Environmental degradation: Planet on the brink

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Environmental degradation: Planet on the brink

Gul Hameed

Largely occurring due to harmful human activities, deterioration of our environment is one of the most pressing concerns of our times. Mounting pollution, overconsumption of earth’s resources and mass indifference to the impending doom have pushed us to the verge of a dangerous precipice. If this continued, it is only a matter of time that our planet will no longer be able to sustain many of life forms including humans. Urgent transformative actions are more than ever necessary to restore our relationship with the planet to balance and sustainability. Environment friendly policies and individual efforts can still pull us back from the brink.

Following the Industrial Revolution, the invention of technologies from mechanized looms and steam-powered engines to the modern-day mind-bending advancements in all facets of human existence, have led to improved living standards and economic conditions. However, this progress has had a downside to it in the form of damage to the earth’s environment. Industrial waste, carbon emitting vehicles, chemical fertilizers and pesticides have caused air, water and soil pollution. Overpopulation and subsequent rapid urbanization have led to massive cutting of trees. Studies have shown that half of the world’s forests have been depleted, and with that, half of world’s forest wildlife has also been lost. Harmful emissions combined with deforestation has led to depletion of Ozone layer which has led to disturbed temperature balance on earth along with other problems. Advancement in technology, enabling us to extract more natural resources, has led to unchecked consumerism resulting in overexploitation of land and oceanic resources. Improved defense against disease has increased lifespan, and this coupled with high birthrate has led to ever-expanding human population now living beyond earth’s accommodating capacity.

There are grim statistics on environmental degradation occurring due to harmful human activities. According to UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 420 million hectares of forest have been lost during last one hundred years. Presently, forest cover is being lost at the rate of 375 square km per day. A research from World Health Organization (WHO) shows that 92% of the world population lives in the places where air pollution exceeds safe limits. In the year 2012 alone, there were approximately 7 million deaths worldwide from diseases related to air pollution. Land degradation driven by mining, ranching, urbanization and farming has reached unprecedented levels resulting in 1692 acres of productive land becoming desert every hour.

Oceans sustain life on earth by providing sustenance and employment. However, plastic pollution, industrial waste and overexploitation of living and non-living resources have affected the health of oceans negatively. There are 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of our oceans and about 8 million pieces of plastic end up into the oceans every day. These colossal amounts of plastic pollution cause immense damage to ocean health and marine biodiversity. Moreover, release of industrial waste into oceans, unsustainable fishing and tourism practices, oil spillage and pollution from maritime transport have rendered seas more acidic which has had a negative impact on marine biodiversity. Many may find it surprising to know that about 90% of predatory and 80% of commercial fish in our oceans has died and if this continues unchecked, we will have barren oceans void of fish. Nearly half of coral reefs and many of the fish species in our oceans have already gone. Some of the fish species which have recently gone extinct include black fin cisco, galapagos damsel, silver trout, and yellow fin trout.

All this has come down very heavily on our environment, disturbing the balance between human consumption and earth’s ability to heal itself and replenish its resources. The problem is that the pervasive human progress and the earth’s environment mutually contradict. Presently, we are borrowing from our future to cater for our present needs. Estimates show that without adopting sustainable practices, in the coming decades, human consumption will be twice the accommodating capacity of the planet and there will be the same amount of plastic in the oceans as fish. Scientists have warned that by 2050, air pollution will be the top cause of death and water scarcity can affect 5 billion people worldwide.

This definitely calls for immediate remedial actions. Certainly it is not an overnight fix; however, environment friendly policies and individual choices can make a difference. Shifting of industries to far flung areas, using natural fertilizers, promoting public transport, disposing off industrial wastes effectively, controlling the use of plastic, adopting sustainable practices to manage natural resources along with regulatory framework and legislation can help thwart the imminent catastrophe. Educating the masses to play their role for reducing carbon print on earth ensuring responsible individual action is also vital.

There are many international protocols and conventions in place for the conservation of environment; however, throughout previous decades, the environmental degradation and mass oblivion have run ahead of our will to reverse the damage. UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) noted that the state of political will in the world and cuts in global carbon emissions are far from enough to confront the challenge. Similarly, COP28 also noted that progress on reducing harmful emissions and strengthening resilience against climate change had been slow. COP26 produced new framework to improve implementation of the Paris Agreement through collective action which can guarantee low-carbon, sustainable future course. Under COP28, decisions were made to engage governments to accelerate progress on transition to renewable sources of energy to augment climate commitments. It is to be remembered that no piece of legislation or proposition is self-executing; these must be supported by the will to implement.  Currently, human consumption is already in overshoot as compared to the earth’s carrying capacity. We, however, have a choice; a choice between sustainability and mindless consumerism. Responsible actions at government and individual levels can enable us to stop borrowing from our future and hand over the planet to the next generation with grace and dignity.