Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, the burning of fossil fuels and extensive deforestation has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40 per cent, from 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1750 to 392.6 ppm in 2012. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, more than half a trillion tones of carbon dioxide has been burned since the mid-18th century. The concentrations of CO2 have now reached more than 400 ppm. The world’s biggest carbon dioxide polluters are the US, China, Russia, Australia, Japan and India. The US and China together produce a third of the world’s total annual emissions of CO2. Some 38 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions in the US are caused by automobile emissions and the rest from industrial processes. Environmental degradation is also manifested in water pollution, caused by the dumping of industrial waste, sewage and harmful substances into oceans, rivers and lakes. The earth’s atmosphere is becoming increasingly polluted as a result of the growing use of agrochemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. The Fourth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has convincingly shown that climate change is the product of human activities.
Forests and oceans are the main sources of biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the infinite range of variations in life forms, including organism and species of animals, birds and insects, on the planet. Forests play a key role in maintaining the ecosystem. Trees and plants take in carbon dioxide and give out life-giving oxygen. Forests are a major source of clean air and water, fertile oil, food and medicinal plants. Forests have provided habitat for millions of species of animals, birds and insects that pollinate crops and control agricultural pests.
Expanding human settlements, farming, livestock raising, reckless logging, construction of roads and land development have resulted in extensive deforestation around the world. Deforestation refers to the clearing of forests and the removal of trees for non-forest uses, including human settlements, ranches, logging, fuelwood collection, cattle grazing and commercial farming. Deforestation has extremely damaging consequences for biodiversity and ecosystems, habitat, environment and human populations. These include desertification, soil erosion, extinction of species of animals, birds and insects, global warming, flooding and droughts. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the planet has lost almost 52 per cent of its biodiversity with the disappearance of forests over the past four decades. It is estimated that almost 50,000 plant, animal, insect and fish species are lost every year due to deforestation. Deforestation accounts for nearly one-third of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions. More than 850 million people in Africa’s Sahel region have been affected by desertification.
The Amazon rainforest, which belongs to 9 nations in South America, covers a vast area of 5,500,000 square kilometers and represents more than half of the world’s rainforests. It is an unparalleled treasure house of biodiversity and is home to the largest number of plant, bird, fish and insect species in the world, including 2.5 million insect species, 40,000 plant species and more than 2,000 bird and fish species. In recent years large areas in the Amazon region have been converted into pastoral fields. Expanding human settlements, slash-and-burn farming, extensive logging and construction of roads and highways have destroyed a substantial part of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil, where about 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest is located, is the second-largest producer of soy bean after the US, and most of it is exported to Europe and China or is used for biodiesel production. With the rising global demand and prices for soy, farmers push further into the forest areas of the Amazon for soy cultivation. It is estimated that the Amazon rainforest will be reduced by 40 per cent by 2025. In 2005 and 2010 large areas in the Amazon region experienced severe droughts.
When Sierra Leone became independent in 1961, 40% of the land was covered with forest. Extensive deforestation caused by logging, slash-and-burn method of agriculture, human settlements and cattle grazing has led to a dramatic drop in the forest cover, which has been reduced to about 4 per cent today. Sierra Leone has experienced frequent flooding due to deforestation.
In Argentina, one million hectares of rainforests were destroyed between 2009 and 2012. The country’s rate of deforestation is 0.8 per cent per year, twice that of the Amazon region. A major cause of deforestation in Argentina is the extensive cultivation of soybean, which leads to the clearing of forest areas. Argentina is the third-largest producer of soy after the US and Brazil, and practically all of it is exported to Europe and China. The expanding cultivation of soy has increased deforestation and has released greenhouse gases due to the loss of forest cover.
An extremely worrying manifestation of climate change is global warming. Global warming refers to a gradual increase in the average temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans. Temperatures around the world have risen during the past three decades. According to NASA, 2014 was the warmest year in the past 135 years of record keeping. Most of global warming is caused by the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2013) estimates that global temperatures are likely to rise by a further 0.3C to 1.7C in the coming years, which will have a particularly damaging effect on the Arctic. A visible effect of rising temperatures is seen in the Arctic ice cap which has been shrinking by about 12 per cent per decade since 1979. Between 1979 and 2012, almost half of the Arctic ice area had melted. As ice sheets in Greenland and parts of Antarctica and glaciers in Alaska melt due to rising temperatures, sea levels are rising. Sea levels have risen by about 8 inches over the past century and are expected to rise by another 3 feet by 2100. The retreat of glaciers and the melting of the permafrost have caused frequent extreme weather events such as heat waves, heavy rainfall and snowfall, flooding and droughts. By 2070, 150 million people in the world’s large port cities are expected to be at risk from coastal flooding. The flooding of large areas around the world will expose nearly 330 million to the risk of displacement. Over 70 million people in Bangladesh, 6 million in Lower Egypt and 22 million in Vietnam could be affected by flooding. Warming seas are expected to give rise to tropical storms. At present about 344 million people are exposed to tropical cyclones. The number of affected people will sharply rise with more intense tropical storms.
One of the serious consequences of climate change is food insecurity. Droughts, flooding, water scarcity and fall in agricultural production have exposed millions of people around the world to chronic hunger, malnutrition and starvation. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that the number of chronically undernourished people around the world exceeds 900 million. Water tables are falling in scores of countries due to climate change as well as widespread overpumping with powerful diesel pumps. Water shortages affect nearly 2.8 billion people worldwide. More than 300 million out of Africa’s 800 million people are faced with water scarcity. More than 1.2 billion around the world lack access to clean drinking water. It is expected that rain-fed agricultural production in some parts of Africa could fall by almost 50 per cent by 2020. Climate change has increased the grim prospects of droughts. Drought-affected areas in sub-Saharan Africa could expand by 60-90 million hectares by 2060.
Rising food prices around the world have aggravated the problem of food insecurity. According to World Bank estimates, rising food prices have pushed more than 100 million people around the world below the poverty line. According to a World Bank report, the increasing cultivation of biofuels has led to an increase in food prices by 75 per cent. The rising global demand and prices of biofuels have prompted farmers in the US, Brazil, Argentina and other countries to switch over from grain to biofuel production. Over a third of corn produced in the US is now used to produce ethanol and almost half of vegetable oils in the European Union is used for the production of biodiesel.
Consumption patterns have a significant bearing on the environmental crisis. There are striking disparities between the consumption patterns of industrialized nations and those of developing countries. People living in North America and Western Europe, who make up 12 per cent of the world’s population, account for 60 per cent of private consumption expenditure, while the one-third of global population living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa account for only 3.2 per cent. The US, with less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, uses more than a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources, burning up nearly 25 per cent of coal, 26 per cent of the oil and 27 per cent of the world’s natural gas.
Though the share of responsibility of industrialized countries for climate change is much higher than that of poor countries, it is the latter which mostly bear the brunt of the environmental crisis. Over 98 per cent of climate disasters such as flooding and droughts from 2000 to 2004 occurred in developing countries, affecting some 262 million people. In rich countries, one in 1,500 people is affected by climate disasters, while the comparative figure for developing nations is one in 19.
A lesson that can be drawn from the looming crisis of climate change is that the model of economic growth adopted by industrialized nations, which is invariably accompanied by profligate consumption and huge environmental costs, is not sustainable.
Environmental Degradation and Climate Change in the Muslim World
Many Muslim countries around the world are faced with environmental degradation as a result of deforestation and high emissions of carbon dioxide due to mining and industrialization and the consequences of climate change, including desertification, flooding, draught and water scarcity. Climate change affects millions of Muslims in Africa’s Sahel region and in Bangladesh, Brunei and Egypt.
Indonesia has been home to some of the world’s dense and biologically diverse forests for thousands of years. Till the end of the 19th century, about 84 per cent of the country was covered by sprawling forests. From the 1970s extensive deforestation led to a sharp fall in the forest cover and by the end of the 20th century the forest cover decreased from an estimated 170 million hectares in 1900 to less than 100 million hectares by 2000. Large forest areas have been cleared for cultivation and large-scale and mostly illegal logging or handed to multinational mining and pulp companies. Extensive deforestation has resulted in the concentration of huge quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases in the atmosphere. Indonesia is ranked as the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after the US and China.
A leading cause of deforestation and environmental degradation in Indonesia, which has one of the world’s largest coal deposits, is the burgeoning coal industry. Samarinda, a medium-size town in the Kalimantan province of Indonesia, was surrounded by dense equatorial forests about three decades ago. Over the past two decades, a large area of the forest has been cleared to make way for the mining industry. Now Samarinda has more than 1,000 mines and nearly 70 per cent of the town has been handed to British mining companies, which extract tones of coal and export it to India, Japan, Korea and other countries. The reckless destruction of the forest and millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the mining industry has have caused severe damage to the environment and health of local inhabitants.
