What problems affect the environment

Environmental policy

Steffen Bauer

To person

Steffen Bauer, M.A., works in the Department of Environmental Policy and Resource Management at the German Development Institute (DIE) in Bonn.

Contact: [email protected]

Environmental pollution is distributed extremely differently from region to region. But even apparently locally limited environmental problems interact with global threats and thus threaten the natural foundations of human life.

Poverty leads to ecologically disadvantageous behavior, e.g. when trees in the rainforest are cleared to obtain firewood. (& copy picture alliance / WILDLIFE)


In addition to fighting hunger and poverty, the endeavor to preserve the natural foundations of human life is one of the greatest political challenges in the 21st century. A multitude of local, regional and global environmental problems contribute to the exacerbation of hunger, poverty and misery in large parts of the world. Almost a fifth of the world's population lacks access to clean drinking water and more than a third lacks sanitary facilities. 1.2 billion people live on less than one US dollar a day.

Conversely, impoverishment, hunger and poverty make people in many places ecologically disadvantageous behavior and thus contribute to the exacerbation of global environmental problems. This happens, for example, when primeval forests are cleared in order to gain arable land and firewood. In order to be able to face this dilemma in a meaningful way, the governments of the world have agreed on the model of so-called sustainable development.

Distribution of Risks

The most pressing environmental problems concern the atmosphere and the climate system, the oceans, biological diversity and the declining quality of soils and waters. Closely related to this are, among other things, the steady growth of the world population, the worldwide shortage of agriculturally usable areas and fresh water resources as well as the phenomenon of urbanization in world society.

The environmental problems that arise can be both quantitative and qualitative in nature.
  • A quantitative environmental problem arises when the consumption of a certain environmental asset exceeds its regenerative capacity, for example when more cod is fished out of the oceans than can naturally regrow, or more water is withdrawn from a groundwater reservoir than is fed into the natural water cycle.
  • A qualitative environmental problem arises when the condition of a certain environmental good deteriorates materially. This is the case, for example, when groundwater is contaminated as a result of agricultural over-fertilization or the air quality is permanently reduced by traffic and industrial emissions.
Not all regions of the world are equally affected by the diversity of local, regional and global environmental risks. Rather, the gap between a relatively stable and in some areas even improved environmental situation in the rich industrialized countries on the one hand and a drastic increase in environmental pollution in the developing and emerging countries and some of the transition countries in Eastern Europe on the other is widening. The pressures in the poorer regions of the world are usually closely related to the - in some cases very successful - efforts to promote local economic development and the interaction of local environmental problems with climate change and other global environmental problems. For example, there is an open contradiction between the successful marketing of tropical timber in Brazil or Indonesia and the international agreements to protect the climate and biodiversity. In addition, the rich countries have far-reaching possibilities to react to environmental changes and to adapt to them - for example through extensive flood protection. Comparable self-help potential in the developing regions of the world is limited or completely absent. Their vulnerability to environmental risks is correspondingly higher.

Source text

Ecological growth limits

The sociologist and theologian Wolfgang Sachs heads the "Globalization and Sustainability" project at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.

The Club of Rome caused a shock in the 1970s with the report "The Limits to Growth". Many today say: He was wrong. The growth can go on practically indefinitely.
Wolfgang Sachs: It is largely undisputed that the globe has biological and physical limits that humans can cross. The only question is: when do the limits take effect and how does that happen? [...]
Oil and other raw materials appear to last longer than previously predicted.
We don't see nature just as a storehouse of resources like oil or wood that is limited. It also has a second side: it is also a network of life that, for example, provides us with water, ensures the fertilization of flowers, and organizes photosynthesis. [...] This network is much harder to replace than the resources from the warehouse.
What exactly is happening to him?
When overloaded, it becomes thinner, becomes less effective, and disappears. Signs of this are unmistakable: climate change, water scarcity, erosion of agricultural land, sinking fish reserves in the seas - these are manifestations of the borders.
Environmental researchers may find that out. But if you say to the man on the street today: The limits of nature have been reached, he will not see it that way. He feels little or nothing of it.
Yes, because there is no finish line at which you can feel: Now the limit has been reached, and the step beyond is already the step in the red area. There is no wall to clap on. The biosphere is more like a tissue that loses threads until the holes tear.
They argue that people are already producing and consuming so much that natural boundaries are exceeded by 20 percent. Nevertheless, the whole world is counting on further economic growth. Shouldn't everything be done to reduce the "ecological footprint" from 120 to 100 percent?
The 120 percent is a powerful warning sign. The still widespread slogan "Growth helps developing countries to overcome poverty and come on the same level as rich countries" is misleading. 25 percent of the world's population belong to the transnational consumer class - most of them live in the industrialized countries, but an increasing number also in the emerging countries such as China or Brazil. There are around 1.7 billion people. This quarter is already overworking the biosphere.
What are the implications?
The rich have to produce their prosperity with far fewer raw materials; it has to become leaner, with fewer resources. And the countries that are not yet at their food bowls must not imitate the development that the north has taken. You have to look for a way that by no means leads to a similarly high load on the biosphere. [...]
Politicians in developing countries are rightly angry when the rich north demands restrictions on them.
[...] The North can only be credible if it drastically accelerates its transition to resource-light production and way of life. Only then will the poor countries' curiosity grow: What are they doing there? Sometimes that's already happening. [...] Interestingly, changes in countries like China, India or Brazil then happen much faster than we are used to in our history.

Joachim Wille spoke to Wolfgang Sachs. "Poverty is falling, but the environmental crisis is worsening", in: Frankfurter Rundschau from May 12, 2005



Global threats

Destruction of the atmosphere

No other environmental medium is of such obvious global importance as the atmosphere that envelops the globe, whose diverse ecological functions are vital for humanity as well as the animal and plant world. It provides the proverbial air to breathe and filters the sunlight, which would be harmful without this filter. The atmosphere consists of approximately 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen and only one percent of a number of so-called trace gases, which, however, largely determine the climatic conditions of the planet. These include carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, nitrogen oxide, ozone and chlorofluorocarbons, the so-called CFCs.

Above all, the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from the burning of fossil raw materials - namely crude oil, coal and natural gas - is responsible for the gradual global warming and the resulting climate change, the threatening effects of which are becoming increasingly apparent. Even a slight warming of the earth's atmosphere has interactions with numerous other environmental problems and generally exacerbates them. Even minor climatic fluctuations can result in far-reaching changes in the animal and plant world and, for example, influence the migratory behavior of migratory birds and schools of fish, enable the spread of tropical diseases such as malaria and accelerate the degradation of soils. Unchecked heating of the atmosphere could lead to profound changes in the earth system over the next few decades, with far-reaching consequences for ecosystems and framework conditions for human development.

A second atmospheric environmental problem of global importance is the thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer. That part of our multi-layered atmosphere that protects the earth from dangerous ultraviolet solar radiation at an altitude of twenty to fifty kilometers is decomposed by reacting with certain chemicals (e.g. CFCs, methyl bromides). These chemicals are contained in coolants and fertilizers, among other things, and are released into the atmosphere from industrial production or through the consumption of corresponding industrial goods and agriculture. The increased UV exposure increases the risk of skin cancer and the lenses of the eyes can become cloudy. In addition, the photosynthetic activity in plants is reduced, which in turn can lead to lower yields in agriculture.

The world first became aware of the extent of the ozone problem after British scientists were able to demonstrate a massive thinning of the ozone layer over the Antarctic - the so-called ozone hole - in 1985. Since then, the international community has set the course for an effective reduction in the production and consumption of the so-called ozone killers through a multitude of binding and increasingly detailed regulations. At the same time, a permanent solution to the ozone problem is not yet assured, especially since a negative interaction with climate change is assumed here as well.