Global Policy Forum

Environmental Degradation

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Environmental degradation takes diverse forms, ranging from pollution and destruction of ecosystems to degraded fresh water supplies and arable land.

The international agenda often focuses on broad-based concerns of environmental degradation such as desertification, climate change and air pollution. However, for the world's most vulnerable and marginalized groups, issues of environmental degradation tend to be more localized and immediate in their nature. Degradation of a resource base can result in decreased production - for example reduced soil fertility may produce lower yields and deteriorated water quality can impact fishing. Such problems are of great concern to the poor, with direct impacts on livelihoods, food security and health.

Additionally, although environmental factors are by no means the sole cause of violent conflicts, environmental degradation, exploitation of natural resources and related environmental stresses are increasingly understood as drivers of conflict: A reciprocal relationship wherein conflict, in turn, can further degrade the environment.

Projections in climate change as well as in population growth and distribution present additional future challenges to environmental sustainability.


Articles and Documents

    2013 |20122011 | 2010


Nigeria's Vital Lake Chad Left Out to Dry (January 11, 2013)

The shrinking Lake Chad, on which approximately 30 million people in surrounding areas of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger depend, is proof of the growing problem of water scarcity worldwide. It has depleted to 1/5th of its original area and is expected to disappear by the end of the century if nothing is done to protect it, according to the FAO. Farming and fishing are the main livelihoods in the basin; however, fishing activity is already threatened. Tensions over scarce resources have also led to conflicts between users. To help replenish the lake, a $14 billion project to divert water from the Congo River is currently awaiting funding. The future of Lake Chad cannot be ensured solely through large water diversion projects, requiring instead greater focus on sustainable management of current and future water demands within the basin. (Al Jazeera)


Niger Delta Villagers vs. Shell: Seeking Justice Abroad (November 16, 2012)

Villagers of Niger Delta are seeking justice in the Netherlands after a futile effort to find justice for Shell’s actions in Nigeria. The Anglo-Dutch multinational oil and gas company headquartered in The Hague is accused of oil spills that have “devastated communities, destroyed livelihoods, and endangered the health of local populations and the ecosystem.”The verdict expected in 2013 will determine if pursuing action against Shell abroad was a viable legal strategy. A successful case could have a wide impact by enforcing accountability on multinational companies. (Think Africa Press)

US to Become Biggest Oil Producer by 2020 (November 13, 2012)

In its World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency has revealed that the US will overtake Saudi Arabia and become the world’s largest oil and gas producer by 2020. An energy-independent US will translate to a different approach to US foreign policy, especially with regards to the Middle East says the report, though the Middle East will continue to have the largest and most low-cost fields. The report predicts an increasing reliance on new kinds of gas production such as the notorious "fracking" of shale gas. The impact of greenhouse emissions caused while extracting Shale gas is expected to be low, however its actual global warming potential is "yet to be determined" but heavy emissions from gas and oil shale production are well-known. (Al Jazeera)

The New 'Golden Age of Oil' that Wasn't (October 11, 2012)

Following the Arab Spring and the US presidential campaign, the topic of US energy independence has sparked back to life. The article summarizes the most high profile environmental disasters brought about by oil giants, who were given the green light to find alternative oil sources, no matter the cost. On this risky path to achieve ambitious energy targets, extreme alternatives such as arctic drilling, hydro-fracking and tar sands production are all on the table. As Professor Michael Klare puts it, one thing remains certain: “extreme energy= extreme methods= extreme disasters= extreme opposition.” (Al Jazeera)

Nigerian Villagers Sue Shell in Landmark Pollution Case (October 11, 2012)

Nigerian villagers are suing Shell Petroleum Development Co, the largest oil and gas company in Nigeria, for polluting land and water in the Niger Delta region. The applicants demand compensation in the case currently heard in The Hague. Shell denies responsibility and claims that the leaks that caused the pollution were the result of sabotage and theft. The verdict of this case could be an important precedent for corporate liability. (Reuters)

Shell Frack Eqypt, Threatening Scarce Water Resources; Egyptians Demand Moratorium (September 19, 2012)

This Platform London article criticizes Shell’s use of hydraulic fracturing technology to drill three wells in Egypt’s western desert. Fracking operations face global opposition for having disastrous consequences such as contaminating ground and drinking water. Details of the operation such as the chemical ingredients used, where it plans to source the large quantity of water required for the operation and how the toxic waste will be disposed of, are all kept under wraps in order to minimize criticism. Shell is pressuring local politicians and covering up its tracks with misleading advertisements while abusing the government’s lack of specific legal mechanisms to regulate fracking. (Platform London)

