Cascading climate risks & options for resilience and adaptation in the MENA

Cascading climate risks & options for resilience and adaptation in the MENA

In the summer of 2022, cascading climate risks and options for resilience and adaptation in the MENA are evident for all to witness. A write-up by Cascades.eu deserves to be looked at again, and every word in it is worth this trouble. It is a report on the southern face of the Mediterranean Sea and its northern facade.   

There has been a lot of information on the disruption to Earth’s freshwater cycle exceeding the safe limit in the MENA region, but this ultimately is well rounded as it was reported on all aspects of the environment in the same region today.

Here is a summary.

 

This report assesses the current situation and future projections of possible and likely biophysical climate impacts in the MENA region, based on a literature review, news articles and CASCADES climate impact data analysis.

Cascading climate risks and options for resilience and adaptation in the Middle East and North Africa

Climate change is a shared challenge for the MENA and European regions

The societies of Europe and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are historically, socially and economically intertwined. Climate change presents a shared and urgent challenge. Stretching from Morocco in the west to Syria in the north, Iran in the east and Yemen in the south, the MENA region covered by this report comprises 19 countries and is home to an estimated 472 million people, with a fast-growing young population. Conditions are diverse with some nations registering among the highest national income per capita in the world (e.g. Qatar, Kuwait, UAE) while others are low-income, conflict-affected societies, where human displacement and extreme poverty are rife (e.g. parts of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Libya).

The MENA region is exposed to physical climate impacts that threaten human life and political stability on several fronts. Water and agricultural production are particularly sensitive to the extremes of global warming, given the region’s already arid and semi-arid climates. Sea level rise threatens rapidly expanding urban and industrial coastlines over the next century and most cities are ill-prepared for the ravages of cyclones, sand storms and flooding. Humidity may become the most serious challenge to human life, especially for coastal cities.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region covered by this report

Cascading climate risks & options for resilience and adaptation in the MENA

Climate change is already interacting with more immediate threats from armed conflict, environmental degradation, corruption and social and gender inequalities. Such compound conditions have worsened the humanitarian fallout from flooding in war-torn Yemen and facilitated extremist militant recruitment in drought-affected northern Iraq. Across the region, the role of long-term environmental mismanagement in worsening the impacts of climate change is brutally clear.

How communities and governments respond to evolving climatic conditions will affect the severity of effects that cross borders and continents, ‘cascading’ into European societies. As witnessed with forest fires in Lebanon in 2019 and recent water shortages in Iraq, Iran and Algeria, government failure to deal with environmental stress can trigger violent, potentially revolutionary, protests. Figure 1 illustrates variation in the capacity to cope with and adapt to climate threats. While all countries are challenged by their levels of fresh water relative to population and none are ranked as politically ‘sustainable’, some have a larger economic cushion to enable adaptation than others. The countries towards the right of the figure, affected by war and economic crisis, are the most vulnerable.

At the same time, climate change policies and rapidly changing costs of technology will alter oil- and gas-dominated trade relationships with MENA countries. Europe’s demand for petroleum imports is set to decline and new regulations for green growth and alignment with the Paris Agreement goals will affect imports and foreign investment. As Figure 2 shows, most countries would not be able to sustain their current economies for long with oil prices below
$50/barrel. These present both challenges and opportunities for MENA countries and several are pursuing long-term visions for economic diversification, the success of which will depend on new investment and trade relations.

The MENA region already imports more than 50 per cent of its food and will require increasing foreign exchange to meet growing demand. Meanwhile, sensitivity to food price rises due to, for example, droughts in other parts of the world, is high.

Figure 1. MENA country variation in renewable freshwater availability, socio-political stability and spending capacity

Cascading climate risks & options for resilience and adaptation in the MENA

Figure 2. Oil and gas dependence in selected MENA exporter countries

Cascading climate risks & options for resilience and adaptation in the MENA

Climate resilience strategies, green economic diversification and investment in long-term adaptation are critical to achieving sustainable peace and prosperity in the region. The European Union (EU) and European countries can harness existing relationships, investments and capacities to contribute to this effort. These range from the EU’s evolving neighbourhood partnerships, humanitarian assistance and development bank lending to traditional bilateral diplomacy, trade agreements and engagement with UN bodies. The EU is already extending the principles of its Green Deal to partnerships in its Southern Neighbourhood with reinvigorated commitment to green transition and climate resilience through the Agenda for the Mediterranean. With a fast-changing combination of conditions intersecting with climate change, EU institutions and businesses will need to both learn lessons from the past and anticipate new realities on the ground.

