This post was coauthored by Anne-Emanuelle Birn, MA, ScD, Ben Brisbois, MES, PhD and Timothy H. Holtz, MD, MPH.
The celebratory mood accompanying the recent Paris Accord, in which the entire UN membership agreed to hold global temperature increases to no more than 2°C, is quickly dissipating. As the Accord itself acknowledges, there is a “significant gap” between countries’ climate change mitigation pledges and the 2°C goal (not to mention the more aspirational 1.5° C limit). This means that promised reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, even if realized, will be insufficient to stave off major consequences of climate change.
Yet bolder pledges alone will not prevent impending failure because the Paris Accord reproduces the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol. Although reporting is binding, countries face no penalties for missing their targets. Most of all, market-based schemes for emissions reductions enable wealthy countries and corporations to continue “business as usual” by paying low emitters for their pollution rights, ultimately stalling real and equitable progress. As we write, environmental groups across the world are gearing up to challenge these shortcomings.
But before this struggle — and the planet — gets even more heated, it is worth examining the larger context of environmental stewardship. The central issue, which goes beyond climate change, is degradation — that is, the depletion and contamination of the earth’s resources.
Climate change both exacerbates environmental degradation, and results from a growth-at-all-costs economic system that makes certain groups — especially indigenous peoples and marginalized and low-income populations — particularly vulnerable to both climate change and resource scarcity and contamination. Recognizing this fact can help climate-related activism and policymaking do a better job of protecting the planet and all who depend on it.
Focusing on single temperature-change targets (and the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions levels required to achieve them) is a handy, unifying strategy for social movements and governments, but it sidesteps other important environmental problems and their underlying, economic, social, and political determinants.
The most pressing environmental degradation problems, leading to a colossal 10 million deaths and untold illness each year, include:
• Depletion, contamination, and unfair distribution of water
Two-and-a-half-billion people lack access to safe water and adequate sanitation, resulting in up to 3 million annual deaths. Meanwhile, the agricultural sector, dominated by large agribusiness, is responsible for 70% of world water consumption.
• Threats to air quality
The important focus on industrial and vehicular emissions overlooks the problem of indoor air pollution. According to the World Health Organization, three billion people use open stoves burning biomass (wood, dung, and crop waste) to cook and heat their homes. Smoke and soot inhalation causes a staggering 4.3 million annual deaths from cardiovascular and lung diseases, including half of all childhood pneumonia mortality.
• Ongoing deforestation and contamination of ecosystems
Forests are essential to livelihoods, ecosystems, and mitigating climate change and other environmental damage (such as soil erosion), but they are severely threatened by corporate interests such as agribusiness (e.g. massive palm oil plantations in Indonesia and West Africa), mining, and oil and gas development. Worldwide, net forest coverage declines by about 5.2 million hectares per year, concentrated in loss of tropical forests.
• Chemical contamination
Since World War II, over 85,000 new chemicals have been manufactured and released into the environment. When the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976, the powerful chemical industry ensured that 62,000 existing chemicals were “grandfathered” into the program without health or environmental impact assessments. To this day, only a fraction of chemicals have been assessed. In the farming sector, about 2 million tons of pesticides are used annually, causing 7 million non-fatal poisonings and 70,000 fatalities each year among farmworkers across the globe.
• Toxic waste disposal
Hundreds of millions of people, especially in low-income countries, are exposed to toxic waste, leading to outcomes such as cancer and acute poisonings. High-income countries are perpetrators of this injustice (and consumers, accomplices) by illegally exporting millions of tons of chemical hazards. For example, each year, 50 million metric tons of e-waste (e.g. cell phones, computers) end up in landfills in Ghana, Nigeria, China, and other low-income settings, where surrounding environments and local populations are contaminated with toxins.
Underpinning all of these problems is an unfair economic system that privileges profits over people’s lives, exploiting the environment and humans alike.
Those concerned about the long-term sustainability and health of humans and the planet need to look beyond reducing greenhouse gas concentrations and adapting to climate change impacts, and recognize the role of the extraction, production, and consumption processes that drive all aspects of environmental degradation and cause tremendous social injustice.
Anne-Emanuelle Birn is Professor of Critical Development Studies and Global Health at the University of Toronto. She is the lead author of Oxford University Press’s Textbook of Global Health (forthcoming 2016). In 2014, she was recognized among the top 100 Women Leaders in Global Health.
Ben Brisbois is a postdoctoral fellow in the Healthier Cities and Communities Hub of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He does research on community-based climate change adaptation, and the effects on health of large-scale agriculture and mining.
Timothy H. Holtz, MD, MPH, FACP, FACPM is an adjunct associate professor of global health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, and has taught courses in TB and health and human rights. Dr. Holtz trained in primary care medicine at Harvard University/Cambridge Hospital, and is board certified in internal medicine as well as preventive medicine.
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