Shell Starts Preparatory Drilling for Offshore Oil Well Off Alaska (September 10, 2012)

As the US justice department holds BP responsible for the biggest oil spill in US history in the Gulf of Mexico, it comes as a shock that the Obama administration gave Shell the green light to initiate drilling the Arctic for oil and gas. The administration has welcomed Shell’s efforts to explore the region’s potential, even though Shell has not put in place the promised oil-spill containment equipment. The benefits of finding oil in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea are huge for the US- with an estimated 27 billion barrels of potential oil that would lower dependence on foreign imported oil. But there is unprecedented risk for the Arctic in terms of wildlife, environment and the inability to clean up a potential spill given the harsh environmental conditions. The multinational oil company already has a disastrous record of oil spilling in Nigeria. Given that Shell has already received the green light for preparatory Arctic drillings, one can only hope that international scrutiny will add pressure on the company to invest in solid methods to avoid a spill in the Arctic. (CNN)

US Points to 'Gross Negligence' by BP (September 5, 2012)

The US justice department held the oil giant British Petroleum (BP) responsible for what is generally acknowledged to be the biggest environmental disaster in US history. The 2010 oil spill took place when an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig caused the rig to sink and “gushed at least 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 straight days.” The spill took a heavy toll on the environment, and the fishing industry is now facing abnormalities in seafood catches. But now BP is attempting to cover up its actions through a nationwide PR campaign. The British Multinational oil and gas company has failed to pass critical safety standards that led to the oil spill which the justice department says amounts to “gross negligence.” (Al Jazeera)


Oil Spill is New Zealand's Worst Environmental Maritime Disaster (October 11, 2011

The oil leaking from the container ship Rena into the sea off the Tauranga coast in New Zealand increased by as much as ten-fold. Although concerns had been raised about the seaworthiness of the Rena, at the time of the accident it was carrying 1,368 shipping containers, of which at least 22 contain hazardous goods. Fears have escalated that the 47,000-tonne vessel could break up, triggering an environmental and ecological catastrophe of unprecedented scale. (Guardian)

Restoring Forests: An Opportunity for Africa (May 26, 2011)

Investors at the World Agroforestry Center believe that wide-scale restoration efforts and natural regeneration techniques can help to recover some of the world’s forest cover, including 450 million hectares of deforested land. This belief challenges traditional government approaches to land degradation, which focus on decreasing land use and limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Land restoration is a viable alternative, but it will have to mobilize sufficient investment and support by governmental leaders to be truly effective. (Mongabay)

Indonesia's Ambitious Forest Moratorium Moves Forward (June 9, 2011)

As part of the “REDD+” Indonesia-Norway partnership to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation, the Indonesian government has placed a two-year moratorium on new permits for primary natural forests and peatland. The two-year suspension is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The bill correctly identifies governance as an area for improvement, noting that local and national agencies must work together to decrease forest loss. However, the bill needs more transparency about its land exemptions, such as their size and location, to be implemented most effectively. (World Resources Institute)

UN Report Says World's Food Stocks at Risk as Bee Colonies Dying Out (March 10, 2011)

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, bees pollinate around 71 of the 100 crop species which provide 90 per cent of food worldwide.  But bees are dying out rapidly. A new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says that toxic chemicals in pesticides cause a loss in the sense of direction and memory for bees, which they rely on to find food. UNEP advises farmers to take more care when applying insecticides and other chemicals, and restore bee-friendly habitats. (The Australian)

Coral Reefs Heading for Fishing and Climate Crists (February 23, 2011)

Exploitative fishing, pollution and climate change endanger coral reefs, which provide a living for more than 275 million people. A report by the World Resources Institute calls for greater protection of coral reefs to avoid their complete destruction in 50 years.  Researchers say that societies most affected include those where much of the population depends on reefs for their livelihood, and those with low adaption capabilities. The South East Asian region needs the most protection, with 95% of reefs on the threatened list. (BBC News)

Chevron Fined $9.5 Billion in Ecuador (February 15, 2011)

For over 17 years, Ecuadorian farmers and indigenous peoples have been pursuing Chevron in a landmark environmental case.  The plaintiffs allege that Chevron deliberately discharged billions of gallons of toxic wastewater into the Amazon River, causing devastating environmental damage and seriously affecting the health of locals.  An Ecuadorian court has ordered Chevron to pay $9.5 billion - one of the largest awards in an environmental damage case.  Whether the judgment will stand remains to be seen; Chevron has previously avoided liability in the US and an international arbitration tribunal. (Associated Press)