The purpose of this report

This report assesses the current situation and future projections of possible and likely biophysical climate impacts in the MENA region, based on a literature review, news articles and CASCADES climate impact data analysis.

The authors adopt a water–food–energy nexus perspective, given that this resonates with environmental interests in the region. However, this concept remains open to new understandings that put a greater emphasis on ecosystems and well-being – for example, air quality, biodiversity and nutrition. Irrigation for crops and agricultural processing, water for energy, energy for potable water as well as oil and gas revenues to pay for food imports are some of the dependencies that climate change is challenging in the region. These are also some critical areas offering opportunities for resilience-building.

Scenarios illustrate ways in which climate impacts in the MENA could compound other stresses and cascade, with effects that cross borders and affect Europe and European interests. Figure 3 shows a generic example of cascading risks. We highlight five subregions: Iraq (with relevance for Iran and Syria), North Africa, the Jordan Valley, the Nile and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Sister CASCADES studies on the Euphrates–Tigris Basin and North Africa, which are referred to in this study, provide more insight. The purpose of the scenarios is to enhance understanding of how resilience and adaptive actions might help to mitigate risks and limit the scope of harm that climate impacts could set in motion.

Figure 3. An example of climate-related risks in the MENA that can cascade across borders

Cascading climate risks & options for resilience and adaptation in the MENA

Research benefited greatly from a series of interviews and workshops with regional
experts. There are significant geographical, climatic and political differences between the subregions and within several countries. As such, this can only be a broad-brush introduction to the changes taking place and their interactions with ongoing resource and societal issues. The views and opinions of experts in the region have shaped the report’s discussion of vulnerability and resilience factors, the scenarios for the future and the recommendations.

Key findings

Climate impacts are damaging human security in the MENA, yet resilience to climate change has been low on most public and political agendas. Climate change, particularly in the form of drought, flooding and storms, is already threatening lives and economies. The water and agricultural crises in Iraq are a case in point. Authorities and people in the region have generally not considered climate change and environmental health urgent issues, given more immediate threats of war, poverty, unemployment and human rights abuses. However, this is changing. In Oman, for example, cyclone devastation has spurred greater attention to disaster risk reduction (DRR) preparation for climate change. Civil society, particularly in parts of the Levant and North Africa, is increasingly vocal on environmental issues, often tackling them through a heritage conservation, local economy or social justice lens.

The two upcoming climate summits (COP27 and COP28) to be hosted by Egypt and the UAE, and the Saudi-led Middle East Green Initiative provide platforms for stronger cross-regional coordination and international partnerships.

Over the next 30 years, current water use, agricultural and building practices will become untenable; beyond 2050, liveability in the MENA region will be determined significantly by our global emissions trajectory. Irrespective of mitigation, cumulative emissions mean that the current warming trajectory will continue until at least around mid-century. While there are fewer long-term projections focusing on a 1.5°C scenario, this would suggest a far less damaging prospect for MENA countries than 2°C+, given existing aridity and coastal exposure. The extent of coastal land mass loss through sea level rise in this century will largely be determined by these trends.

Local and regional treatment of the environment is integral to climate risks. In all cases, local human developments and practices such as the density of population, overgrazing and monocropping, urban development on floodplains, damming of rivers, land reclamation and destruction of natural barriers such as mangroves and deforestation affect the vulnerability and severity of impact of climate-related events. At the same time, governance factors such as lack of transboundary water management systems, insufficient rule of law and military occupation affect a society’s ability to take resilience and adaptation measures.

Without effective measures, climate impacts will compound local vulnerabilities and have severe consequences for human lives, livelihoods, economies and security in the region. For example, in the absence of radical changes in water management and food production methods, competition among water users will grow and food security will diminish. While poorer and conflict-affected countries remain the most vulnerable, richer ones also face high risks.
Transition risks will be at least as important as physical climate risks for economies depending on oil and gas export revenues. The sensitivities of failing public services including water provision and electricity, combined with higher food prices and declining ability to pay for imports, could lead to political instability (as shown in Figure 3).

Cascading risk scenarios show how climate impacts in the MENA could affect EU interests, including the prospects for peace, development and business investments, expatriate workers, migration flows, human rights and the demand for international humanitarian aid. They also suggest how things might play out differently depending on national, regional and international factors, which will determine the ability to cope with and adapt to climate stresses. Three broad medium-term meta scenarios – stagnation, fragmentation and cooperation – suggest different outcomes (see Figure 4). The actions of major powers, including the EU, will strongly influence how these factors evolve. More concerted, thoughtful diplomacy is essential to reduce conflict and to address shared environmental issues.

Figure 4. Meta scenarios for 2025–2035 which would affect countries’ ability to respond and adapt to climate change

Cascading climate risks & options for resilience and adaptation in the MENA

Recommendations

In early 2022, the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear that the window of opportunity for climate resilient development is closing and will require transformative adaptation measures. This report identifies urgent priorities for the MENA region in the areas of improving water management, regeneration of landscapes and infrastructure resilience. National stakeholders and their international partners cannot address these effectively without acting within the wider political and economic context to strengthen sustainable peace and good governance.

Firstly, climate resilience and adaptation projects must include co-benefits that meet immediate country needs and align with national aspirations.

Secondly, given the transboundary nature of many of the risks we discuss above, planners should consider how measures might promote greater cooperation. This could be through knowledge sharing and technical exchanges, infrastructure that benefits more than one country, cross-border community land restoration and joint early warning systems and DRR cooperation.

Thirdly, deepening engagement with local cultural and religious understandings will be important in fostering stronger, long-term public awareness and more equal partnerships for environmental resilience.

Exploring future scenarios can improve understanding of how climate impacts might interact with societal dynamics, and suggest how investments might foster better conditions for long-term adaptation. For example, a particular challenge noted by regional experts was the lack of enablement at municipal, civil society and micro- to-medium-sized enterprise levels. The immense human capacity of the region, fully inclusive of women and youth, will be essential to address climate and environmental challenges nimbly, and with greater co-benefits for societal well-being.

The report makes six recommendations for EU approaches in the region. The EU should:

  1. Take advantage of its role as a major trading partner of the region to push for regional peace and cooperation through alignment with its European Green Deal. The EU’s Agenda for the Mediterranean (AfM) , launched in 2021, aims to do just this. As cooperation and investment packages develop, careful thought should be given to creating policy coherence across the five key policy areas, and with member states.¹
  2. Provide climate change modelling tools to support national and local scenario building and assist with monitoring and early warning systems for climate-related hazards. Emerging and existing programmes such as Copernicus² and I-CISK³ could be usefully extended or deployed through partnerships to improve local knowledge production.
  3. Explore ways in which remedial and post-conflict rehabilitation work can help address humanitarian needs while fostering long-term environmental resilience. This could include assessing and supporting local action to remediate conflict-affected environments and encourage green infrastructure.
  4. Build climate resilience in cities and subnational areas of the MENA region by developing technical skills to address climate-related issues and manage the water–energy–food nexus. This would build on the ‘human-centred’ approach of the AfM, targeting solutions-oriented capacity building at the municipal and community levels.
  5. Pay close attention to the effectiveness of mechanisms to scale up sustainable finance and disburse funds, taking into account the respective capabilities of centralized bureaucracies versus local agencies and other actors in the area concerned. Greater inclusion of civil society, women, youth and vulnerable groups in consultation and decision- making can help improve accountability.
  6. Use financial instruments for climate resilience and adaptation to empower local actors and build better national to subnational linkages. EU partnerships could, for example, help to scale up projects initiated by civil society organizations that have proven successful by linking them up with the relevant government authorities and making follow-up funding conditional on co-created plans for implementation.

Endnotes

  1. These are: 1) Human development, good governance and the rule of law; 2) Strengthen resilience, build prosperity and seize the digital transition; 3) Peace and security; 4) Migration and mobility; and 5) Green transition: climate resilience, energy, and environment.
  2. Copernicus is the European Union’s Earth Observation Programme.
  3. Innovating Climate services through Integrating Scientific and local Knowledge (I-CISK) is an EU-funded project running from 2021 to 2025.

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Rich nations caused climate harm to poorer ones

Rich nations caused climate harm to poorer ones

Rich nations caused climate harm to poorer ones, study says

 

The above-featured image is: The coal-fired Plant Scherer stands in the distance in Juliette, Ga., on June 3, 2017. A new study published in Climatic Change on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, calculates just how much climate-related loss richer countries have caused poorer countries through their carbon emissions. (AP Photo/Branden Camp, File)

 

For decades, environmental activists along with some government officials and scientists have argued that rich countries should pay the most to address climate change, and even pay poor countries reparations, because industrialized nations have historically emitted the most greenhouse gases.

For example, the data shows that the top carbon emitter over time, the United States, has caused more than $1.9 trillion in climate damage to other countries from 1990 to 2014, including $310 billion in damage to Brazil, $257 billion in damage to India, $124 billion to Indonesia, $104 billion to Venezuela and $74 billion to Nigeria. But at the same time, the United States’ own carbon pollution has benefited the U.S. by more than $183 billion.

“Do all countries look to the United States for restitution? Maybe,” said study co-author Justin Mankin, a Dartmouth College climate scientist. “The U.S. has caused a huge amount of economic harm by its emissions, and that’s something that we have the data to show.”

Developing nations have convinced rich nations to promise to financially help them reduce carbon emissions for the future, but haven’t been able to get restitution for damage already caused, a term called “loss and damage” in global climate talks. In those negotiations, the biggest carbon emitters, like the United States and China have had a “veil of deniability” that their actions caused specific damages, said study lead author Christopher Callahan, a climate impacts researcher at Dartmouth. This lifts that veil, he said.

“Scientific studies such as this groundbreaking piece show that high emitters no longer have a leg to stand on in avoiding their obligations to address loss and damage,” said Bahamian climate scientist Adelle Thomas of Climate Analytics, who wasn’t part of the study. She said recent studies “increasingly and overwhelmingly show that loss and damage is already crippling developing countries.

While carbon emissions have been tracked for decades on the national levels and damages have been calculated, Callahan and Mankin said this is the first study to connect all the dots from the countries producing the emissions to countries affected by it. The studies also tallies benefits, which are mainly seen in northern countries like Canada and Russia, and rich nations like the U.S. and Germany.

“It’s the countries that have emitted the least that are also the ones that tend to be harmed by increases in global warming. So that double inequity to me is kind of a central finding that I want to emphasize,” Callahan said.

To do the study, first Callahan looked at how much carbon each nation emitted and what it means for global temperatures, using large climate models and simulating a world with that country’s carbon emissions, a version of the scientifically accepted attribution technique used for extreme weather events. He then connected that to economic studies that looked at the relationship between temperature rise and damage in each country.

“We can actually fingerprint U.S. culpability on Angola’s economic outcomes,” Mankin said.

After the U.S. the countries that caused most damage since 1990—a date researchers chose because that’s when they say a scientific consensus formed and nations no longer had an excuse to say they didn’t know about global warming—are China ($1.8 trillion), Russia ($986 billion), India ($809 billion) and Brazil ($528 billion), study authors figured. Just the United States and China together caused about one-third of the world’s climate damage.

The five nations that were hit the most in overall dollars were Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Indonesia, but that’s because they had the biggest economies of nations in the most vulnerable hot zone. But the countries that took the biggest hit based on GDP are the UAE, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Mali, Callahan said. Brazil and India are also among the countries that produce the most emissions and damage and haven’t filed lawsuits to try to get repaid for climate damages.

The question of fairness over which countries make sacrifices and how to prepare for and repair climate impacts as the global community tries to slow warming has become more significant in recent international climate talks. Some nations, local communities and climate activists have called for the largest historical carbon emitters to pay ” climate reparations ” for the damage their economic gain has caused countries and communities that have already been negatively affected by systems of oppression, like colonialism and slavery. This study adds momentum to this idea, some in the climate in the community told The Associated Press.

“In this sense, the study reinforces arguments regarding loss and damage that are gaining traction” in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Nikki Reisch, director of the climate and energy program for the Center for International Environmental Law, told the AP.

