Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems; habitat destruction; the extinction of wildlife; and pollution. It is defined as any change or disturbance to the environment perceived to be deleterious or undesirable. As indicated by the I=PAT equation, environmental impact (I) or degradation is caused by the combination of an already very large and increasing human population (P), continually increasing economic growth or per capita affluence (A), and the application of resource-depleting and polluting technology (T).
Environmental degradation is one of the ten threats officially cautioned by the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change of the United Nations. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction defines environmental degradation as "the reduction of the capacity of the environment to meet social and ecological objectives, and needs". Environmental degradation is of many types. When natural habitats are destroyed or natural resources are depleted, the environment is degraded. Efforts to counteract this problem include environmental protection and environmental resources management.
One major component of environmental degradation is the depletion of the resource of fresh water on Earth. Approximately only 2.5% of all of the water on Earth is fresh water, with the rest being salt water. 69% of fresh water is frozen in ice caps located on Antarctica and Greenland, so only 30% of the 2.5% of fresh water is available for consumption. Fresh water is an exceptionally important resource, since life on Earth is ultimately dependent on it. Water transports nutrients, minerals and chemicals within the biosphere to all forms of life, sustains both plants and animals, and moulds the surface of the Earth with transportation and deposition of materials.
The current top three uses of fresh water account for 95% of its consumption; approximately 85% is used for irrigation of farmland, golf courses, and parks, 6% is used for domestic purposes such as indoor bathing uses and outdoor garden and lawn use, and 4% is used for industrial purposes such as processing, washing, and cooling in manufacturing centers. It is estimated that one in three people over the entire globe are already facing water shortages, almost one-fifth of the world population live in areas of physical water scarcity, and almost one quarter of the world's population live in a developing country that lacks the necessary infrastructure to use water from available rivers and aquifers. Water scarcity is an increasing problem due to many foreseen issues in the future, including population growth, increased urbanization, higher standards of living, and climate change.
Climate change and temperature
Climate change affects the Earth's water supply in a large number of ways. It is predicted that the mean global temperature will rise in the coming years due to a number of forces affecting the climate, the amount of atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (CO2) will rise, and both of these will influence water resources; evaporation depends strongly on temperature and moisture availability, which can ultimately affect the amount of water available to replenish groundwater supplies.
Transpiration from plants can be affected by a rise in atmospheric CO2, which can decrease their use of water, but can also raise their use of water from possible increases of leaf area. Temperature rise can reduce the snow season in the winter and increase the intensity of the melting snow leading to peak runoff of this, affecting soil moisture, flood and drought risks, and storage capacities depending on the area.
Warmer winter temperatures cause a decrease in snowpack, which can result in diminished water resources during summer. This is especially important at mid-latitudes and in mountain regions that depend on glacial runoff to replenish their river systems and groundwater supplies, making these areas increasingly vulnerable to water shortages over time; an increase in temperature will initially result in a rapid rise in water melting from glaciers in the summer, followed by a retreat in glaciers and a decrease in the melt and consequently the water supply every year as the size of these glaciers get smaller and smaller.
Thermal expansion of water and increased melting of oceanic glaciers from an increase in temperature gives way to a rise in sea level, which can affect the fresh water supply of coastal areas as well; as river mouths and deltas with higher salinity get pushed further inland, an intrusion of saltwater results in an increase of salinity in reservoirs and aquifers. Sea-level rise may also consequently be caused by a depletion of groundwater, as climate change can affect the hydrologic cycle in a number of ways. Uneven distributions of increased temperatures and increased precipitation around the globe results in water surpluses and deficits, but a global decrease in groundwater suggests a rise in sea level, even after meltwater and thermal expansion were accounted for, which can provide a positive feedback to the problems sea-level rise causes to fresh-water supply.
A rise in air temperature results in a rise in water temperature, which is also very significant in water degradation, as the water would become more susceptible to bacterial growth. An increase in water temperature can also affect ecosystems greatly because of a species' sensitivity to temperature, and also by inducing changes in a body of water's self-purification system from decreased amounts of dissolved oxygen in the water due to rises in temperature.
Climate change and precipitation
A rise in global temperatures is also predicted to correlate with an increase in global precipitation, but because of increased runoff, floods, increased rates of soil erosion, and mass movement of land, a decline in water quality is probable, while water will carry more nutrients, it will also carry more contaminants. While most of the attention about climate change is directed towards global warming and greenhouse effect, some of the most severe effects of climate change are likely to be from changes in precipitation, evapotranspiration, runoff, and soil moisture. It is generally expected that, on average, global precipitation will increase, with some areas receiving increases and some decreases.
Climate models show that while some regions should expect an increase in precipitation, such as in the tropics and higher latitudes, other areas are expected to see a decrease, such as in the subtropics; this will ultimately cause a latitudinal variation in water distribution. The areas receiving more precipitation are also expected to receive this increase during their winter and actually become drier during their summer, creating even more of a variation of precipitation distribution. Naturally, the distribution of precipitation across the planet is very uneven, causing constant variations in water availability in respective locations.
Changes in precipitation affect the timing and magnitude of floods and droughts, shift runoff processes, and alter groundwater recharge rates. Vegetation patterns and growth rates will be directly affected by shifts in precipitation amount and distribution, which will in turn affect agriculture as well as natural ecosystems. Decreased precipitation will deprive areas of water, causing water tables to fall and reservoirs and wetlands, rivers, and lakes to empty, and possibly an increase in evaporation and evapotranspiration, depending on the accompanied rise in temperature. Groundwater reserves will be depleted, and the remaining water has a greater chance of being of poor quality from saline or contaminants on the land surface.
See also: Human overpopulation
The human population on Earth is expanding rapidly which goes hand in hand with the degradation of the environment at large measures. Humanity's appetite for needs is disarranging the environment's natural equilibrium. Production industries are venting smoke and discharging chemicals that are polluting water resources. The smoke that is emitted into the atmosphere holds detrimental gases such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. The high levels of pollution in the atmosphere form layers that are eventually absorbed into the atmosphere. Organic compounds such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) have generated an unwanted opening in the ozone layer, which emits higher levels of ultraviolet radiation putting the globe at large threat.
The available fresh water being affected by the climate is also being stretched across an ever-increasing global population. It is estimated that almost a quarter of the global population is living in an area that is using more than 20% of their renewable water supply; water use will rise with population while the water supply is also being aggravated by decreases in streamflow and groundwater caused by climate change. Even though some areas may see an increase in freshwater supply from an uneven distribution of precipitation increase, an increased use of water supply is expected.
An increased population means increased withdrawals from the water supply for domestic, agricultural, and industrial uses, the largest of these being agriculture, believed to be the major non-climate driver of environmental change and water deterioration. The next 50 years will likely be the last period of rapid agricultural expansion, but the larger and wealthier population over this time will demand more agriculture.
Population increase over the last two decades, at least in the United States, has also been accompanied by a shift to an increase in urban areas from rural areas, which concentrates the demand for water into certain areas, and puts stress on the fresh water supply from industrial and human contaminants.Urbanization causes overcrowding and increasingly unsanitary living conditions, especially in developing countries, which in turn exposes an increasingly number of people to disease. About 79% of the world's population is in developing countries, which lack access to sanitary water and sewer systems, giving rises to disease and deaths from contaminated water and increased numbers of disease-carrying insects.
Agriculture is dependent on available soil moisture, which is directly affected by climate dynamics, with precipitation being the input in this system and various processes being the output, such as evapotranspiration, surface runoff, drainage, and percolation into groundwater. Changes in climate, especially the changes in precipitation and evapotranspiration predicted by climate models, will directly affect soil moisture, surface runoff, and groundwater recharge.
In areas with decreasing precipitation as predicted by the climate models, soil moisture may be substantially reduced. With this in mind, agriculture in most areas needs irrigation already, which depletes fresh water supplies both by the physical use of the water and the degradation agriculture causes to the water. Irrigation increases salt and nutrient content in areas that would not normally be affected, and damages streams and rivers from damming and removal of water. Fertilizer enters both human and livestock waste streams that eventually enter groundwater, while nitrogen, phosphorus, and other chemicals from fertilizer can acidify both soils and water. Certain agricultural demands may increase more than others with an increasingly wealthier global population, and meat is one commodity expected to double global food demand by 2050, which directly affects the global supply of fresh water. Cows need water to drink, more if the temperature is high and humidity is low, and more if the production system the cow is in is extensive, since finding food takes more effort. Water is needed in processing of the meat, and also in the production of feed for the livestock. Manure can contaminate bodies of freshwater, and slaughterhouses, depending on how well they are managed, contribute waste such as blood, fat, hair, and other bodily contents to supplies of fresh water.
The transfer of water from agricultural to urban and suburban use raises concerns about agricultural sustainability, rural socioeconomic decline, food security, an increased carbon footprint from imported food, and decreased foreign trade balance. The depletion of fresh water, as applied to more specific and populated areas, increases fresh water scarcity among the population and also makes populations susceptible to economic, social, and political conflict in a number of ways; rising sea levels forces migration from coastal areas to other areas farther inland, pushing populations closer together breaching borders and other geographical patterns, and agricultural surpluses and deficits from the availability of water induce trade problems and economies of certain areas. Climate change is an important cause of involuntary migration and forced displacement According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, global greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture exceeds that of transportation.
The issue of the depletion of fresh water can be met by increased efforts in water management. While water management systems are often flexible, adaptation to new hydrologic conditions may be very costly. Preventative approaches are necessary to avoid high costs of inefficiency and the need for rehabilitation of water supplies, and innovations to decrease overall demand may be important in planning water sustainability.
Water supply systems, as they exist now, were based on the assumptions of the current climate, and built to accommodate existing river flows and flood frequencies. Reservoirs are operated based on past hydrologic records, and irrigation systems on historical temperature, water availability, and crop water requirements; these may not be a reliable guide to the future. Re-examining engineering designs, operations, optimizations, and planning, as well as re-evaluating legal, technical, and economic approaches to manage water resources are very important for the future of water management in response to water degradation. Another approach is water privatization; despite its economic and cultural effects, service quality and overall quality of the water can be more easily controlled and distributed. Rationality and sustainability is appropriate, and requires limits to overexploitation and pollution, and efforts in conservation.
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Our growing population
We humans are remarkable creatures. From our humble beginnings in small pockets of Africa, we have evolved over millennia to colonise almost every corner of our planet. We are clever, resilient and adaptable―perhaps a little too adaptable.
In 2015 the world population is more than 7.3 billion people. That’s more than seven billion three hundred million bodies that need to be fed, clothed, kept warm and ideally, nurtured and educated. More than 7.3 billion individuals who, while busy consuming resources, are also producing vast quantities of waste, and our numbers continue to grow. The United Nations estimates that the world population will reach 9.2 billion by 2050.
For most of our existence the human population has grown very slowly, kept in check by disease, climate fluctuations and other social factors. It took until 1804 for us to reach 1 billion people. Since then, continuing improvements in nutrition, medicine and technology have seen our population increase rapidly.
The impact of so many humans on the environment takes two major forms:
- consumption of resources such as land, food, water, air, fossil fuels and minerals
- waste products as a result of consumption such as air and water pollutants, toxic materials and greenhouse gases
More than just numbers
Many people worry that unchecked population growth will eventually cause an environmental catastrophe. This is an understandable fear, and a quick look at the circumstantial evidence certainly shows that as our population has increased, the health of our environment has decreased. The impact of so many people on the planet has resulted in some scientists coining a new term to describe our time—the Anthropocene epoch. Unlike previous geological epochs, where various geological and climate processes defined the time periods, the proposed Anthropecene period is named for the dominant influence humans and their activities are having on the environment. In essence, humans are a new global geophysical force.
However, while population size is part of the problem, the issue is bigger and more complex than just counting bodies.
There are many factors at play. Essentially, it is what is happening within those populations—their distribution (density, migration patterns and urbanisation), their composition (age, sex and income levels) and, most importantly, their consumption patterns—that are of equal, if not more importance, than just numbers.
- A formula for environmental degradation?
