14
Okt
2005

Global Environment Problems - The fate of life on the Planet

[InfoNature.Org] - Email News wrote:

Global Environment Problems - The fate of life on the Planet Pollution - Food - Water - Fauna and Flora

SOURCE - BBC News: //news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4326666.stm


Millions 'will flee degradation'


One of the biggest sources of refugees is land degradation and desertification

Janos Bogardi There will be as many as 50 million environmental refugees in the world in five years' time. That is the conclusion of experts at the United Nations University, who say that a new definition of "environmental refugee" is urgently needed.

They believe that already environmental degradation forces as many people away from their homes as political and social unrest.

The UNU issued its statement to mark UN Day for Disaster Reduction.

"There are many different environmental issues involved and there can be interactions between them," said Janos Bogardi, director of the United Nations University's Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) in Bonn, Germany.

"In poorer rural areas especially, one of the biggest sources of refugees is land degradation and desertification, which may be caused by unsustainable land use interacting with climate change, amplified by population growth," he told the BBC News website.

"A second issue is flooding, caused I would say by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere super-imposed with probably some natural fluctuations."

Worse than wars

The projected figure of 50 million is derived from a number of previous reports, including the 1999 World Disasters Report from the International Red Cross.

This calculated that natural disasters in the previous year had created more refugees than wars or other armed conflicts.

It said that falling soil fertility, drought, flooding and deforestation drove 25 million people from their homes, with many of these environmental refugees joining already fragile urban squatter communities.

Environmental refugees need better protection, says the UNU

The UNU believes that environmental refugees need better protection than they have now, and in order for that to happen, there needs to be an accepted definition of their situation.

The 1951 Convention relating to the State of Refugees defines refugees as people having a "...well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion..."

"We need to define what we mean by political, economic and environmental refugees," said the UNU's Rector Hans van Ginkel.

"If we define the problem better, we can prepare for the level of need to be catered for," he told the BBC News website.

Another issue is that historically, people are considered refugees only when they go to another country, whereas as Hurricane Katrina has graphically shown, those displaced by environmental damage often remain within their native country.



Can the planet feed us?

By Alex Kirby BBC News Online environment correspondent

As part of Planet Under Pressure, a BBC News series looking at some of the biggest environmental problems facing humanity, Alex Kirby explores the challenge of feeding the world without destroying the planet.

The proportion of hungry people is coming down

More of us are eating more and better than ever before.

World cereal consumption has more than doubled since 1970, and meat consumption has tripled since 1961.

The global fish catch grew more than six times from 1950 to 1997.

None of this happened by magic, though, but only by giving Nature a massive helping hand.

The World Resources Institute said in 1999 that half of all the commercial fertiliser ever produced had been applied since 1984.

So one question is whether the world can go on increasing its harvests at this rate - or even faster, to cater as well for the extra 75 million people born annually.

Crop increases

Our recent achievements are impressive - while global population doubled to 6 billion people in the 40 years from 1960, global food production more than kept up.

Facts and figures on the challenge of feeding the world

At-a-glance

The proportion of malnourished people fell in the three decades to the mid-1990s from 37% to 18%. But we may not be able to go on at this rate.

For a start, much of the world's best cropland is already in use, and farmers are having to turn to increasingly marginal land. And the good land is often taking a battering - soil degradation has already reduced global agricultural productivity by 13% in the last half-century.

Many of the pesticides on which the crop increases have depended are losing their effectiveness, as the pests acquire more resistance.

A key constraint is water. The 17% of cropland that is irrigated produces an estimated 30-40% of all crops, but in many countries there will be progressively less water available for agriculture.

Many of these are poor countries, where irrigation can boost crop yields by up to 400%. There are ways to improve irrigation and to use water more effectively, but it's not clear these can bridge the gap.

Some say meat-heavy diets are environmentally unsustainable

Biotechnology, in principle, may offer the world a second Green Revolution, for example by producing drought-resistant plants or varieties that withstand pest attacks.

But it arouses deep unease, not least because of fears it may erode the genetic resources in thousands of traditional varieties grown in small communities across the world.

Nobody knows what the probable impacts of climate change will be on food supplies.

Modest temperature increases may actually benefit rich temperate countries, but make harvests even more precarious across much of the tropics.

Too little space

Another question concerns the huge cost to other forms of life of all the progress we've made in securing our own food supply.

Enlarge Image

The amount of nitrogen available for uptake by plants is much higher than the natural level, and has more than doubled since the 1940s.

