Written by Lindsay Moffatt. Edited by William Arent and Amelia Zawadzka.
Artwork by Coleen Nunag.
As a society, we often assume that pollution only became an issue post-industrial revolution which was in the late 18th century, but that is not the case. An example of even earlier anti-pollution regulations is King Edward I of England’s attempt to ban the burning of sea-coal in the 13th century (History.com, 2020). In today’s climate, both literal and political, the most relevant forms of pollution are carbon emissions and ocean plastic, since they have the most devastating effects on the environment and are generally the most obvious. However, the world is not equally contributing to these issues, some countries are polluting much more than others. This is a call-out post.
Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas that causes climate change, but it is the most important and is assumed to be the gas that forces climate change to occur (NASA, n.d.). This means that the critical step to take as a society to slow climate change is reducing carbon emissions. Evidently, China, the United States, India, Russia, and Japan are ignorant to this fact, as they are the top 5 contributors to atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, India, Russia, and Japan all contribute less than 7% of total global emissions which is a lot considering how many countries are on earth, but not very much considering China’s 27.2% and the United State’s 14.6%. It is important to consider that these 5 countries all have relatively high populations, so it is worth looking at the top 5 contributors per capita as well. From this perspective, the top 5 contributors to carbon emissions are Qatar, Trinidad & Tobago, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. Only 6 countries that initially show up as top 30 contributors to carbon emissions remain top contributors once adjusted for population: Saudi Arabia, the United States, Canada, South Korea, Russia, and Germany (Ghosh, 2019). It is of course worthwhile to consider that countries like India are still developing; but even India is arguably making more efforts to curb climate change than the United States (Upadhyay, 2020). This is why it is infinitely important that developed countries lead the way and make drastic improvements to reduce carbon emissions so that developing countries aren’t pressured to reach unrealistic targets.
The next environmental cause to evaluate is ocean plastic pollution, which both directly contributes to the deaths of marine wildlife, and to the slow deterioration of entire marine ecosystems. Ocean mammals who become entangled in fishing gear have been observed to endure slow, painful deaths that can take months or even years, and microplastics can be easily ingested by creatures like baleen whales. Scientists now know that more than 633 marine species have been negatively impacted by plastic pollution, such as Albatross chicks, who are dying of starvation as they inadvertently eat plastic instead of food (Baulch, 2013). The top 5 contributors to ocean plastic are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka, but like carbon emissions, China actually accounts for much more pollution than the others. China’s astronomical contributions to these forms of pollution is likely caused by two main factors: it is a recently developed country, thus the necessary infrastructure has not been fully established to lower pollution, and the population is extremely high. According to 2010 data from the Wall Street Journal, 3.53 metric tons of plastic from China alone ends up in the ocean, while the other 4 leading countries together add up to 3.41 metric tons (CITI I/O, 2019). Plastic pollution not only kills marine life, but it also contributes to climate change because of the carbon footprint of the plastic itself and the greenhouse gases it is capable of releasing (Picazo, 2019).
Essentially, both air and ocean pollution are extremely detrimental to the environment, and there are countries that are contributing more than their share to the issue. Overall, while there is action being taken, there are little signs of the top contributors taking responsibility and prioritising reducing their pollution. Climate change regulations have increased by 2000% since 1997 according to a database produced by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Sabin Centre on Climate Change Law. Generally, the global total of climate change laws has doubled every four or five years in this time period, though the rate of new climate change laws peaked in 2009 since most countries have finished setting up their climate change prevention policy framework at this point. However, a 2017 report suggests that current climate change policy is not enough to prevent a 2℃ warming (Evans, 2017). Likewise, countries are attempting to reduce plastic pollution. For example, Canada aims to ban single-use plastics by 2021, Peru has banned single-use plastics in cultural and historical locations and is working on phasing out single-use plastic bags, and New Plastics Economy Global Commitment bands together 250 brands responsible for 20% of all plastic pollution to work on creating a circular economy for plastic (Howard et al., 2019). The two components necessary to mitigate climate change are enhancing carbon sinks and reducing carbon emissions (NASA, n.d.) thus, countries should make investing in research on carbon sinks and enforcing regulations on carbon emissions their top priorities. In terms of ocean plastic reduction, countries should ensure good stormwater management to prevent litter from being swept into bodies of water, as well as reducing and recycling more plastics to stop them from becoming trash in the first place (ESI Africa, 2020).This means that citizens need to pressure governments and corporations to protect our environment and, ultimately, the fate of the human race.
Baulch, S. (May 24, 2013). The shocking impacts of plastic pollution in our oceans. Environmental Investigation Agency. https://eia-international.org/blog/the-shocking-impacts-of-plastic-pollution-in-our-oceans/
CITI I/O. (June 17, 2019). Top 10 Countries With the Largest Contribution of Plastic in the Ocean. https://citi.io/2019/06/17/top-10-countries-with-the-largest-contribution-of-garbage-in-the-ocean/
ESI Africa. (May 29, 2020). Tactics to reduce plastic and other ocean pollution simultaneously. https://www.esi-africa.com/industry-sectors/research-and-development/tactics-to-reduce-plastic-and-other-ocean-pollution-simultaneously/
Evans, S. (May 11, 2017). Mapped: Climate change laws around the world. CarbonBrief. https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-climate-change-laws-around-world
Ghosh, I. (May 21, 2019). All the World’s Carbon Emissions in One Chart. Visual Capitalist. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/all-the-worlds-carbon-emissions-in-one-chart/
History.com Editors. (March 30, 2020). Water and Air Pollution. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/water-and-air-pollution
Howard, B. C., Gibbens, S., Zachos, E., Parker, L. (June 10, 2019). A running list of action on plastic pollution. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/07/ocean-plastic-pollution-solutions/#close
NASA. (n.d.). The Causes of Climate Change. Global Climate Change. https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/
NASA. (n.d.). Mitigation and Adaptation. Global Climate Change. https://climate.nasa.gov/solutions/adaptation-mitigation/
Picazo, M. (June 20, 2019). How plastic pollution is contributing to climate change. The Weather Network. https://www.theweathernetwork.com/ca/news/article/plastic-pollution-is-contributing-to-climate-change-greenhouse-gas
Upadhyay, B. (July 26, 2020). How is India’s Plans To Tackle The Growing Menace of Climate Change? Youth Ki Awaaz. https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2020/07/climate-change-indias-stance-in-tackling-this-menace/