The IPAT equation, first devised in the 1970s, is a way of determining environmental degradation based on a multiple of factors. At its simplest, it describes how human impact on the environment (I) is a result of a multiplicative contribution of population (P), affluence (A) and technology (T).
I = P x A x T
Environmental impact (I) can be considered in terms of resource depletion and waste accumulation; population (P) refers to the size of the human population; affluence (A) refers to the levels of consumption by that population; and technology (T) refers to the processes used to obtain resources and transform them into useful goods and wastes.
As well as bringing the link between population and environment to a wider audience, the IPAT equation encouraged people to see that environmental problems are caused by multiple factors that when combined produced a compounding effect. More significantly, it showed that the assumption of a simple multiplicative relationship among the main factors generally does not hold—doubling the population, for example, does not necessarily lead to a doubling of environmental impact. The reverse is also true—a reduction of the technology factor by 50 per cent would not necessarily lead to a reduction in environmental impact by the same margin.
The IPAT equation is not perfect, but it does help to demonstrate that population is not the only (or necessarily the most important) factor relating to environmental damage.
Focusing solely on population number obscures the multifaceted relationship between us humans and our environment, and makes it easier for us to lay the blame at the feet of others, such as those in developing countries, rather than looking at how our own behaviour may be negatively affecting the planet.
Let’s take a closer look at the issues.
It's no surprise that as the world population continues to grow, the limits of essential global resources such as potable water, fertile land, forests and fisheries are becoming more obvious. You don’t have to be a maths whizz to work out that, on the whole, more people use more resources and create more waste.
But how many people is too many? How many of us can Earth realistically support?
Influenced by the work of Thomas Malthus, ' carrying capacity ' can be defined as the maximum population size an environment can sustain indefinitely.
Debate about the actual human carrying capacity of Earth dates back hundreds of years. The range of estimates is enormous, fluctuating from 500 million people to more than one trillion. Scientists disagree not only on the final number, but more importantly about the best and most accurate way of determining that number—hence the huge variability.
How can this be? Whether we have 500 million people or one trillion, we still have only one planet, which has a finite level of resources. The answer comes back to resource consumption. People around the world consume resources differently and unevenly. An average middle-class American consumes 3.3 times the subsistence level of food and almost 250 times the subsistence level of clean water. So if everyone on Earth lived like a middle class American, then the planet might have a carrying capacity of around 2 billion. However, if people only consumed what they actually needed, then the Earth could potentially support a much higher figure.
But we need to consider not just quantity but also quality—Earth might be able to theoretically support over one trillion people, but what would their quality of life be like? Would they be scraping by on the bare minimum of allocated resources, or would they have the opportunity to lead an enjoyable and full life?
More importantly, could these trillion people cooperate on the scale required, or might some groups seek to use a disproportionate fraction of resources? If so, might other groups challenge that inequality, including through the use of violence?
These are questions that are yet to be answered.
The ways in which populations are spread across Earth has an effect on the environment. Developing countries tend to have higher birth rates due to poverty and lower access to family planning and education, while developed countries have lower birth rates. In 2015, 80 per cent of the world’s population live in less-developed nations. These faster-growing populations can add pressure to local environments.
Globally, in almost every country, humans are also becoming more urbanised. In 1960 less than one third of the world’s population lived in cities. By 2014, that figure was 54 per cent, with a projected rise to 66 per cent by 2050.
While many enthusiasts for centralisation and urbanisation argue this allows for resources to be used more efficiently, in developing countries this mass movement of people heading towards the cities in search of employment and opportunity often outstrips the pace of development, leading to slums, poor (if any) environmental regulation, and higher levels of centralised pollution. Even in developed nations, more people are moving to the cities than ever before. The pressure placed on growing cities and their resources such as water, energy and food due to continuing growth includes pollution from additional cars, heaters and other modern luxuries, which can cause a range of localised environmental problems.
Humans have always moved around the world. However, government policies, conflict or environmental crises can enhance these migrations, often causing short or long-term environmental damage. For example, since 2011 conditions in the Middle East have seen population transfer (also known as unplanned migration) result in several million refugees fleeing countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The sudden development of often huge refugee camps can affect water supplies, cause land damage (such as felling of trees for fuel) or pollute environments (lack of sewerage systems).
