First held in 1974, World Environment Day (WED) is considered to be the largest global event for positive environmental action, with participation from over 143 countries. It takes place on 5th June each year and is a flagship campaign for driving change and raising awareness on emerging environmental issues, from climate change and wildlife crime, to resource consumption and marine pollution. This year's host country is Canada and the chosen theme is 'Connecting People to Nature – in the city and on the land, from the poles to the equator' which encourages us to consider our role within nature and how closely we depend on it.
But why should we connect with nature? In a fast-paced and rapidly changing world, it can seem easy to forget the benefits that the environment provides us with, such as the importance of bee's in pollinating crops, the role of forests in preventing flooding and erosion and the ability of wetlands to filter water. Ecosystem services such as these are of fundamental importance for our health, well-being and livelihoods and are often considered as inexhaustible "free" goods. However, ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss will undermine the ability of these ecosystems to continuously provide services for current and future generations.
Putting a price on nature
In recent years, the true value of ecosystem services to society has been recognised in monetary terms. Putting a price on these services has been the focus of a number of studies, including the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). Economic values can illustrate the importance of conserving ecological infrastructure. For example, the MEA gave wetlands alone a value of US$15 trillion back in 1997. More recently, storm protection from wetlands was thought to have prevented more than US$625 million in damages from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The importance of recognising the value of ecosystems is reflected in Sustainable Development Goal 15, target 9, which aims to, "By 2020, integrate ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies and accounts."
While the world is increasingly becoming more technology driven, it can often feel as if we are moving away from our relationship with nature. However, a number of smartphone applications are striving to connect the two, tapping into citizen scientists as a useful resource to collect valuable data on a large scale, to boost awareness of the environment as well as to enhance global conservation efforts.
INaturalist is an online community of over 400,000 biologists and naturalists who use their smartphones to take photo's of the flora and fauna they encounter in the urban environment, or in the wild. These images are then uploaded and verified by their peers. So far, the app has over 4.8 million verifiable observations from 100,000 species. This has led to the discovery of new species as well as the rediscovery of others, as the data feeds into scientific data depositories such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
Another biodiversity-focussed app, developed by Yale University and the University of Colorado Boulder, is called Map of Life and enables users to discover what biodiversity is within their vicinity, be it in a forest, field, or in their own garden, just as long as they have an internet connection. The app contains data on many different species, ranging from birds and amphibians, to fish and trees. The users can log their encounters, providing data to scientists around the world.
As well as species observation, there are many other citizen science app's which aim to collate data on a large scale for environmental protection purposes. The Marine Debris Tracker encourages users to log debris on beaches or in the water to help raise awareness of marine litter. Globe at Night is an app that enables users to use their phones to map light pollution in their area. The aim of this project is to understand the impacts of light pollution on health, society and the environment. Lastly, FreshWater Watch is a project aimed at investigating the health of the world's freshwater ecosystems. Participants are provided with a kit for testing the water in their local area and the results are uploaded to an online database. The data is then analysed and will be available for use by governments and policymakers to improve the management of freshwater resources.
It is important that we connect with our environment. Without understanding it, we have little chance of protecting it. Ultimately, the fate of many ecosystems depend on individual as well as political choices. If we don't experience nature, or take into account the services that it provides, it is unlikely that we will choose a sustainable future.
Further details on events taking place for WED can be found on the World Environment Day website.
The CABI Environmental Impact database (available to subscribers) is a bibliographic information resource and covers global literature on human impacts on the environment, including climate change, biodiversity, deforestation and habitat loss.
Centre for Ecology and Hydrology – Citizen Science Best Practice Guide
European Commission – Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity