As the year 2020 draws to a close, here is hoping for a cleaner, greener year ahead. However, the going will not be that easy! Why? Find out in our exhaustive report…
Arunima Sen Gupta
If it did nothing else, the emergence of Covid-19 a year ago underlined for all of us the importance of anticipating and preparing for — and, as appropriate, steering the course of — things that might happen in the future. Cambridge University conservation biologist William Sutherland and a team of 24 other conservation practitioners and researchers from around the world have researched on emerging global biological issues by identifying 97 trends with potentially large impacts on conservation and biodiversity, then trimming the list down to the top 15 that they agree “society may urgently need to address.” The 2021 horizon scan is the latest in a series that stretches back more than a decade. In addition to making their predictions for the year ahead, the team members reviewed selections from the first horizon scan, published in 2009. They found that one-third of the issues identified in that scan “have since developed into major issues or caused considerable environmental impacts.” “Recent global assessments of biological diversity and climate change indicate negative trends and a rapidly narrowing window for action to reverse these trends,” the researchers wrote. “We believe that identification of novel or emerging issues for global biological conservation should inform policy making in the context of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and encourage research, discussion, and allocation of funds for continued tracking, in addition to informing management and policy change.”
Suffocating reefs: Coral reefs have come under siege from many threats in recent decades, from invasive species to warming waters to harmful fishing practices. Increasingly worrisome is hypoxia-associated coral mortality — suffocation from a lack of oxygen due to an influx of nutrients from land or aquaculture facilities into ocean waters. Because warm water holds less oxygen than cold water, scientists fear that climate change will only make this problem worse. Deoxygenation of ocean waters already has harmed corals in relatively small spaces such as bays and lagoons. Although we know relatively little about how resilient corals might be to low oxygen, there is concern that in some cases it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for these valuable and beleaguered ecosystems.
Iron-fortified coasts: Ocean coastlines are abundant sources of plant and animal life — and those in polar zones are becoming increasingly so due to climate-change-induced melting of glacial and floating ice that contains relatively large amounts of iron. Plants need iron to photosynthesise, so melting ice stimulates plant growth. This increases coastal ecosystems’ ability to soak up planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and potentially harmful nutrients running off land and boosts the food supply for other living things in the area. But as the trend continues, it also is likely to alter biodiversity and ecosystem structure and complexity along polar coastlines in unknown ways, even as it enhances biological communities’ ability to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration.
Waves of change in ocean ecosystems: Global energy trends are about to bring major waves of change. Numerous offshore oil and gas rigs as well as first-generation offshore wind turbines are slated for decommissioning in the near future. A variety of strategies might be deployed for doing so, from removing all or part of an installation, to converting it to an artificial reef, to simply abandoning it. At the same time, new ocean-based wind energy installations and natural gas wells will be coming on line. These upcoming changes in ocean-sited infrastructure could have big impacts on habitat in the vicinity — for better, for worse, or for both, depending on the location, the extent to which existing infrastructure has been colonised by marine life, and specific implementation strategies.
Seabird patrol: Ocean-going vessels carrying out illegal fishing activities have ways of covering their tracks, from deactivating electronic tracking systems to avoiding the use of lights at night. The difficulty of finding such covertly operating boats on the vast open seas can be a limiting factor in efforts to prevent illegal activities that lead to overfishing and biodiversity degradation. In an interesting twist on surveillance, scientists are looking at enlisting albatrosses and other ocean-going birds to help track down troublemakers. The birds, which naturally follow fishing vessels in hopes of grabbing morsels, can be fitted with transmitters that can clue enforcement officials in to their location. Work is already underway to evaluate the approach — including consideration of the extent to which it might put the birds themselves at risk of harm.
Location spoofing: Although seabirds may be attracted to fishing boats, they’re not quite as helpful when it comes to tracking vessels that aren’t flinging fish bits off the back. Currently it’s possible to identify and pinpoint the location of most such ships using Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and Automatic Identification Systems (AIS). However, technologies are emerging that allow those wishing to avoid detection due to surreptitious activities to muddle their identification and coordinates. Such technologies, conservation biologists speculate, could make it easier to transport illegal animals or animal parts, engage in illegal mining, or conduct other covert activities. Efforts are underway to develop technologies to thwart such deceptive practices, but it could be a decade before they are ready to deploy.
Long-tail hormones: It’s bad enough for pollutants to harm animals that come in contact with them. But now there’s evidence that some water-polluting chemicals that alter endocrine systems in fish can get passed to future generations as well. By mimicking or blocking the proper function of hormones, such compounds, which include many used in households and on farms, can cause deformities and fertility issues. And now it appears that in some species, parents can pass those disruptions to the next generation. Concerns are growing that this long-tail impact will be found in other animals as well.
Low-hanging clouds: Among the little-known prospective victims of climate change are the low clouds that hang over coastal oceans near the equator, helping to cool the atmosphere. The nature and extent of these clouds depend on a variety of conditions that are expected to change as our climate warms, including ocean temperatures, air movement in the atmosphere and the layout of coastal lands. Changes in the cloud cover, in turn, could affect the clouds’ ability to counteract global warming, preserve the conditions in which human settlements and ecosystems have evolved to thrive, and exacerbate fire risk in the region.
Trillion tree trouble: Numerous groups have begun promoting extensive planting of carbon-dioxide-absorbing trees as a way to help counter the climate-disrupting rise in the concentration of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. But massive tree-planting efforts are not without concerns. Even as proponents tout the approach to climate change mitigation, others warn of potential problems. For one thing, poorly sited plantations could end up replacing ecosystems that actually sequestered more carbon than the trees do. For another, biodiversity could take a hit in the process as species-rich native habitats are replaced by monoculture plantations with the primary goal of socking away CO2. Careful planning will be needed to ensure such initiatives don’t do more harm than good in the long run.
Fire prevention logging: As climate and other conditions change, the intensity and severity of wildfires are increasing in North America, Australia, central Africa and elsewhere around the world. One strategy that’s been proposed to reduce the risk is to reduce the number of trees available to burn. Some research suggests that such a strategy could do little to decrease the likelihood of harm to humans and property, and in some instances could even increase it. Nevertheless, with strong public pressure to do something about this growing problem, there is a real likelihood that policy makers will turn to tree thinning as a way to prevent wildfires — with certain but unknown impacts to the ecosystem and multiple species that call forests home.
Super sustainable farming: A quiet revolution is underway in India: the wide-scale adoption of sustainable intensification as a farming practice. Across the world’s second-most-populous country, state-level policies are incentivising farmers to adopt a suite of practices that reduce the adverse environmental impacts of agriculture while boosting crop yields, income, health and well-being. To date, more than a quarter-million farmers have adopted the new approach, which includes eliminating synthetic inputs, enhancing crop diversity, rotating crops and more. Millions more are expected to follow the practice, which is also known as natural, community-based or zero-budget farming. As success stories roll in, the initiatives could set off a snowball effect, leading other countries and farmers to follow suit.
Navigation miscues: If you’ve ever mistaken a satellite for a star in the night sky, you’ve had a taste of the confusion scientists fear might face some birds, mammals and insects in the future. Some 2,600 artificial satellites currently circle our planet, and booming communications technologies are expected to catalyse the deployment of thousands more. What do these plentiful extra points of light mean for animals that use the stars for navigational cues? No one know for sure — but it’s a question worth investigating before permanent damage is done to populations already beleaguered by human impacts on the surface of the Earth.
Stranded energy meets bitcoin: At certain times and in certain places around the world, the ability to generate electricity exceeds demand, as limited by economics or logistics. The excess capacity — whether methane byproducts from oil drilling or wind or solar power that exceeds local demand — may just go to waste due to market logistics. But what if a pop-up demand were available to use this “stranded energy” on an as-needed basis, at a discounted (but better than throwing it away) price? Recently, Bitcoin mining — an energy-intensive process required to keep transactions fair — has been emerging as a possible contender. Bitcoin mining is relatively flexible when it comes to time and place, so it could create a low-payout-but-better-than-nothing use for these resources. There is some concern by those working to mitigate biodiversity-compromising climate change that using Bitcoin to close the use-capacity gap could boost use of fossil fuels — but also optimism that it might help make renewable energy sources more economically desirable.
We’re all detectives now: If officials don’t notice or respond to environmental problems, are they still problems? Environmental quality in many regions around the world is limited by insufficient monitoring, detection, prevention and mitigation of pollution or other assaults. But that could change, thanks to emerging technologies. Because of the growing adoption of smartphones and internet connectivity, private citizens around the world are being empowered to act as environmental detectives, identifying and calling out problems they identify through social media mining. This approach already has been used to document locust swarms in East Africa. As more and more people connect, it could be applied around the world to detect and encourage responses to environmental assaults of all sorts, from water pollution to wildlife poaching.
Self-healing buildings: In the Department of Good News, the development of self-healing building materials bodes well for biodiversity in a variety of ways. Such materials, which are based on a variety of inputs, including chemicals and bacteria, aim to enhance the ability of build structures to bounce back from damage without the need to repair or replace them. They could be beneficial in a number of ways. For one, they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need to produce concrete and carry out construction projects to repair or replace damaged structure. For another, they can reduce the need to mine or quarry new materials, processes that often involve destroying habitat for plants, animals and other living things. In addition, they can reduce the production of construction debris and the accompanying increased demand for landfill space.
Baltic-Black connection: A 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) river-and-canal system will have environmental impacts under any circumstances. But conservation biologists are particularly concerned about the one being considered for connecting the Baltic and Black seas in Europe. Known as the E40 Waterway, it would cross the Polesia wilderness area, one of the largest on the continent, and likely affect more than 70 wildlife reserves and conservation areas. It also would pass near, and potentially disrupt, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and radioactive materials in the area. The project, which is already in motion, is expected to have numerous economic, social and environmental benefits. However, it also carries risk to biodiversity in terms of disrupted ecology and hydrology and enhanced dispersion of nonnative invasive species.
More nails in coffin
The climate crisis is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, and we are not ready for it. While the crisis has many factors that play a role in its exacerbation, there are some that warrant more attention than others. Here are some of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime.
Poor Governance: According to economists like Nicholas Stern, the climate crisis is a result of multiple market failures. Economists and environmentalists have urged policymakers for years to increase the price of activities that emit greenhouse gases (one of our biggest environmental problems), the lack of which constitutes the largest market failure, for example through carbon taxes, which will stimulate innovations in low-carbon technologies. To cut emissions quickly and effectively enough, governments must not only massively increase funding for green innovation to bring down the costs of low-carbon energy sources, but they also need to adopt a range of other policies that address each of the other market failures. A national carbon tax is currently implemented in 25 countries around the world, including various countries in the EU, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Ukraine and Argentina. However, according to the 2019 OECD Tax Energy Use report, current tax structures are not adequately aligned with the pollution profile of energy sources. For example, the OECD suggests that carbon taxes are not harsh enough on coal production, although it has proved to be effective for the electricity industry. A carbon tax has been effectively implemented in Sweden; the carbon tax is USD $127 per tonne and has reduced emissions by 25% since 1995, while its economy has expanded 75% in the same time period. Further, organisations such as the United Nations are not fit to deal with the climate crisis: it was assembled to prevent another world war and is not fit for purpose. Anyway, members of the UN are not mandated to comply with any suggestions or recommendations made by the organisation. For example, the Paris Agreement, an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, says that countries need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly so that global temperature rise is below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, and ideally less than 1.5 degrees. But signing on to it is voluntary, and there are no real repercussions for non-compliance. Further, the issue of equity remains a contentious issue whereby developing countries are allowed to emit more in order to develop to the point where they can develop technologies to emit less, and it allows some countries, such as China, to exploit this.