The composition of a population can also affect the surrounding environment. At present, the global population has both the largest proportion of young people (under 24) and the largest percentage of elderly people in history. As young people are more likely to migrate, this leads to intensified urban environmental concerns, as listed above.
Life expectancy has increased by approximately 20 years since 1960. While this is a triumph for mankind, and certainly a good thing for the individual, from the planet's point of view it is just another body that is continuing to consume resources and produce waste for around 40 per cent longer than in the past.
Ageing populations are another element to the multi-faceted implications of demographic population change, and pose challenges of their own. For example between 1970 and 2006, Japan's proportion of people over 65 grew from 7 per cent to more than 20 per cent of its population. This has huge implications on the workforce, as well as government spending on pensions and health care.
Population income is also an important consideration. The uneven distribution of income results in pressure on the environment from both the lowest and highest income levels. In order to simply survive, many of the world’s poorest people partake in unsustainable levels of resource use, for example burning rubbish, tyres or plastics for fuel. They may also be forced to deplete scarce natural resources, such as forests or animal populations, to feed their families. On the other end of the spectrum, those with the highest incomes consume disproportionately large levels of resources through the cars they drive, the homes they live in and the lifestyle choices they make.
On a country-wide level, economic development and environmental damage are also linked. The least developed nations tend to have lower levels of industrial activity, resulting in lower levels of environmental damage. The most developed countries have found ways of improving technology and energy efficiency to reduce their environmental impact while retaining high levels of production. It is the countries in between—those that are developing and experiencing intense resource consumption (which may be driven by demand from developed countries)—that are often the location of the most environmental damage.
While poverty and environmental degradation are closely interrelated, it is the unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, primarily in developed nations, that are of even greater concern.
It’s not often that those in developed countries stop and consider our own levels of consumption. For many, particularly in industrialised countries, the consumption of goods and resources is just a part of our lives and culture, promoted not only by advertisers but also by governments wanting to continually grow their economy. Culturally, it is considered a normal part of life to shop, buy and consume, to continually strive to own a bigger home or a faster car, all frequently promoted as signs of success. It may be fine to participate in consumer culture and to value material possessions, but in excess it is harming both the planet and our emotional wellbeing.
The environmental impact of all this consumption is huge. The mass production of goods, many of them unnecessary for a comfortable life, is using large amounts of energy, creating excess pollution, and generating huge amounts of waste.
To complicate matters, environmental impacts of high levels of consumption are not confined to the local area or even country. For example, the use of fossil fuels for energy (to drive our bigger cars, heat and cool our bigger houses) has an impact on global CO2 levels and resulting environmental effects. Similarly, richer countries are also able to rely on resource and/or waste-intensive imports being produced in poorer countries. This enables them to enjoy the products without having to deal with the immediate impacts of the factories or pollution that went in to creating them.
On a global scale, not all humans are equally responsible for environmental harm. Consumption patterns and resource use are very high in some parts of the world, while in others—often in countries with far more people—they are low, and the basic needs of whole populations are not being met. A study undertaken in 2009 showed that the countries with the fastest population growth also had the slowest increases in carbon emissions. The reverse was also true—for example the population of North America grew only 4 per cent between 1980 and 2005, while its carbon emissions grew by 14 per cent.
Individuals living in developed countries have, in general, a much bigger ecological footprint than those living in the developing world. The ecological footprint is a standardised measure of how much productive land and water is needed to produce the resources that are consumed, and to absorb the wastes produced by a person or group of people.
Global Footprint Network
When Australian consumption is viewed from a global perspective, we leave an exceptionally large 'ecological footprint'—one of the largest in the world. While the average global footprint is 2.7 global hectares, in 2014 Australia's ecological footprint was calculated at 6.7 global hectares per person (this large number is mostly due to our carbon emissions). To put this in perspective, if the rest of world lived like we do in Australia, we would need the equivalent of 3.6 Earths to meet the demand.
Similarly, an American has an ecological footprint almost 9 times larger than an Indian—so while the population of India far exceeds that of the United States, in terms of environmental damage, it is the American consumption of resources that is causing the higher level of damage to the planet.
