When you think of the term pollution you probably think of smog and air pollution. However, that’s not the only source of contamination that can occur. The broader term for environmental pollution encompasses pollution to the air, land, and sea.
Unfortunately, environmental pollution is transboundary. Negative externalities are created as by-products of manufacturing, industrial behaviours and shipping, and transportation. It’s a challenge to hold waste producers responsible since it’s difficult to pinpoint their direct contribution.
While Europe has recently been able to curb its air pollution, there has not been a similar improvement to its air quality. That’s because, due to the transboundary nature of pollution, residents in one region are likely to be affected by emissions in other regions around the world.
That makes environmental pollution a global megatrend worth paying attention to. To better understand emissions as a whole, let’s consider the following three human activities that contribute to environmental pollution:
1. Fossil-fuel combustion
The manufacturing and global transportation industries are major contributors to pollution emissions. Global emissions from fossil fields increased by 50 percent from 1990 to 2010.
2. Synthetic fertilisers and pesticides for agriculture
Modern developments in agriculture make production easier and faster, but at a cost. Fertiliser applications are intense in regions like China and are growing at staggering rates in India.
3. Using commercial chemicals.
The availability and widespread usage of commercial chemicals are at an all-time high. The number of new products entering the global market is increasing rapidly and more than 100,000 commercial chemicals are available to use in Europe alone.
As you can imagine, these three activities impact far more than just air quality. Next, we’ll take a closer look at how pollution impacts the Earth’s supply of air, land, and water.
Some of the most common causes of air pollution include the emission of nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere and the concentration of ammonia levels. These effects are consequences of industrial production, transportation, and agricultural byproducts.
Air pollution is complex because there is a divergent trend in nitrogen oxide emissions when you compare regions around the world. In Europe, the emissions of nitrogen oxides are expected to decrease until 2050. However, in Asia, decreases may be decades away.
From the agricultural side of things, ammonia emissions aren’t expected to go away any time soon, either. They’re expected to increase in virtually all regions of the world.
To make matters more complex, global air pollution is a shared problem. Air flows transport contaminants across continents, therefore air quality standards in one region may be completely negated by the impacts from other regions.
What to do about air pollution?
- Innovations such as those that clean industrial exhaust pipes can help reduce gaseous waste emissions from power plants and factories.
- New sensor technologies can help track and calculate air emissions. By better understanding the source of contamination, we can work to develop new strategies to reduce them.
- With the shipping and transportation industry a lead cause of global air pollution, choosing to shop locally can help reduce the burden of logistics at the consumer level.
Synthetic fertilisers are expected to increase dramatically in the 21st century as the world searches for faster and cheaper ways to satisfy the food requirements of a global population.
Other factors that affect soil and land are directly related to air pollution. Some air pollutants make it difficult for plants to photosynthesize, which further reduces their effectiveness at cleaning the air and soil.
Consumption behaviour also tends to produce lots of waste. Globally, landfills are expanding and waste as a by-product of consumerism has become the new norm.
What to do about land pollution?
Habits and consumption behaviours can be major drivers for bettering the sustainability of soils and land. Here are some things that consumers and producers can work on collectively to reduce land pollution:
- Better waste disposal techniques can help save on waste and toxic by-products.
- Recycling is a core tenant of environmental protection and can help reduce the growth of landfills.
- Reducing the use of non-biodegradable materials is a better use of resources.
Fertiliser run-off from agricultural operations can flow into streams and rivers. This happens most frequently when fertilisers are over-utilised or used at wrong times of the year and washed downstream by rains.
In addition, freshwater systems are at risk of becoming more acidic due to airborne sulphur and nitrogen compounds that reduce plant diversity. Plants and animal species that are unable to cope with freshwater acidification will be displaced or killed by these effects.
Sea life also faces endangerment from poor ocean water quality. Aquatic ecosystems are damaged by high levels of phosphates and nitrates. They’ve been linked to huge losses in aquatic life and may produce dead zones in oceans. Ocean areas that were once bustling with life, such as coral reefs, are at risk to be converted to ghost towns where aquatic life is non-existent, including plant and fish species.
Other global trends such as urbanisation only make the problem of water pollution worse. Sewage from wastewater is expected to increase due to rapid urbanisation. The costs of better wastewater treatment systems may distract from the global importance of implementing them in cities around the world.
What to do about water pollution?
- Better wastewater treatment technologies can help reduce costs and increase availability around the world.
- Increased awareness of agricultural practices or internalising the harmful effects of run-off may reduce harmful agricultural by-products that find their way into rivers and streams.
Working together to put an end to environmental pollution
The widespread effects of environmental pollution are felt by countless countries around the world. Cooperation from governments and agencies is required in order to work on new solutions to modern problems.
The issue is that highly complex political and economic systems sometimes make it difficult for regions of the world to establish commonality and work on the problem together. Therefore, progress can be slow or non-existent.
That’s why it’s important to understand global governance, which is what we’ll look at next in the final post of our global megatrends series.