Food Waste: A third of the food intended for human consumption- around 1.3 billion tons- is wasted or lost. This is enough to feed 3 billion people. Food waste and loss accounts for 4.4 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually; if it was a country, food waste would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China and the US. Food waste and loss occurs at different stages in developing and developed countries; in developing countries, 40% of food waste occurs at the post-harvest and processing levels, while in developed countries, 40% of food waste occurs at the retail and consumer levels. At the retail level, a shocking amount of food is wasted because of aesthetic reasons; in fact, in the US, more than 50% of all produce thrown away in the US is done so because it is deemed to be “too ugly” to be sold to consumers- this amounts to about 60 million tons of fruits and vegetables. This leads to food insecurity, another one of the biggest environmental problems on the list.
Biodiversity Loss: The past 50 years have seen a rapid growth of human consumption, population, global trade and urbanisation, resulting in humanity using more of the Earth’s resources than it can replenish naturally. A recent WWF report found that the population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians have experienced a decline of an average of 68% between 1970 and 2016. The report attributes this biodiversity loss to a variety of factors, but mainly land-use change, particularly the conversion of habitats, like forests, grasslands and mangroves, into agricultural systems. Animals such as pangolins, sharks and seahorses are significantly affected by the illegal wildlife trade, and pangolins are critically endangered because of it. More broadly, a recent analysis has found that the sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating. More than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and are likely to be lost within 20 years; the same numbers were lost over the whole of the last century. The scientists say that without the human destruction of nature, this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years.
Plastic Pollution: In 1950, the world produced more than 2 million tons of plastic per year. By 2015, this annual production swelled to 419 million tons. A report by science journal, Nature, determined that currently, roughly 11 million tons of plastic make its way into the oceans every year, harming wildlife habitats and the animals that live in them. The research found that if no action is taken, this will grow to 29 million metric tons per year by 2040. If we include microplastics into this, the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean could reach 600 million tons by 2040. Shockingly, National Geographic found that 91% of all plastic that has ever been made is not recycled, representing not only one of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime, but another massive market failure. Considering that plastic takes 400 years to decompose, it will be many generations until it ceases to exist.
Deforestation: Every minute, forests the size of 20 football fields are cut down. By the year 2030, the planet might have only 10% of its forests; if deforestation isn’t stopped, they could all be gone in less than 100 years. Agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, another one of the biggest environmental problems appearing on this list. Land is cleared to raise livestock or to plant other crops that are sold, such as sugar cane and palm oil. Besides for carbon sequestration, forests help to prevent soil erosion, because the tree roots bind the soil and prevent it from washing away, which also prevents landslides. The three countries experiencing the highest levels of deforestation are Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia; however Indonesia is tackling deforestation, now seeing the lowest rates since the beginning of the century.
Air Pollution: Research from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that an estimated 4.2 to 7 million people die from air pollution worldwide every year and that nine out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. In Africa, 258 000 people died as a result of outdoor air pollution in 2017, up from 164 000 in 1990, according to UNICEF. This comes mostly from industrial sources and motor vehicles, as well as emissions from burning biomass and poor air quality due to dust storms. In Europe, a recent report from the EU’s environment agency showed that air pollution contributed to 400 000 annual deaths in the EU in 2012 (the last year for which data was available). In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, attention has been put on the role that air pollution has in transporting the virus molecules. Preliminary studies have identified a positive correlation between COVID-19-related mortalities and air pollution and there is also a plausible association of airborne particles assisting the viral spread. This could have contributed to the high death toll in China, where air quality is notoriously poor, although more definitive studies must be conducted before such a conclusion can be drawn.
Agriculture: Studies have shown that the global food system is responsible for up to one third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, of which 30% comes from livestock and fisheries. Crop production releases greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide through the use of fertilisers. 60% of the world’s agricultural area is dedicated to cattle ranching, although it only makes up 24% of global meat consumption. Agriculture not only covers a vast amount of land, but it also consumes a vast amount of freshwater, another one of the biggest environmental problems on this list. While arable lands and grazing pastures cover one-third of Earth’s land surfaces, they consume three-quarters of the world’s limited freshwater resources. Scientists and environmentalists have continuously warned that we need to rethink our current food system; switching to a more plant-based diet would dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the conventional agriculture industry.
Global Warming From Fossil Fuels: Increased emissions of greenhouse gases have caused temperatures to rise, which are causing catastrophic events all over the world- just this year has seen Australia experience one of the most devastating bushfire seasons ever recorded, locusts swarming across parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, decimating crops, scientists warning that the planet has crossed a series of tipping points that could have catastrophic consequences, microplastic being found in Antarctic ice for the first time, a heatwave in Antarctica that saw temperatures rise above 20 degrees for the first time, warnings of advancing permafrost melt in Arctic regions, the Greenland ice sheet melting at an unprecedented rate, news of the accelerating sixth mass extinction, increasing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, warnings of air pollution exacerbating the spread of COVID-19, China experiencing its worst floods in decades, methane levels rising to their highest on record, Canada’s last intact ice shelf collapsing, a national park in the US recording the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth, 13% of deaths in the EU being linked to various forms of pollution, a report saying that population sizes of wildlife have experienced an average decline of 68% since 1970 and record-breaking wildfires in California that have blocked out the sun– and these are just a fraction of the events. The climate crisis is causing tropical storms and other weather events such as hurricanes, heat waves and flooding to be more intense and frequent than seen before. However, a study has found that even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted in 2020, global warming would only be halted by around 2033. It is absolutely imperative that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions; thankfully, this year is set to see the highest uptake of renewable energy projects around the world.
Melting Ice Caps: The climate crisis is warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. Seas are now rising by an average of 3.2 mm per year globally, and are predicted to climb to a total of 0.2 to 2m by 2100. In the Arctic, the Greenland Ice Sheet poses the greatest risk for sea levels because melting land ice is the main cause of rising sea levels. Representing arguably the biggest of the environmental problems, this is made all the more concerning considering that last year’s summer triggered the loss of 60 billion tons of ice from Greenland, enough to raise global sea levels by 2.2mm in just two months. According to satellite data, the Greenland ice sheet lost a record amount of ice in 2019: an average of a million tons per minute throughout the year, one of the biggest environmental problems that has cascading effects. If the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level would rise by six metres. Meanwhile, the Antarctic continent contributes about 1 millimeter per year to sea level rise, which is a third of the annual global increase. Additionally, the last fully intact ice shelf in Canada in the Arctic recently collapsed, having lost about 80 sq km, or 40%, of its area over a two-day period in late July, according to the Canadian Ice Service. The sea level rise will have a devastating impact on those living in coastal regions: according to research and advocacy group Climate Central, sea level rise this century could flood coastal areas that are now home to 340 million to 480 million people, forcing them to migrate to safer areas and contributing to overpopulation and strain of resources in the areas they migrate to.
Food and Water Insecurity: Rising temperatures and unsustainable farming practices has resulted in the increasing threat of water and food insecurity. Globally, more than 68 billion tonnes of top-soil is eroded every year at a rate 100 times faster than it can naturally be replenished. Laden with biocides and fertiliser, the soil ends up in waterways where it contaminates drinking water and protected areas downstream. Furthermore, exposed and lifeless soil is more vulnerable to wind and water erosion due to lack of root and mycelium systems that hold it together. A key contributor to soil erosion is over-tilling: although it increases productivity in the short-term by mixing in surface nutrients (e.g. fertiliser), tilling is physically destructive to the soil’s structure and in the long-term leads to soil compaction, loss of fertility and surface crust formation that worsens topsoil erosion. With the global population expected to reach 9 billion people by mid-century, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) projects that global food demand may increase by 70% by 2050. Around the world, more than 820 million people do not get enough to eat. The UN secretary-general António Guterres says: “Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food security emergency that could have long term impacts on hundreds of millions of adults and children.” He urged for countries to rethink their food systems and encouraged more sustainable farming practices. In terms of water security, only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use. As a result, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages.
