UNEP Year Book 2011: impacts of the global emerging environmental issues

This report presents work in progress on scientific understanding of global environmental change, as well as foresight about possible issues on the horizon. It explains three main emerging issues: (i) plastic debris in the ocean, (ii) phosphorus and food production, such as sustainable agriculture and sustainable land management in the context of mitigating land degradation and drought disaster risk management, and (iii) emerging perspectives on forest biodiversity.

Plastic debris in the ocean

According to UNEP Year Book, the ocean has become a global repository for much of the waste we generate. Marine debris includes timber, glass, metal and plastic from many different sources. Recently, the accumulation and possible impacts of microplastic particles in the ocean have been recognized as an emerging environmental issue. The report also highlights the potential impact of releases of persistent bio-accumulating and toxic compounds (PBTs) from plastic debris. In parallel, the fishing and tourism industries in many parts of the world are affected economically by plastic entering nets, fouling propellers and other equipment, and washing up on beaches. Research indicates that the small and tiny pieces of plastic are adsorbing and concentrating from the seawater and sediments a wide range of chemicals from polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) to the pesticide DDT. Despite international efforts to stem the flow of plastic debris, it continues to accumulate and impact the marine environment. The Year Book points out, if plastic is treated as a valuable resource, rather than just a waste product, any opportunities to create a secondary value for the material will provide economic incentives for collection and reprocessing.

Scientists are becoming concerned not only about the direct damage to wildlife, but the potential toxicity of microplastics. They are generally considered to be plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. The exact quantities of plastics including microplastics entering or forming in the oceans from the land-based discharge are unknown.

On the other hand, Year Book flags a new and emerging concern termed “persistent, bio-accumulating and toxic substances” (PBTs) associated with plastic marine waste have a range of chronic health effects, including endocrine disruption, mutagenicity and carcinogenicity. A subset is regulated under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

Year Book 2011, p.21

Phosphorus and food production

Phosphorous is a multivalent nonmetal of the nitrogen group. It is found in nature in several allotropic forms, and is an essential element for the life of organisms. Concentrated phosphoric acids are used in fertilizers for agriculture and farm production. Phosphates are used for special glasses, sodium lamps, in steel production, in military applications, and in other applications as pyrotechnics, pesticides, toothpaste and detergents.

According to the Year Book, the global use of fertilizers that contain phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium increased by 600 per cent between 1950 and 2000. Some researchers are suggesting that the consumption of phosphorus globally is in the medium to long term unsustainable and that peak production, with a decline afterwards, could occur in the 21st century. But others disagree. The Report calls for a global phosphorus assessment to more precisely map phosphorus flows in the environment and predict levels of economically viable reserves.

Phosphorus flows in the environment. To enhance food production, phosphorus is added to soil in the form of mineral fertilizer or manure. Most of the phosphorus not taken up by plants remains in the soil and can be used in the future. Phosphorus can be transferred to surface water when it is mined or processed, when excess fertilizer is applied to soil, when soil is eroded, or when effluent is discharged from sewage treatment works. Red arrows show the primary direction of the phosphorus flows; yellow arrows the recycling of phosphorus in the crop and soil system and movement towards water bodies; and grey arrows the phosphorus lost through food wastages in landfills (Year Book 2011, p.36)

The Year Book also emphasizes the necessity of maximize the use of phosphorus in agriculture and livestock production and cut wastage while reducing environmental impacts including on rivers and oceans.

Perspectives on forest biodiversity

Conservation of forest biodiversity is fundamental to sustaining forests and people in a world that is adapting to climate change. Ecosystem-based approaches recognize the importance of biodiversity and the need for broad stakeholder participation in forest-related decision making in order to arrive at more effective conservation outcomes. New approaches to biodiversity conservation are promising, but they need to be matched by more effective governance and greater financial investments, says Year Book notes. The Report also puts the spotlight on forest biodiversity and its important role in a world adapting to climate change to remember the start of the International Year of Forests.

At the end, a set of environmental indicators was present by Year Book to facilitate the understanding of impacts from complex interactions between people and the environment. In conclusion, the UNEP Year Book 2011 demonstrates that many are the impacts of global emerging environmental issues and and we are still far from solving them.

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