Global Environmental Stresses

Environmental degradation refers to a wide variety of human-induced and naturally occurring stresses on the natural environment. Environmental degradation disrupts the balance of nature in all types of ecosystems—grasslands, forests, agrosystems (areas used for agriculture), freshwater systems, and coastal systems. Environmental degradation also affects the global commons such as the atmosphere and the oceans. While ecosystems are dynamic, abrupt changes caused by humans have tested the limits of ecosystems to adapt and survive. Rising populations, industrialization, urbanization, permanent agriculture and animal domestication, aquaculture and commercial fishing, and mass consumption have contributed to environmental degradation. In its landmark World Resources 20002001 the World Resources Institute proposed an “ecosystem approach” to support a sensible and sustainable use of the world's resources, as shown in the following passage.[1]

PRIMARY DOCUMENT: The World Resources Institute Proposes an Ecosystem Approach

An ecosystem approach broadly evaluates how people’s use of an ecosystem affects its functioning and productivity.

An ecosystem approach is an integrated approach. Currently, we tend to manage ecosystems for one dominant good or service such as fish, timber, or hydropower without fully realizing the tradeoffs we are making. In doing so, we may be sacrificing goods or services more valuable than those we receive—often those goods and services that are not yet valued in the marketplace such as biodiversity and flood control. An ecosystem approach considers the entire range of possible goods and services and attempts to optimize the mix of benefits for a given ecosystem. Its purpose is to make tradeoffs efficient, transparent, and sustainable.

World Resources 2000–2001, World Resources Institute

The degradation that affects the land, the atmosphere, and the seas is often the result of poor choices by people. Unwise uses of the land include overfarming, overgrazing, and deforestation—the process of stripping timber from regions to satisfy business or household needs. Land degradation also results from abusive acts such as strip mining and the creation of toxic waste dumps. Reckless uses of land accelerate other destructive natural processes such as desertification—the transformation of fertile land to desert. The degradation of the atmosphere stems mainly from toxic emissions from businesses, motor vehicles, and aircraft. For example, destructive chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) emissions depleted large areas of the earth's ozone layer, creating “ozone holes” that by the 1970s and 1980s were exposing people to the sun's dangerous ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In addition, fossil fuels emissions spewed carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Many scientists believe that heavy concentrations of these gases trap the Earth's heat, a process that causes climate change.[2] The degradation of the seas is caused by industrial effluent, human sewage, and toxic run-off of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals. Overharvesting of the seas by highly mechanized deep sea fishing techniques and by intensive small-scale coastal fishing also degrade these water environments.[3]

A number of major multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) have been negotiated by nations since the 1980s to combat environmental degradation. In fact, by 2012 more than 250 MEAs were in force in the global economy. MEAs deal with a variety of environmental concerns such as pollution control, biological diversity, climate change, ozone depletion, desertification, hazardous waste disposal, and environmental accidents.[4] The most successful MEA is the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987), which banned CFCs and other substances harmful to the Earth's ozone. Compliance with the original ban and with the five adjustments to the protocol has aided the ozone's recovery—a process the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) expects to be completed by 2065.[5] Less successful was the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which called for reductions in greenhouse gases, the main villain in climate change. A follow-up agreement, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, established specific targets for the reduction of gaseous emissions from the advanced economies. Developing countries, including emerging giants such as China and India, were largely exempted from these targets, however. In the early 2000s the United States withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol. By 2012 other advanced economies such as Japan, Canada, New Zealand, and Russia also opted out of the accord.[6]

  • [1] World Resources Institute (WRI), World Bank, UN Development Program, UN Environment Program, World Resources 2000–2001: People and Ecosystems, The Fraying Web of Life (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 2000), 226.
  • [2] WRI et al., World Resources 2010–2011: Decision Making in a Changing Climate (Washington, DC: WRI, 2011), 2.
  • [3] WRI, World Resources 2000–2001, 76, 78.
  • [4] WTO, “The Doha Mandate on Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs),”; European Commission (EU), “Multilateral Environmental Agreements,”
  • [5] National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), “2012 Antarctic Ozone Hole Second Smallest in 20 Years,” November 2, 2012; United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), “The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer,”
  • [6] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “Status of Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol,”; “UN Conference Adopts Extension of Kyoto accord,” USA Today, December 8, 2012
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >