators and people emphasized how often-simple acts of restoration can transform landscapes marred by climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and other drivers of degradation. 

This was a message that resonated globally. World Environment Day social media posts reached more than 200 million people and the celebration was the top trending hashtag on X, formerly Twitter. Some 27 million people viewed related video content. 

2. It reminded the world of spiraling climate threats 

Truck on a desolate landscape 
Credit: UNEP/Duncan Moore   

Climate change and land degradation are locked in a perilous feedback loop, each feeding the other. That is why the climate crisis was front and centre on 5 June.  

In a special address to mark World Environment Day, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged world leaders to act immediately to address mounting climate risks.  

“We need an exit ramp off the highway to climate hell,” he warned, in a powerful speech at The American Museum of Natural History in New York that he called a moment of truth. 

“The need for climate action is unprecedented, but so is the opportunity, not just to deliver on climate but on economic prosperity and sustainable development,” he added. 

The UN chief stressed the need to limit global temperature rise to 1.5℃, which a World Meteorological Organization report released on the day said would likely be breached within five years. 

UNEP Deputy Executive Director Elizabeth Maruma Mrema used her speech at Oxford University to call for concerted international efforts to address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution. 

“Multilateralism is our only way to solve these interconnected and integrated challenges,” she told students. 

3. It prompted vital policy announcements and work on the ground to revive landscapes 

The world’s last genetically wild horses are released to the wild in Kazakhstan after almost 200 years of surviving in captivity, thanks to restoration work by UNEP partner the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative and breeding and rewilding efforts by European zoos
Credit: Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative/Daniel Rosengren

In the Maldives, President Mohamed Muizzu announced an initiative to plant 5 million trees over five years. Oman pledged to plant over 16 million wild seeds. And Bangladesh announced an ambitious goal to expand tree cover to a quarter of its of land area by 2030. 

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan celebrated the return of Przewalski horses after a 200-year absence. The animals, considered the world’s last genetically wild horses, were taken from two European zoos to be released into the wild as part of an effort to restore Kazakhstan’s grasslands. 

4. It became a cultural moment, with artists, musicians and actors voicing support for environmental action 

Cities around the world used art to draw attention to the importance of humanity’s connection with nature. 

In several cities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which hosted World Environment Day, buildings sparkled with green lights and drone shows illuminated the skies. Brussels, Belgium lit up its city hall in green, and Switzerland turned its iconic jet of water shooting out of Lake Geneva green, too. Seattle unveiled one of North America’s largest collections of street art, which included a 200-metre-wide mural of a humpback whale by Mexican artist Adry del Rocio.  

“The sea is very important, and most of the time we forget about it,” said del Rocio. “If one creature dies, the whole ecosystem is damaged.” 

While Seattle celebrated its status as a role model restoration city, six new cities stretching from Africa to Latin America joined UNEP’s Generation Restoration Cities project that uses nature-based solutions to scale up ecosystem restoration.   

In Nairobi, Kenya, the band Future Sounds and Kimmy Wangari performed a song specially written for the day called That's What Earth Said. Artists Lost Witness and BRÏAH also released a new tune, Last Call, to raise awareness about the climate emergency and encourage action to safeguard the earth.  

Meanwhile, a legion of actors, including Don Cheadle, Dia Mirza, Jason Momoa and Alex Rendell, voiced their support for ecosystem restoration. 

Even beloved British animated character Peppa Pig joined in, urging children to help keep the environment clean. 

5. It reinforced the importance of restoration to the global environmental movement 

At the 1992 United Nations summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil countries of the world adopted landmark agreements to protect biodiversity, counter climate change and slow desertification. Each of the three Rio Conventions are holding a Conference of Parties, or COP, later this year to push further the ambitions of these conventions. Experts said as leaders prepare for those talks, they would be well served to remember the potential of restoration to remedy the planet’s environmental ills.   

“Land restoration can be the golden thread that ties together action and ambition across these three important gatherings,” said Andersen. “Nations can weave this thread by linking their climate pledges and national biodiversity strategies and action plans with land degradation neutrality commitments.” 

6. It introduced the next generation to the power of restoration  

Students learn about soil
Credit: UNEP/Josphat Kariuki

Young people from all corners of the planet took part in activities promoting land protection and conservation. Youth in Germany joined the country’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier to talk about the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. At UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, school children learned how to restore damaged soil, while students in Vienna, Austria took part in a simulated conference on land restoration. 

In Barranquilla, Colombia, young people planted trees, and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, UNEP’s Andersen spoke to youth about protecting the planet for generations to come.  

“Our land is our future,” she said. “We must protect and restore it so that we can slow and adapt to climate change, return nature to full health, and increase the livelihoods and food security of billions of people around the world.” 


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. This year, World Environment Day focuses on land restoration, desertification and drought resilience.   

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and partners, covers terrestrial as well as coastal and marine ecosystems. A global call to action, it will draw together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration.