Environmental Protection Overview

From climate change and the loss of biodiversity to land degradation and the scarcity of freshwater, environmental change is escalating social and economic impacts and scarcities.  The world’s richest half billion people – about 7% of the global population – are responsible for roughly 50% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.  Meanwhile, the poorest 50% are responsible for just 7%.   Accurately assessing such impacts and scarcities is essential to environmental protection.

Climate Change

Climate is often defined as the average weather for a specific region. Therefore, climate change is a measured shift – such as in the average annual rainfall – experienced by that area. Although measures such as depleting arctic sea ice, intensifying droughts, carbon dioxide levels and the global temperature betray a global warming trend, it’s important to note that the earth’s climate is always changing.  Causes of climate change can be natural, such as changes in the Earth’s orbit and in the amount of energy coming from the sun.  Still, most scientists believe that that most of the warming since the mid-1900s is due to human activity.

Deforestation

Deforestation is the permanent destruction of indigenous forests and woodlands.  About half of the world’s original forests have disappeared, and forest regions equaling the size of Panama are lost every year. While the logging industry is a matter of concern for forest protection, a greater threat is illegal logging, which circumvents environmental regulation entirely, and yet constitutes 8% of the global lumber supply. The single largest cause of deforestation is conversion to cropland and agriculture  especially through slash-and-burn farming practices. Altogether, deforestation threatens biodiversity, contributes to climate change, and heightens social conflicts.

Energy Resources

Fossil fuels – coal, petroleum and natural gas – have provided humans with energy for centuries; however, their heightened use in recent decades has produced acid rain, ozone pollutionclimate change and other environmental problems. Further, fossil fuels are finite, meaning that alternative energy sources will eventually be needed. Renewable energy is generated from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat. In contrast to fossil fuels, renewable energy does not deplete resources. While alternative energy is currently more expensive than fossil fuel, developing more efficient forms of renewable energy is a major area of research and innovation. This is occurring among governments, companies and individuals, as all are affected by the prospect of a limited energy supply.

Environmental Compliance

Developing a “green economy” -- a societal system that views natural resources as capital, with monetary value comparable to man-made resources -- would provide a number of advantages given the interconnected relationship between people and the environment. Developing a green economy would mean giving greater priority to the preservation and efficient use of natural resources, most likely through legal reform. Laws are an effective way to change behavior nationally, or even internationally, but the making of effective and enforceable laws is challenging. Some groups of people often oppose the passing of environmental laws for fear of economic cost, while others choose not to obey the law in situations where their actions are not likely to be discovered. Thus, the path toward environmental compliance is a challenging one.

Ethical Consumerism

Consumer choices determine the way that companies produce goods for sale. For example, the strong consumer preference for low prices can drive companies to cut production costs whenever possible. However, this behavior may compromise worker’s rights, environmental preservation, and other social responsibilities. Ethical consumerism describes the choice to use products that honor social and environmental priorities. Similarly, corporate social responsibility (CSR) describes the trend of incorporating social and environmental ethics into the overall strategy of a business. With a commitment to the triple bottom line of People, Planet and Profit, a corporation has a moral obligation to protect the very resources it uses.  There are several challenges to the management and control of conduct in global supply chains; however, effective CSR can promote sustainable practices in issues ranging from human rights (such as fair wages) to environmental stewardship (such as reducing the CO2 footprint).

Marine Debris

Marine debris (most often plastic waste) plagues the world’s oceans and waterways.  It's estimated that 3.5 million pieces of new plastic enter the world's oceans daily. Ingested by birds or marine life, or swept into gyres far asea, water borne plastic poses a serious threat to wildlife as most plastics do not biodegrade. Animals consuming this debris not only suffer infection and death, but may also further contaminate the food chain.  Cleaning up marine debris is not as easy as it sounds; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch collects marine debris from North America and Asia, but is so far away from any country’s coastline that no nation will take responsibility or commit funding to clean it up.

Pollution

Pollution is the contamination of air, water and soil by chemical substances or energy particles such as noise, heat and light. The burning of fuel is a common source of particulate pollution, which creates atmospheric smog that is hazardous and even fatal to humans. Chemical pollution can also result from nuclear events and the inadequate management of commercial waste such as batteries, electronics and paints. The World Health Organization attributes a quarter of all human disease to prolonged exposure to environmental pollution, and estimates that air pollution alone causes 800,000 deaths annually.

Resource Depletion

Humans rely on natural resources – raw materials such as water, minerals, and habitats -- to sustain every aspect of life. Overuse or waste of these resources, combined with rapid population growth, have quickened their degradation, an effect with serious consequences for humans. Many argue that our demands on nature have already exceeded sustainable levels. The most common forms of widespread resource degradation are industrial uses of natural resources, such as farming, fishing, mining and oil drilling. Market-based operations may seek to extend the use of natural resources, but left unregulated, they are unlikely to pursue rigorous conservation.

Waste Management

The treatment and disposal of trash and hazardous wastes is an important environmental issue. If uncontrolled, waste can release dangerous substances into the environment. Waste may be disposed in several ways, including placing trash in landfills or incinerating it. These methods can produce energy, but they can also release toxins and damage the viability of the area. Recycling is a smart method of using waste; its benefits include saved energy; reduced emissions, pollution, and landfill use; and conservation of resources, all while creating sustainable products for human use. Reusing materials reduces waste as well. Meanwhile, discarded electronic devices and supplies and nuclear waste are especially problematic in waste management because they are toxic. The management of e-waste is a growing problem as electronic devices continue to increase in popularity and affordability, including in developing nations where e-waste management is less regulated.