(IPBES. 2019. Drivers of global decline in nature).

Pollution: Status and Context

Section
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
Page
10.2

“Industrialization, use of pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers, crop residues in agriculture, urbanization, forest fires, desert dust, and inadequate waste management have intensified environmental health risks and pollution, especially in low-and-middle-income-countries. Air pollution, exposure to lead and other chemicals, and hazardous wastes including exposure to improper e-waste disposal, cause debilitating and fatal illnesses, create harmful living conditions, and destroy ecosystems. Pollution stunts economic growth, exacerbates poverty and inequality in both urban and rural areas and significantly contributes to climate change. Poor people, who cannot afford to protect themselves from the negative impacts of pollution, end up suffering the most.

“Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death.  Pollution causes more than 11 million premature deaths. That’s several times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined…

“Air pollution is the leading environmental risk to health. A recent World Bank publication found that air pollution cost the globe an estimated $8.1 trillion in 2019, equivalent to 6.1 percent of global GDP. 95 percent of deaths caused by air pollution occur in low- and middle- income countries.” 1

This sad summary from the World Bank reminds us that pollution has by no means been ‘solved’, particularly in “low and middle-income countries” and that its effects on human health are profound. Beyond this sobering reminder, what impact is it having on the natural world?

(IPBES. 2019. Drivers of global decline in nature).

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES – see ‘State of the Environment’ section) summarised the drivers of environmental degradation for three, broad habitats: land, sea and freshwater2. Their results, and percentage estimates of importance, are contained in Figure SPM 2. Pollution (light orange colour) is listed as worst in freshwater ecosystems at around 15-20% of declines, marine ecosystems ~15% of declines, and terrestrial systems ~10% (av. ~14%). The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) similarly tried to quantify threats to biodiversity in its ‘Living Planet Report’3 (Figure 4), and estimated the global impact of pollution as 6%, with considerable regional variation (see T10 Section 7.1). As ‘Climate Change’ is treated separately in both estimates, though T10 combines it with ‘Pollution’ as it is caused by pollution from greenhouse gases, then the combined score by IPBES is ~28% and WWF 12%, ranking it as somewhere between the second and fourth-most important cause of environmental decline. We are not interested in compiling some sort of league table, so it is sufficient to say that its importance is high and it accounts for somewhere between 12% and 28% of our current problems.

Breaking this gross figure down reveals impacts in different ecosystems. As mentioned, pollution has been particularly damaging to freshwater systems, and the Living Planet Report ibid. estimates that there has been a massive 84% decrease in the populations of freshwater vertebrates since 1970 – see Figure 6. Of course, not all of this is due to pollution, (for example, IPBES counts the worldwide presence of large dams and reservoirs at greater than 50,000 and 17 million respectively!), but there can be no doubt that pollution is playing a large part in this terrible picture.

(WWF. 2020. The decline in freshwater vertebrates 1970-2016).

Marine pollution is little better, with WWF summarising threats as follows (Figure 20), and it can be seen that most are linked to, or have, a significant pollution component.

(WWF. 2020. Negative impacts and consequences of marine pollution).

Changing tack from an ecosystems approach to measures of air and water/soil pollution over time, IPBES produced the following graphs of world air pollution and fertiliser use – SPM 42:

(IPBES. 2019. Air and water/soil pollution 1970-2020).

There is mixed news here: on the one hand, total fine-particle air pollution has remained fairly constant since 1970, and levels in Developed Countries have dropped markedly, but levels in Developing Countries remain stubbornly high. Re fertilisers, their use has risen rapidly since 2000 and this is bad news for soil health and run-off into rivers, lakes, wetlands and estuaries.

A hint as to how these two categories of pollution could be affecting the environment is the ‘Living Planet Report’s Figure 83 – ‘Long-term change in terrestrial insect numbers’. Data for invertebrates is generally more recent and incomplete than for vertebrates, but the indications are concerning.

(WWF. 2020. Long-term change in terrestrial insect numbers).

 

Overall, what is our progress in dealing with pollution? The United Nations has various goals established for the reduction of pollution established through the Aichi Targets contained withing the Convention on Biological Diversity (for explanation, see Section 7.8), as well as within its Sustainable Development Goals.

Progress on the two relevant Aichi Targets – 8.1 and 8.2 – is ‘Poor’, as indicated by the red code at far right.

(IPBES. 2019. Progress on Aichi ‘pollution’ targets).

Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals ‘pollution targets’ (in red) is as follows2:

  • 3.9 Reduce deaths from pollution: ‘Unknown’
  • 6.3 Improve water quality: ‘Poor’
  • 14.1 Prevent/reduce marine pollution: ‘Poor’
  • 14.3 Minimise ocean acidification: ‘Poor’
  • 15.1 Ensure conservation of freshwater ecosystems: ‘Poor’.

In summary, IPBES reports ibid. that:

“B3. Many types of pollution, as well as invasive alien species, are increasing, with negative impacts for nature. Although global trends are mixed, air, water and soil pollution have continued to increase in some areas. Marine plastic pollution in particular has increased tenfold since 1980, affecting at least 267 species, including 86 per cent of marine turtles, 44 per cent of seabirds and 43 per cent of marine mammals. This can affect humans through food chains. Greenhouse gas emissions, untreated urban and rural waste, pollutants from industrial, mining and agricultural activities, oil spills and toxic dumping have had strong negative effects on soil, freshwater and marine water quality and on the global atmosphere.”

Not encouraging news. We will seek case studies for the key problems identified above in the coming webpages.

 

1 World Bank. 2022. Understanding Poverty – Pollution. <Pollution (worldbank.org)>

2 IPBES. 2019. Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – summary for policymakers. IPBES Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

3 WWF. 2020. Living Planet Report 2020 – bending the curve of biodiversity loss. WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

Explore Other Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10.1 Introduction

Elizabeth Kolbert’s absorbing ‘Under a White Sky’1 (see 10.9) begins with a boat trip down the much-abused Chicago River in the USA. ‘Down’ doesn’t have much meaning here; just what is ‘upstream’, or ‘downstream’ on this poor river is a...

10.2 Pollution: Status and Context

“Industrialization, use of pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers, crop residues in agriculture, urbanization, forest fires, desert dust, and inadequate waste management have intensified environmental health risks and pollution, especially in l...

10.3 Greenhouse Gas Pollution and Climate Change

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is unequivocal in its identification of the tight and close relationship between anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and global warming; and from this spins forth a whole r...

10.4 Climate Change and Fire

In Section 7 and elsewhere in T10 I have talked about fire and its profound impact upon the natural world (e.g. see 7.6). The use of fire deliberately and directly to clear or alter habitat has been discussed, as well as its egregious use as a too...

10.5 Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Previously in T10 I have discussed solutions to the various problems thrown up in each section at the end of that section, but as climate change is being treated in Section 10 as a special case, with webpages 10.3 and 10.4 devoted to it, I thought...

10.6 Solid Waste: domestic

Moving from gaseous wastes/pollution, to solid wastes, I covered in webpage 6.7 the television program ‘War on Waste’ and commended it for covering this important, but ‘unsexy’, topic in an interesting and engaging way for the general public; it w...

10.7 Solid Waste: oceanic

This strange odyssey certainly has some of the rambling eccentricities of the more famous ‘Moby Dick’, but the similarities end there as this is a modern tale of plastics pollution in the ocean and one man’s quest to find the story behind thousand...

10.8 The Human Dimension

‘Waste’, ‘rubbish’, ‘trash’, are, sometimes literally, the ‘shitty’ side of the shiny consumption dream, the grubby end of the capitalist process that no one wants to recognise. Similarly, we don’t want to know the people who have to deal with our...

10.9 Waste Solutions: technological

In some ways technology is its own greatest enemy. Its very quickness, its shiny cleverness, its neat problem-solution dynamic is irresistible. It has solved, and at least can, ‘solve’, or contribute to, solutions to a whole range of world environ...

10.10 Solutions: other

Feeling a little flat about all things environment, the other week I was lucky enough to visit a nearby seaside town, Robe, and call in on Brad and Narelle at their little ‘factory’ out the back of town, called Transmutation. It has to be said tha...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
1/11

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

This section is designed to foster appreciation and insight that will – hopefully – lead to novel ways to build a better relationship between human beings and Nature. This section is also atypical ...
2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

I hope Reneé Descartes would forgive us for saying that, at least for the modern world, he was wrong.  When, in 1637, he said: “I think, therefore I am”, he could not have anticipated that the majo...
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

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4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
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4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
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Even on top of Mt. Everest, in one of the remotest, most difficult places on earth, there is a great traffic-jam of people jostling for position. And yet, ever more vociferously, we deny that overp...
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
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The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
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7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming...
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
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Just as with the previous section – ‘Energy’ – which is, inescapably, all about fossil fuels so pre-eminent and extraordinary has been their dominance and transformation of the world in the last 20...
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
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10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and cl...