By Michelle Werts

Today marks the 40th World Environment Day.

Started in 1972 by the United Nations, World Environment Day aims to be “the biggest and most widely celebrated global day for positive environmental action.” Each year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) chooses a theme to help focus its environmental message around World Environment Day and the rest of the year. This year, that theme is “Green Economy: Does it include you?”

And while the phrase “green economy” might not scream forests, forests are actually an important element of the world economy. According to UNEP’s Green Economy report on forests:

Forest goods and services support the economic livelihoods of over 1 billion people, most of whom are in developing countries and are poor. While timber, paper and fibre products yield only a small fraction of global GDP

, public goods derived from forest ecosystems have substantial economic value estimated in the trillions of dollars. Forests sustain more than 50 percent of terrestrial species, they regulate global climate through carbon storage and protect watersheds. The products of forest industries are valuable, not least because they are renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. Thus, forests are a fundamental part of the earth’s ecological infrastructure and forest goods and services are important components of a green economy.

Chitwan National Forest, Nepal
Chitwan National Forest, Nepal. Credit: chaostrophy/Flickr

For instance, in Nepal, 35 percent of the country’s citizens are involved in managing forests under community forestry practices. As a result, those involved receive employment and income through everything from protecting the forest to tree felling and log extraction to the use of non-timber forest products. And community forestry groups have been known to develop scholarship programs and provide savings and credit opportunities. All of this while Nepal’s forests now grow by 1.35 percent per year compared to a declining rate of 1.9 percent in the 1990s.

So what does this mean? If we protect and properly use our forests, they will protect and help people around the world, providing jobs while keeping our environment cleaner. Green economy indeed.

But the conversation doesn’t end today. Later this month, leaders from around the world will gather in Brazil for the Rio+20 Summit, which will continue the focus on creating a worldwide green economy to help combat global issues like the financial crisis, food crisis, ecosystem degradation and more.

Twenty years after the landmark 1992 Earth Summit, where countries adopted “Agenda 21” — a way to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection — the UN is bringing the world together again to address the major environmental issues of the day. It is once again an opportunity for concerned citizens, officials and leaders to influence how we want to shape our future. And considering the daily scientific reports of unsettling things happening in nature, in our cities and around the world that can be connected to the environment, there is no time like the present to start protecting that future.