The excess comes from fertilisers running off farmland, from livestock manure, and from other human activities. It is changing the composition of species in ecosystems, reducing soil fertility, depleting the ozone layer, intensifying climate change, and creating dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other near-coastal seas.

The sheer amount of the Earth we need to produce our food is having an enormous impact.

Globally, we have taken over about 26% of the planet's land area (roughly 3.3 billion hectares) for cropland and pasture, replacing a third of temperate and tropical forests and a quarter of natural grasslands.

Another 0.5 billion ha has gone for urban and built-up areas. Habitat loss from the conversion of natural ecosystems is the main reason why other species are being pushed closer to the brink of extinction.

Food security comes at a high price. In any case, it is a security many can only envy.

Increasing hunger

At the moment we are not on course to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving world hunger by 2015.

Although the proportion of hungry people is coming down, population increase means the actual number continues to rise.

In the 1990s global poverty fell by 20%, but the number of hungry people rose by 18 million. In 2003, 842 million people did not have enough to eat, a third of them in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Food production has more than kept up with population growth

Hunger and malnutrition killed 10 million people a year, 25,000 a day - one life extinguished every five seconds.

The world does produce enough to feed everyone. But the food is often in the wrong place, or unaffordable, or can't be stored long enough. So making sure everyone has enough to eat is more about politics than science.

But whether we can go on eating the sort of diet we've grown used to in developed countries is far from clear.

Much of it travels a long way to reach us, with the transport costs adding hugely to the "embodied energy" it contains. There's a lot to be said for eating local, seasonal food where we can.

And meat usually demands far more than grain - water, land, grain itself (34% of world grain supplies are fed to livestock reared for meat). Yet, worldwide, the richer we grow the more we turn to meat.

Something's got to give - and not only our waistbands



Pollution: A life and death issue

By Alex Kirby BBC News website environment correspondent

As part of Planet Under Pressure, a BBC News website series looking at some of the biggest environmental issues facing humanity, Alex Kirby considers the Earth's growing pollution problem.


WHO says 3m people a year are killed by outdoor air pollution

One of the main themes of Planet Under Pressure is the way many of the Earth's environmental crises reinforce one another.

Pollution is an obvious example - we do not have the option of growing food, or finding enough water, on a squeaky-clean planet, but on one increasingly tarnished and trashed by the way we have used it so far.

Cutting waste and clearing up pollution costs money. Yet time and again it is the quest for wealth that generates much of the mess in the first place.

Living in a way that is less damaging to the Earth is not easy, but it is vital, because pollution is pervasive and often life-threatening.

a.. Air: The World Health Organization (WHO) says 3 million people are killed worldwide by outdoor air pollution annually from vehicles and industrial emissions, and 1.6 million indoors through using solid fuel. Most are in poor countries.

a.. Water: Diseases carried in water are responsible for 80% of illnesses and deaths in developing countries, killing a child every eight seconds. Each year 2.1 million people die from diarrhoeal diseases associated with poor water.

a.. Soil: Contaminated land is a problem in industrialised countries, where former factories and power stations can leave waste like heavy metals in the soil. It can also occur in developing countries, sometimes used for dumping pesticides. Agriculture can pollute land with pesticides, nitrate-rich fertilisers and slurry from livestock. And when the contamination reaches rivers it damages life there, and can even create dead zones off the coast, as in the Gulf of Mexico. Chronic problem

Chemicals are a frequent pollutant. When we think of chemical contamination it is often images of events like Bhopal that come to mind.

But the problem is widespread. One study says 7-20% of cancers are attributable to poor air and pollution in homes and workplaces.

The WHO, concerned about chemicals that persist and build up in the body, especially in the young, says we may "be conducting a large-scale experiment with children's health".

Some man-made chemicals, endocrine disruptors like phthalates and nonylphenol - a breakdown product of spermicides, cosmetics and detergents - are blamed for causing changes in the genitals of some animals.

Affected species include polar bears - so not even the Arctic is immune. And the chemicals climb the food chain, from fish to mammals - and to us.

About 70,000 chemicals are on the market, with around 1,500 new ones appearing annually. At least 30,000 are thought never to have been comprehensively tested for their possible risks to people.

Trade-off

But the snag is that modern society demands many of them, and some are essential for survival.

So while we invoke the precautionary principle, which always recommends erring on the side of caution, we have to recognise there will be trade-offs to be made.

Chemical pollution was blamed for killing fish in Kankaria Lake in Ahmadabad, India

The pesticide DDT does great damage to wildlife and can affect the human nervous system, but can also be effective against malaria. Where does the priority lie?

