Interlinked Problems
and Interlinked Solutions
  The new environmental challenges are often linked by common causal factors and by physical, chemical, and biological feedbacks. For example, climate change may generate far-reaching harmful impacts: rising sea levels could inundate low-lying islands and coastal areas; changed rainfall patterns might have serious impacts on food production and hydroelectric power; warmer temperatures could spread tropical disease vectors northward; extreme weather events such as tropical storms, floods, and droughts could become more frequent and more intense; many species of plants and animals might not survive temperature changes.

The design and implementation of MEAs ... need to take account of the many-faceted interlinkages among environmental and social factors. Otherwise, we risk inadvertently adding to one problem while attempting to solve another.
Consider the linkages between the issues of climate change and forests. Carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of fossil fuels is the primary greenhouse gas. Its absorption by forests help to offset the emissions' impact on climate. When forests are destroyed, whether by humans or by natural forces, they release carbon dioxide and add to the greenhouse effect. And climate change itself could either add to or diminish forest growth, depending on such factors as location, rainfall, soils, etc.

Climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion are related through numerous subtle patterns of interaction. Ozone layer depletion affects global warming in contradictory ways. Since ozone itself is a greenhouse gas; its depletion tends to cool the stratosphere and offset global warming. Ozone depletion also permits ultraviolet radiation (UVB) to break down other greenhouse gases more rapidly. But UVB can also destroy natural carbon sinks such as plants and phytoplankton, thereby aggravating climate change. Further, some substitute chemicals specifically developed, and promoted, to protect the ozone layer, are powerful greenhouse gases. And some technologies for replacing ozone depleting substances are less energy efficient, thereby contributing to higher fuel use and climate change. In addition, other greenhouse gases can intensify the rate of ozone depletion. The net effect of all these interactions on climate change and the ozone layer is still subject to further research.

Biologists warn that alarming rates of extinction of plant and animal species are taking place due to the effects of air and water pollution, desertification, and clearing of vast areas of forests and other habitats to satisfy demand for wood products and provide land for settlement, mining, and farming; climate change would add to such impacts. More than one-fifth of the world's tropical forests, which contain the richest concentrations of species, have been lost since 1960. Pollution of coastal waters from urban and industrial wastes combine with overfishing to decimate fish populations; already almost three-fourths of oceanic fish stocks are classified as depleted, declining, or fully exploited. The worldwide spread of hazardous wastes and toxic chemicals -- especially persistent organic pollutants - also affects the health of many species. The effect of this manifold assault on the planet's gene pool, including potential pharmaceuticals, will be to increase the risks of human disease and the vulnerability of food crops to blights and changing climate.

Burning of forests and grasslands, compounded by inappropriate agricultural and irrigation practices, is also contributing to erosion and the spread of drylands, with annual losses of billions of tons of topsoil. Approximately one-fourth of the world's land area is currently degraded, and by 2025, the number of people adversely affected by desertification and drought is expected to double, to nearly two billion. Added to this, the cumulative pressures of municipal, industrial, and agricultural needs, together with pollution from these same sources, are making scarcity of fresh water into a major global problem. Currently 1.3 billion people lack clean water, and it is projected that by 2025 two-thirds of the world's population will live in water-stressed regions.

Varied problems such as sea-level rise, declines in agricultural productivity, destruction of forests, soil erosion, desertification, flooding, and scarcity of fresh water can lead to environmental migration involving mass movements of people.

The design and implementation of MEAs, whether their immediate focus is climate or ozone, forests or biological diversity, need to take account of the many-faceted interlinkages among environmental and social factors. Otherwise, we risk inadvertently adding to one problem while attempting to solve another. Or at best, we miss opportunities for synergistic activities and mutually reinforcing measures. Associated institutions, training, research, and investments should also reflect the inter-relationships among different core environmental problems.

Source: Abstracted from Richard Elliot Benedick, "Environmental Decision Making and Multilateral Environmental Agreements" Paper presented at the Inter-linkages Conference on Strategies for bridging problems and solutions to work towards sustainable development, United Nations University, Tokyo Japan, 2001
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