China and Brazil Inundate Latin America with Dams (February 2, 2011)

China and Brazil are peppering Latin America with money to finance massive hydroelectric dam projects. Ecuador and Peru have latent energy due to abundant river resources. Dam construction could unleash this potential by generating power, which could then be sold to Brazil which has experienced recent energy shortages due to rapid economic growth. China's interest in the region is intended to boost exports of its turbines and power generating equipment. Environmentalists are concerned that flooding vast swaths of the Amazon will destroy an already fragile ecosystem.(IPS)

Slow Death by Carbon Credits (January 10, 2011)

The United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) Programme is an initiative designed to use market incentives to prevent forest loss.  While rich countries celebrate REDD as an innovative approach to conserve valuable forest areas, many leaders of poor countries have questioned who benefits from this scheme. Critics contend that carbon markets and offsets do not effectively deal with the problem because they do not compel rich countries' to change their behavior. Instead, as forests become privatized, indigenous peoples are displaced by rich country actors purchasing carbon credits in the marketplace. (The Boston Globe)

Land Degradation Causes $10 Billion Loss to South Asia Annually

South Asian countries lose billions of dollars due to soil erosion and other forms of land degradation. When land is degraded there can be serious effects such as erosion, loss of soil fertility, reduced crop yields, flooding and water shortages. Present and future generations suffer losses of agricultural productivity, the cost of replacing soil nutrients and the cost of land reclamation and restoration. Additionally, underlying causes of degradation include inappropriate land tenure agreements, economic pressures on farmers and population growth.(Third World Network)

Rare Earths Leave Toxic Trail to Toyota Prius, Vestas Turbines (January 6, 2010)

Rare earth materials, vital for creating components that go into "green" products from wind turbines to hybrid cars, are leaving a toxic waste trail across China's countryside. Moreover, refinement and other industrial processes necessary for their production are spewing large amounts of fluorine and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. As China places export restrictions on these minerals, questions loom about where fresh supply will be sourced from. (Bloomberg)


Fresh Warnings Against EU Bio-Fuels Policy (November 10, 2010)

The EU is planning to increase the share of bio-fuels in gasoline, up to 20 percent by 2020. A report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) says the new policy will damage both development and environment. Food security and agricultural jobs, particularly in Africa, will be harmed as corn and other sustenance crops will be crowded out by oil palm plantations. The investment would also increase greenhouse gas emissions because the bio-fuel production will eliminate forests and natural ecosystems. If the plans go through, the EU is giving "companies a blank cheque to continue grabbing land from the world's poor to grow bio-fuels to fill our tanks rather than food to fill their stomachs." (IPS)

Corporation, Conservation and the Green Movement (October 26, 2010)

Large corporations have replaced small-scale farmers as the root cause of deforestation. Corporate producers exploit rainforests and overfish the seas. Activist groups have sometimes managed to shock industries into conservation measures through public campaigns: Greenpeace and WWF have pushed huge companies like Walmart and Gucci to improve their import standards and cancel contracts with environmentally dubious producers. But consumers apathy blunts many such efforts. If consumers and governments demand greater accountability, deforestation and overfishing can decrease. (Mongabay)

We've Gone into the Ecological Red (August 22, 2010)

This year, August 21st marked the day that humanity had reached and consumed its annual environmental resource budget. And from now until the end of the year we will be running in the ecological red, consuming more natural resources and producing more waste than the world can replace and absorb. We have been exceeding the planet's annual resource budget since the 1980s, but the date that we reach this point arrives earlier every year.  We currently consume in 12 months what takes 18 months for the planet to regenerate. (Guardian)

Humans Versus Animals in a Conflict Zone (August 4, 2010)

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo serves as the latest reminder that wildlife conservation cannot be achieved in isolation from local communities. In this conflict zone, most people live on less than $2 day and natural resources and livelihoods are inextricably linked. Whilst the Congolese Wildlife Authority has made some effort to win support from local people through the construction of seven schools and a hydroelectric plant, traditional livelihoods are threatened as local populations are excluded from the protected areas. Such exclusion not only compromises conservation efforts, but also means that the poverty alleviation and human development strategies that could be derived from sustainable co-management of natural resources, go unrealized. (IRIN)


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