While these are some of the biggest environmental problems plaguing our planet, there are many more that have not been mentioned, including overfishing, urban sprawl, toxic superfund sites and land use changes. While there are many facets that need to be considered in formulating a response to the crisis, they must be coordinated, practical and far-reaching enough to make enough of a difference.
Think on these lines too
Bioplastics and greenwashing: Several countries, including India, have banned plastics in the last few years. Albeit implemented haphazardly, the bans have led to the rise of the bioplastics industry and we’ve also seen several ‘recyclable’ variants of the notorious material in the market. But it’s important to know that while all biodegradable plastics come under the bioplastics umbrella, all bioplastics are not biodegradable. Just because your shampoo bottles or flour bags have a ‘bioplastic’ label, it doesn’t always mean they can or are being recycled. Besides, only a minuscule percentage of the plastic that can be recycled is sent for recycling anyway. So, it’s wiser to choose cloth, paper or other packaging that is ‘eco’ in the true sense of the word. You not only leave behind a smaller carbon footprint but also help local brands and makers.
Roads without footpaths: Pedestrians constantly jostle for space on almost every road and street in the country. A majority of pavements are encroached by tea stalls, shops, parked vehicles and, in some cases, even taken over entirely by commercial establishments. With the pandemic giving a push to outdoor spaces — whether in parks, restaurants, or shopping districts — here’s hoping we see larger, pedestrian-only walkways. Several localities in cities like Bengaluru and Pune restrict the movement of cars and allow cyclists, pedestrians and children to move about freely. These regulations need to be mandatory across cities. It’s time we reclaimed our roads from vehicles.
The draft EIA: If Covid wasn’t a big enough dampener, the draft Environmental Impact Assessment 2020 made it worse. The fact that it’s still a draft gives us hope but the list of what needs to be done away with is long. For one, environmental clearances for infrastructure projects need to happen transparently and not via virtual calls. Biodiversity hotspots need to remain untouched — Mollem, Aarey Forest, Shivalik Elephant Reserve are a case in point. We need stronger laws and stricter implementation, as well as norms to protect livelihoods of farmers and indigenous communities.
Choked cities: It’s not just New Delhi that has a crippling air pollution crisis. Cities across the country have been battling smog and pollutants for decades. In the first few months of the lockdown, reports showed that air quality was improving. As restrictions were lifted, the scenario changed again and now several cities are reporting higher levels of winter pollution. What we need is a transportation policy that moves away from oil and towards natural energy, as well as accurate pollution trackers that keep a check on industries. What we don’t need are ‘aromatic’ oxygen bars and vehicles plying with expired Pollution Under Control certificates.
Bad design: System-centric designs need to give way to people-centric ones. This holds true for everything from homes and roads to shops and transportation. More so in a post-pandemic world that calls for social distancing, clean environment, and open spaces. Going forward, green spots need to be accommodated in the design of any space — public or private — and architects, designers, and consumers must look for indigenous, recycled and nature-inspired solutions.
Dead rivers: A recent report by the Save Ennore Creek campaign highlights how 203 acres of the creek have been lost to a coal-ash dump for NTECL at Vallur and 100 acres to an oil storage terminal of Bharat Petroleum. A report in this paper found that ‘more wetlands are likely to be lost for projects, including an eight-fold expansion of the port at Kattupalli, which involves the creation of 2,000 acres of land inside the sea, and more than 1,000 acres of land by encroaching on the Ennore-Pulicat wetlands’. This conscious, systematic destruction of natural resources needs to stop. When developers and officials brazenly overlook environment laws, we are left with dead rivers.