There has been push back at the international level from high-emissions countries about paying for loss and damages who worry that poor countries are not going to use climate finance as intended.

Still, Mankin said he hopes the study empowers “the powerless and in the face of global climate change.” But others in the climate community who have read the study said that more than information is needed to ensure that those most affected by climate change are compensated for their losses. The information and data in the study are valuable, they said, but it will take pressuring those responsible for shaping climate policy to actually get the richer nations to pay for the damage they’ve caused poorer nations.

Basav Sen, climate justice project director for the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think-tank, saw the study and said “demonstrating the link of causation is very helpful.”

But, he added, “it is only one piece in the popular pressure campaign needed to translate this information into actual financial flows from wealthier, higher-emitting countries to compensate lower-income countries experiencing more adverse climate impacts.”


AP

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Countries struggle to agree on protecting nature

Countries struggle to agree on protecting nature

As the deadline looms, countries struggle to agree on protecting nature,  and  did not specifically tell if any of the countries of the MENA is amongst them.  Our opinion and to perhaps substantiate the authors’ points by proposing that these are undeniably no different than those quoted.  

 

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Building The Connected Energy And Water Future

Building The Connected Energy And Water Future

Deepak Garg, in a Forbes INNOVATION article elaborated on building the connected energy and water future.  Here it is :

 

Building The Connected Energy And Water Future

Building The Connected Energy And Water Future - Forbes Technology Council

We have read about many versions of our planet’s future: some good, some bad, some urgent and some distant.

In all versions, collective humanity is responsible for either the downfall or the reconstruction of the planet. Collective responsibility is fascinating. How do we mobilize billions of people toward a common goal? It is equally challenging and thrilling, as grand as it sounds and as aspiring as it can be.

Thinking about today and tomorrow, I imagine the possibilities: a world where energy and water are sustainable and abundant—a world where billions are connected and empowered. And I believe this is happening. We are gradually moving toward a connected energy and water future, with utilities, smart cities and governments playing a crucial role. They are reinventing human experiences, helping people make smart decisions about optimizing energy and water use every day.

There’s no new playbook or secret mantra to this success; the digital platforms and capabilities we’ve built have brought forth a sea of change. With them, utilities worldwide are uniting people around a common goal.

Connection Is Key

By connecting people with new technology for meaningful interactions and with front-line workers to ensure better two-way communication, utilities have started to build a digital ecosystem, enabling them to meet customer expectations and improve responsiveness.

From streamlining billing and payments to being available 24/7, providing personalized omnichannel interactions, advising on programs that help in saving energy and water and giving real-time updates, customers are getting the right assistance at every step from their utilities.

On the other hand, utilities are also enabling their field workforce with digital platforms, thus providing real-time updates, predictive insights, automation and collaboration for them, establishing a direct 1-to-1 connection with the people.

This connection is the key in mobilizing the right stakeholders to achieve sustainable goals.

So, what are we looking at? Right in front of us, we see:

• Digital utilities are changing the way we work. By blending digital investments with sustainability goals, utilities are delivering measurable outcomes.

• The mesh of IoT, AI, analytics, automation and cognitive techniques is improving predictions, personalization and service delivery. This is done by enabling decentralized work and changing how utilities engage with customers and drive workforce efficiencies.

• The next-gen customer experience is here! Utilities are shifting from a static, one-way consumer relationship to one that is dynamic, context-driven and personalized.

• Power lies first in data, then assets. Utilities are developing a long-term approach to field workforce management by reevaluating what role is played by their workforce and technologies—giving more and more to front-line workers, empowering them with data insights to manage operations remotely and engage with customers on a real-time basis.

• Investment is key. To meet their ambitious plans of moving ahead, utilities are prioritizing digital-first investments, reimagining the utility-consumer relationship and restructuring operations.

We have exciting years ahead, marked by decarbonization and decentralization agendas, changing consumer behaviors, evolving expectations and mobile field workforces. These digital-first and human-centric changes deserve applause as we march ahead to a connected future.

The Future Of The Connected Ecosystem

The connected future will be seen in our smarter homes and smarter cities as we become resource savvy citizens. We, as in billions of people, will see the rapid adoption of renewables, distributed energy resources (DERs), electric vehicles (EVs) and more, and we will see our demands for new energy and water services met. In the future, connected ecosystem utilities will achieve ambitious climate targets—not just net-zero but absolute zero. They will build an intelligent and mobile workforce on the ground using the power of predictive and preventive management to meet customer needs and manage assets.

This is the version of our planet’s future that I am most excited and passionate about.

How Do We Move Forward?

It is difficult to pin down exact steps for how utilities can meet these future needs simply because goal posts are shifting, and we never know when the next disruption will occur. However, lessons that we have learned from the past provide a good reference for how we need to adapt.

Broadly, to build a connected energy and water ecosystem, we would need the following:

1. Utilities must adopt a platform mindset that transcends simple service delivery. Utilities are and will become platform businesses that offer bundled services. For example, a digital marketplace enables customers to buy efficient products. Utilities understand their customer, and when they operate as a platform, they transform the way people consume energy and water.

2. Customers and the citizens need to sit at the center of utility operations. What they need today and will need tomorrow will guide connected experiences. They need savings today, and tomorrow, that will evolve into smart home and EV management. Only a truly customer-centric company will fruitfully engage with customers to adapt to this shift.

3. Building a robust technological foundation with pilot projects in emerging areas will help utilities become more agile and innovative. This also encourages further evolution, where business leaders become tech leaders. Tech leaders will evaluate how current processes can be automated and performed intelligently and how silos can be removed, and teams will then be able to collaborate and work toward a common goal.

4. Lastly, lessons from peers and other industries are always helpful. Keeping a close tab on what other companies are doing helps in widening our perspective and avoids tunnel vision.

I am elated by how much the energy and water industry has evolved in the past couple of years. I’m eager to see where these ambitions will lead them in the coming years.


Forbes Technology Council is an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs and technology executives. Do I qualify?


Building The Connected Energy And Water Future   Deepak Garg is the CEO and Founder of Smart Energy Water. Connecting People with Energy and Water Providers. Read Deepak Garg’s full executive profile here.
Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.

 

Chemical pollution exceeds the safe planetary limit

Chemical pollution exceeds the safe planetary limit

Chemical pollution exceeds safe planetary limit: researcher Q+A on consequences for life on Earth

Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, PhD Candidate in Sustainable Development, Stockholm University

The production and release of plastics, pesticides, industrial compounds, antibiotics and other pollutants is now happening so fast and on such a large scale that it has exceeded the planetary boundary for chemical pollution, the safe limit for humanity, a new study claims.

We asked Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, a PhD candidate at Stockholm University and one of the authors of the study, to explain what this means.

What are planetary boundaries?

In 2009, an international team of researchers identified nine planetary boundaries that maintain the remarkably stable state Earth has remained within for 10,000 years – since the dawn of civilisation.

These boundaries include greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, the ozone layer, an intact biosphere and freshwater. The researchers quantified the boundaries that influence Earth’s stability and concluded in 2015 that human activity has breached four of them. Greenhouse gas emissions are pushing the global climate into a new, hotter state, species extinctions threaten the biosphere’s integrity, the conversion of forests to farmland has degraded the quality of land and industrial and agricultural processes have radically altered natural cycles of phosphorus and nitrogen.

The researchers lacked the data to quantify the boundary for chemical pollution, otherwise known as novel entities (essentially, any substances made by humans plus natural elements like heavy metals which human activity mobilises or transports at high volumes), until now. Our research suggests we have crossed this boundary and beyond the known safe operating space for humanity.

Chemical pollution exceeds the safe planetary limit
A diagram depicting how much humanity has transgressed planetary boundaries.
In uncharted territory: humanity is transgressing boundaries which maintain a stable planetary state. Stockholm Resilience Centre, Author provided

How did you discover this?

This project involved 14 authors in five countries and was led by Linn Persson, an expert in chemical pollution at the Stockholm Environment Institute. We wanted to be able to understand the consequences of taking, using and releasing novel entities on a larger scale in the face of huge gaps in our knowledge. Essentially, we wanted to go beyond the individual’s ability to experience and comprehend these things.

We investigated a set of control variables that capture several of the complexities and characteristics of the planetary boundary for chemical pollution. One of these is the trend in the production of novel entities – the volume of chemicals and plastics produced, or the share of chemicals available on the market that have data on their safety or are assessed by regulators.