The industrialised world has not yet cleaned up the mess it created, but it is reaping the benefits of the pollution it has caused. It can hardly tell the developing countries that they have no right to follow suit.

Another complication in tackling pollution is that it does not respect political frontiers. There is a UN convention on transboundary air pollution, but that cannot cover every problem that can arise between neighbours, or between states which do not share a border.

Perhaps the best example is climate change - the countries of the world share one atmosphere, and what one does can affect everyone.

For one and all

One of the principles that is supposed to apply here is simple - the polluter pays.

A recent study detailed the plastic litter that pollutes the marine environment

Sometimes it is obvious who is to blame and who must pay the price. But it is not always straightforward to work out just who is the polluter, or whether the rest of us would be happy to pay the price of stopping the pollution.

One way of cleaning up after ourselves would be to throw less away, designing products to be recycled or even just to last longer.

Previous generations worked on the assumption that discarding our waste was a proper way to be rid of it, so we used to dump nuclear materials and other potential hazards at sea, confident they would be dispersed in the depths.

We now think that is too risky because, as one author wrote, "there's no such place as 'away' - and there's no such person as the 'other'".

Ask not for whom the bell tolls - it tolls for thee, and for me.



Water scarcity: A looming crisis?

As part of Planet Under Pressure, a BBC News Online series looking at some of the biggest environmental problems facing humanity, Alex Kirby explores fears of an impending global water crisis.

By Alex Kirby BBC News Online environment correspondent

The world's water is finite, but the number of us is growing fast

The world's water crisis is simple to understand, if not to solve. The amount of water in the world is finite. The number of us is growing fast and our water use is growing even faster.

A third of the world's population lives in water-stressed countries now. By 2025, this is expected to rise to two-thirds.

There is more than enough water available, in total, for everyone's basic needs.

The UN recommends that people need a minimum of 50 litres of water a day for drinking, washing, cooking and sanitation.

In 1990, over a billion people did not have even that.

Providing universal access to that basic minimum worldwide by 2015 would take less than 1% of the amount of water we use today. But we're a long way from achieving that.

Pollution and disease

Global water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 - more than double the rate of population growth - and goes on growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase.

As important as quantity is quality - with pollution increasing in some areas, the amount of useable water declines.

More than five million people die from waterborne diseases each year - 10 times the number killed in wars around the globe.

And the wider effects of water shortages are just as chilling as the prospect of having too little to drink.

Seventy percent of the water used worldwide is used for agriculture.

Much more will be needed if we are to feed the world's growing population - predicted to rise from about six billion today to 8.9 billion by 2050.

And consumption will soar further as more people expect Western-style lifestyles and diets - one kilogram of grain-fed beef needs at least 15 cubic metres of water, while a kilo of cereals needs only up to three cubic metres.

Poverty and water

The poor are the ones who suffer most. Water shortages can mean long walks to fetch water, high prices to buy it, food insecurity and disease from drinking dirty water.

Millions of poor people spend hours every day carrying water

But the very thing needed to raise funds to tackle water problems in poor countries - economic development - requires yet more water to supply the agriculture and industries which drive it.

The UN-backed World Commission on Water estimated in 2000 that an additional $100bn a year would be needed to tackle water scarcity worldwide.

This dwarfs the $20bn which will be needed annually by 2007 to tackle HIV and Aids, and, according to the Commission, it is so much it could only be raised from the private sector.

Even if the money can be found, spending it wisely is a further challenge. Dams and other large-scale projects now affect 60% of the world's largest rivers and provide millions with water.

But in many cases the costs in terms of population displacement and irreversible changes in the nearby ecosystems have been considerable.

Using underground supplies is another widely used solution, but it means living on capital accumulated over millennia, and depleting it faster than the interest can top it up.

As groundwater is exploited, water tables in parts of China, India, West Asia, the former Soviet Union and the western United States are dropping - in India by as much as 3m a year in 1999.

Technical solutions

New technology can help, however, especially by cleaning up pollution and so making more water useable, and in agriculture, where water use can be made far more efficient. Drought-resistant plants can also help.

Drip irrigation drastically cuts the amount of water needed, low-pressure sprinklers are an improvement, and even building simple earth walls to trap rainfall is helpful.

One kilo of grain-fed beef needs at least 15 cubic metres of water

Some countries are now treating waste water so that it can be used - and drunk - several times over.

Desalinisation makes sea water available, but takes huge quantities of energy and leaves vast amounts of brine.

The optimists say "virtual water" may save the day - the water contained in crops which can be exported from water-rich countries to arid ones.

But the amounts involved would be immense, and the energy needed to transport them gargantuan. And affordable, useable energy will probably soon be a bigger problem than water itself.

Climate change

In any case, it is not just us who need water, but every other species that shares the planet with us - as well all the ecosystems on which we, and they, rely.

Climate change will also have an impact. Some areas will probably benefit from increased rainfall, but others are likely to be losers.

We have to rethink how much water we really need if we are to learn how to share the Earth's supply.

While dams and other large-scale schemes play a big role worldwide, there is also a growing recognition of the value of using the water we already have more efficiently rather than harvesting ever more from our rivers and aquifers.

For millions of people around the world, getting it right is a matter of life and death



Biodiversity: The sixth great wave

As part of Planet Under Pressure, a BBC News Online series looking at some of the biggest environmental problems humanity faces, Alex Kirby considers the current increase in extinction rates.

By Alex Kirby BBC News Online environment correspondent

A quarter of all mammals face some extinction risk

All the creatures we share the Earth with are important in some way, however unprepossessing or insignificant they may appear. They and we are all part of the web of life.

From the dawn of time, extinction has usually progressed at what scientists call a natural or background rate. Today the tempo is far faster.

Many scientists believe this is the sixth great wave - the sixth mass extinction to affect life on Earth.

We were not here for any of the previous mass extinctions, but this time our sheer preponderance is driving the slide to oblivion.

LIVING PLANET INDEX

The index tracks the size of specific populations of selected species It shows them as a percentage of the 1970 populations It shows falling population levels in all three ecosystem types studied

We have more than doubled our numbers in half a century, and that is the most obvious reason why there is less room for any other species.

We are taking their living room to grow our food, their food to feed ourselves. We are exploiting them, trading in them, squeezing them to the margins of existence - and beyond.

Often the choice is hard: conserve a species or feed a community, tourists' dollars or turtles' nests.

In 2003 the World Conservation Union's Red List said more than 12,000 species (out of 40,000 assessed) faced some extinction risk, including:

a.. one bird in eight b.. 13% of the world's flowering plants c.. a quarter of all mammals. That gives you a ballpark figure. Science has described 1.75 million species, some experts estimate that there may be 13 or 14 million in the world in total - but until they are catalogued, nobody knows. FIVE MASS EXTINCTIONS Cretaceous (About 65 million years ago) Triassic (About 208 million years ago) Permian (About 245 million years ago) Devonian (About 360 million years ago) Ordovician (About 438 million years ago)

Our pillage of the natural world has been likened to burning down the medieval libraries of Europe, before we had even bothered to catalogue their contents.

Many species keep us alive, purifying water, fixing nitrogen, recycling nutrients and waste, and pollinating crops.

Plants and bacteria carry out photosynthesis, which produces the oxygen we breathe. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas given off by human activities.

Pandas and microbes

Some years ago, when the global annual gross product was about $18 trillion, US researchers calculated the value of the goods and services provided by the Earth to the world economy: $33 trillion.

Tropical cone snails contain toxins which show promise for treating some forms of cancer and heart irregularities. One toxin may be a thousand times more potent than morphine for pain relief.

But millions of cone snails are now killed annually for their shells, and their habitats are under pressure.

That is the argument for utility. But the creatures we can see, and those we can use directly, are just the start of the story.

Lord May, president of the Royal Society (the UK's national academy of sciences), has said: "Most conservation effort goes into birds and mammals - creatures like the panda, a dim, dead-end animal that was probably on the way out anyway.

"Yet arguably it's the little things that run the world, things like soil microbes. They're the least-known species of all."

Complex network

And we continue to tug at the loose threads of the web of life, thinking we can split it into its separate parts.

71% of UK butterfly species are reported to be declining

Brazil nuts are a lucrative harvest in the Amazon. But an experiment to produce them in plantations failed, because the trees bear a good crop in the forest, but are barren in isolation.

We are not removing individual species from the Amazon: we are destroying the entire forest. US researchers estimate that by 2020 less than 5% of it will remain in pristine condition.

Within 15 years, about a fifth of central Africa's forests will have gone, by one estimate. And the forests of Indonesia are in headlong retreat.

Some species are bucking the trend towards extinction. In 1953 there were about 2.5bn people: today there are 6bn.

Ensuring other species keep their living space is not sentimental. It is the only way we shall survive.

Extinction, whatever Steven Spielberg says, really is for ever. The web is unravelling
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