World Environment Day vs. Earth Day: What’s the Difference?

World Environment Day is June 5! So, mark your calendars because it's the most awesome celebration of planet Earth you've never heard of.

So, what is World Environment Day? It’s a day that’s been set aside annually by the United Nations to bring global awareness to humanity’s responsibility to take care of the environment, both for ourselves and for future generations. If World Environment Day, which is observed on June 5, sounds a lot like Earth Day, that’s only “natural,” because both have the goal of driving action to protect our planet.

Why haven’t you heard of World Environment Day?

It’s not because World Environment Day is a new thing. In fact, World Environment Day has been on the calendar since 1972. (We’ll get to that in a moment.). Nevertheless, it’s completely understandable if you’ve never heard of it. First of all, Earth Day came first; it originated in 1970 and just celebrated its 50th Anniversary on April 22, 2020. So, when World Environment Day popped up just a few years later, it may have seemed a bit “also.” Plus, when it comes to origin stories, World Environment Day vs. Earth Day looks like a total shutout (advantage: Earth Day). Both are important, though, since there’s no such thing as too much environmental awareness. For proof, just look at these 50 powerful photos that prove the earth still needs our help.

Earth Day’s origin story

It used to be that caring about the environment wasn’t cool like it is today. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the stench of air pollution was viewed by many as the sweet smell of success. (Of course, back then we also smoked a lot of cigarettes and drove around without seat belts.) Then came Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 bestseller, which woke up mainstream America to the terrifying fact that pollution was slowly killing us all. It also laid the groundwork for a couple of senators from opposing political parties to organize an environmentally themed “teach-in” to take place on college campuses across the United States. That was the first Earth Day. It took place on April 22, 1970, and inspired 20 million Americans to celebrate, and activate in favor of, our planet.

Today, Earth Day attracts around a billion participants worldwide and has led to the formation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as a host of game-changing environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Don’t miss these other Earth Day facts you should know. Once you’re done brushing up on those facts, take this Earth Day quiz to see how well you know our planet.

World Environment Day’s origin story

Unrelated to Earth Day, in June 1972, the United Nations gathered a small group of diplomats and lawmakers in Stockholm, Sweden, to “forge a basic, common outlook on how to address the challenge of preserving and enhancing the environment.” Later that year, the UN General Assembly responded by forming the United Nations Environmental Programme and also decided to designate June 5 as World Environment Day, with the stated goal of encouraging governments to reaffirm their commitment to the environment annually. In the intervening decades, World Environment Day has raised awareness and generated political momentum around such important concerns as global warming, deforestation, and depletion of the ozone layer. Millions of people in more than 100 countries take part, ultimately helping to drive real awareness and change.

Like we said, if we’re looking solely at origin stories, World Environment Day vs. Earth Day isn’t even a fair contest. World Environment Day arose out of a stuffy meeting of bureaucrats. Earth Day was a groovy American moment that took place on college campuses across America. Earth Day wins, hands down. However, we’re not talking about a superhero movie. We’re talking about the zeitgeist of sustainability, and when it comes to that, World Environment Day vs. Earth Day results in a solid tie.

How to celebrate World Environment Day

This year’s World Environment Day theme is Biodiversity, something that’s essential for the health of our planet since all living things are interconnected. For example, deforestation doesn’t just affect the air we breathe; it also displaces species from their native habitats. When plastic pollution destroys marine life, it impacts everything, from the food chain to the ozone layer.

The global World Environment Day website has a great list of events taking place around the world, all of which are virtual this year because of COVID-19. They include live music, movie screenings, expert panels, meetups, lectures, and even storytime. It’s all meant to be fun as well to demonstrate the importance of finding a way to harmonize humanity’s existence with that of other species. For instance, the Great Animal Orchestra, scheduled for June 5, puts together animal sounds with their visual representations and simultaneously, “offers an immersion into the heart of the sounds of nature, and a sound and visual meditation on the necessity of preserving the beauty of the animal world.”

If you’re feeling creative, you can create your own event, which could be as simple as planting a tree or a small garden or spending an hour picking up plastic from the ground in your local park or at a nearby beach. Now that you know the story behind World Environment Day vs. Earth Day, learn the differences between climate change and global warming.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest and in a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction, and her first full-length manuscript, "The Trust Game," was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.