Another thing we assessed was the continued trend of global emissions of these chemical substances, including plastics, into the environment. We also considered the unwanted effects of these entities on ecosystem processes by drawing on evidence of the toxicity of chemical pollution or the role of plastics in disturbing the biosphere.

Chemical pollution exceeds the safe planetary limit
A large tropical fish swims among plastic waste.
Plastic waste is accumulating in the ocean. Rich Carey/Shutterstock

When did humanity breach this limit?

It is difficult to say specifically when humanity breached the planetary boundary for chemical pollution. Unlike other boundaries, this one deals with thousands of different entities.

We know there has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950. This is projected to triple again by 2050. Plastic production alone increased 79% between 2000 and 2015.

There are 350,000 synthetic chemicals in production globally, and only a very small fraction of these is assessed for toxicity. We know little about their cumulative effects or how they behave in a mixture. This is important, as we are all exposed to (often) small concentrations of thousands of substances over our entire lives. We are only beginning to understand the large-scale, long-term effects of this exposure.

We judged that the boundary had been transgressed because the rate at which these pollutants are appearing in the environment far exceeds the capacity of governments to assess the risk, let alone control potential problems.

What is very important to us is that this study highlights the global scale and severity of chemical pollution. Not only because of the effects of producing and releasing such huge volumes of these substances into the environment on a daily basis, but also because it puts into perspective the consequences of human activity on a geological scale. These changes, led by humans, will have persistent and cumulative effects long after we have gone and industries have stopped pumping them out.

Chemical pollution exceeds the safe planetary limit
An oil refinery illuminated at night.
Oil demand is likely to fall in future, so petrochemical companies are ploughing more money into plastic production. Avigator Fortuner/Shutterstock

What are some of the possible consequences of exceeding this planetary boundary?

We have observed the problems and risks associated with chemicals and plastics during their entire life cycle. Currently, this is largely linear: from extraction, to production, to use, to waste and, finally, to release into the environment.

Damage can occur at all of these stages. For example, fossil fuels are extracted by processes that can lay waste to entire habitats. These raw materials then give rise to plastics and pesticides which take lots of energy and generate lots of climate-warming gases during manufacture. They are used to wrap food or are applied to farm fields, and then they end up in the soil or in rivers and, eventually, the ocean.

Their environmental impacts might be easiest to visualise according to their effect on other planetary boundaries. Plastics are tightly connected to the climate – approximately 98% of all plastics are made from fossil fuels and will release CO₂ when burned as garbage. Chemicals and plastics both affect biodiversity by adding additional stress to already beleaguered ecosystems. Some chemicals interfere with animal hormone systems, disrupting growth, metabolism and reproduction in wildlife.

Are some parts of the world exceeding this limit more than others?

This problem is a planetary one. As I understand it, the production and release of chemical pollution is intrinsic to the global economic system. In this way, the problem is like any other major environmental issue, including climate change.

People are exposed to these chemicals everywhere, not only in the countries where they are produced. We all use these products and chemicals keep being released while we use them. We consume them and then dispose of them, though they don’t simply go away.

There is a constant flow of them, and so, the situation is becoming more and more alarming. Even as we learn more, we are also making visible the vast unknowns that remain.

Chemical pollution exceeds the safe planetary limit
Three workers in protective suits spray pesticides onto rows of strawberries.
Farmland globally is routinely soaked in a cocktail of chemicals. Adriano Kirihara/Shutterstock

Where should governments prioritise action in order to bring humanity back within the safe limit as soon as possible?

I would like to cite my colleagues here. Professor Carney Almroth of Gothenburg University in Sweden says that the world must “work towards implementing a fixed cap on chemical production and release”.

Associate Professor Sarah Cornell, my supervisor at Stockholm University, says:

“Shifting to a circular economy is really important. That means changing materials and products so they can be reused not wasted, designing chemicals and products for recycling, and much better screening of chemicals for their safety and sustainability along their whole impact pathway in the Earth system.”

We do not wish to paralyse readers with despair. Rather, we want to inspire action. We believe we are still on time to revert this situation, but for that we need urgent and ambitious action to take place at an international level.


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