What is the solution?
How do we solve the delicate problem of population growth and environmental limitations? Joel Cohen, a mathematician and author characterised potential solutions in the following way:
1. A bigger pie: Technical innovation
This theory looks to innovation and technology as Earth’s saviour, not only to extend the planet’s human carrying capacity, but to also improve the quality of life for each individual. Advances in food production technologies such as agriculture, water purification and genetic engineering may help to feed the masses, while moving away from fossil fuels to renewable power sources such as wind and solar will go some way to reducing climate change.
‘Economic decoupling’ refers to the ability of an economy to grow without corresponding increases in environmental pressure. In 2014 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report titled 'Decoupling 2', which explored the possibilities and opportunities of technology and innovation to accelerate decoupling, and an analysis of how far technical innovation can go.
Funding and research should be a high priority in these areas, but we must accept that technology can only do so much, and is only part of the solution.
2. Fewer forks: Education and policy change
This theory is based on demographic transition, effectively finding ways to slow or stop population growth resulting in fewer people fighting for resources or ‘slices’ of pie.
Birth rates naturally decline when populations are given access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, education for boys and girls beyond the primary level is encouraged and made available, and women are empowered to participate in social and political life. Continuing to support programs and policies in these areas should see a corresponding drop in birth rates. Similarly, as the incomes of individuals in developing countries increase, there is a corresponding decrease in birth rates. This is another incentive for richer countries to help their poorer neighbours reach their development potential.
Providing a health, educational or financial incentive has also proven to be effective in combating some population issues. For example, paying money to people with two or fewer children or allowing free education for families with a single child has been trialled with some success. However, there are debates about incentive programs (such as paying women in India to undergo sterilisation). Opponents question whether accepting these incentives is really is a choice, or whether the recipient has been coerced into it through community pressure or financial desperation.
Fewer forks can also cover another complicated area—the option of seriously controlling population growth by force. China has done so in the past and attracted both high praise and severe humanitarian criticism. This is a morally-, economically- and politically-charged topic, to which there is no easy answer.
3. Better manners: Less is more
The better manners approach seeks to educate people about their actions and the consequences of those actions, leading to a change in behaviour. This relates not only to individuals but also governments. Individuals across the world, but particularly in developed countries, need to reassess their consumption patterns. Numerous studies have shown that more ‘stuff’ doesn't make people happier anyway. We need to step back and re-examine what is important and actively find ways to reduce the amount of resources we consume. Taking shorter showers, saying no to single-use plastics, buying less, recycling our waste and reviewing our mode and frequency of travel may seem trivial, but if millions around the world begin to do it as well, the difference will begin to add up.
Governments too need to instigate shifts in environmental policy to protect and enhance natural areas, reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, invest in renewable energy sources and focus on conservation as priorities.
Developing countries should be supported by their more developed neighbours to reach their development goals in sustainable, practical ways.
In reality, there is no single, easy solution. All three options must be part of a sustainable future.
Where to from here?
Population is an issue that cannot be ignored. While we can all do our bit to reduce our own global footprint, the combined impact of billions of other footprints will continue to add up. There are many who believe that if we do not find ways of limiting the numbers of people on Earth ourselves, then Earth itself will eventually find ways of doing it for us.
Interestingly, despite population increase being such a serious issue, the United Nations has held only three world conferences on population and development (in 1945, 1974 and 1994).
However, governments around the world are beginning to recognise the seriousness and importance of the situation, and are taking steps to reduce the environmental impacts of increasing populations and consumption such as through pollution reduction targets for air, soil and water pollutants. The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, scheduled for December 2015, is one example; however any international policies need to be backed up by workable solutions at the individual, local and regional level.
With more than 7.3 billion people on the planet, it’s easy to assume someone else will tackle and solve the issue of population and environment. Yet it is an issue that affects us all, and as such we’re all responsible for working towards a sustainable future in which everyone is able to enjoy a good quality of life without destroying the very things we rely on to survive. It’s possible, but it will take the combined and coordinated efforts of individuals, communities, and governments to get there.