Despite impressive economic growth, Kazakhstan is faced with significant environmental challenges resulting from the consequences of nuclear testing programme during the Soviet era, industrial and mining projects, land degradation, desertification and air and water pollution. Air and water pollution levels in Kazakhstan are among the highest in the world. Much of the pollution is caused by the decrepit heavy industries that were set up during the Soviet era. In recent years the problem has been compounded by the toxic emissions from a British-owned mining and minerals company. Shymkent, a city in the southern part of Kazakhstan, is one of the most polluted cities in the world. A lead smelting plant was built in the city in the 1930s when industrialization in the erstwhile Soviet Union was booming. Most of the ammunition used by the Soviet army against Nazi Germany during World War II was made at this plant. The plant was the mainstay of the local economy and the main source of livelihood for the inhabitants of the region. The plant was closed down in 2008 due to financial problems.
The health and environmental costs of toxic emissions from the plant have been enormous. The city’s atmosphere is thick with pollutants from highly toxic elements, including lead, cadmium, antimony and arsenic. In the area around the plant, lead was found to be 60 times the legal limit, cadmium 40 times and arsenic 50 times. A study conducted by the International Turkish Kazakh University in 2012 revealed that 52% of children in the city had lead levels far in excess of permissible levels. A study by the International Task Force for Children’s Environmental Health found that as many as 100,000 young people and children in Shymkent had been adversely affected by lead pollution. The presence of more than permissible levels of lead in the body has extremely damaging effects on all organs, including the brain. It severely undermines children’s physical growth and cognitive and intellectual development. In 2010, a British-owned company, Kazakhmys Copper, took over the decrepit company. Unfortunately, the company did not bother to carry out an advance assessment of the environmental and health consequences of reopening the plant. Though the local sanitation department refused to grant permission to reopen the plant, the company went ahead with production. The Shymkent plant was eventually close down in late 2012 following local protests and media outrage.
Maldives is the lowest highpoint on earth, where the natural ground level does not exceed 2.3 metres. Sea levels around Maldives have risen by about 20 centimetres in the past century, and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected that they will rise by a further 59 centimetres by 2100. The islands were inundated by unusually high tides in 1987 that caused extensive damage. The Asian tsunami of December 2004 left a trail of devastation in the islands, with the death of 82 people, the displacement of 12,000 and damages worth $375 million. Maldives is among the most endangered nations due to the effect of climate change. In 2008, Maldives former president Mohammad Nasheed announced plans to establish an investment fund with revenues from tourism and other resources, which would be used to purchase land in India or Sri Lanka to relocate the entire population of the country in the event of a dangerous rise in sea levels in the near future. Another plan of the government is to construct a new island, where the population of some of the lowest-lying atolls, including the capital Male, could be relocated.
The 2009 Arab Human Development Report pointed out that Arab countries are faced with growing challenges that emanate from the environmental crisis, particularly from dwindling natural resources, population pressures, water shortages, growing desertification and atmospheric pollution. A United Nations Environment Programme Study estimates that the desert has swallowed up more than two-thirds (68.4% or 287 million square kilometres) of total land area in the Arab region. The highest ratio of desert to total land area is in the Arabian Peninsula (89.6 per cent), followed by North Africa (77.7 per cent), the Nile Valley and the Horn of Africa (44.5 per cent). The ongoing process of desertification poses a serious threat to about a fifth of the total area (287 million square kilometers) of the Arab countries. The increasing use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and horticultural and veterinary medical treatments have extensively contaminated water resources. The lack of access to clean water may lead to the spread of diseases such as dysentery among children and thereby affect school attendance and academic achievement. Large numbers of Arab women have to walk long distances and spend hours for fetching water. Water scarcity and pollution threaten agricultural output and food production. The region’s low self-sufficiency in staple foods is one of its most serious development gaps. In Sudan, climate change would reduce average rainfall by 5 per cent, leading to a substantial drop in agricultural production. Climate change would also reduce available water, especially in Morocco and Lebanon. The report notes that though Arab countries are among those least responsible for global climate change, some Arab countries, such as Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan and Morocco, are likely to be the most affected by climate change.
Most of Egypt’s 80 million people are crammed into the fertile Nile Delta. Now the Nile Delta, which has been known as Egypt’s bread basket for thousands of years, is faced with a grave environmental crisis. As the sea on the Egyptian coastline has risen by 20 centimetres in the past century, salt water has seeped into the Delta soil and the ground water and has adversely affected more than 15 per cent of farming lands. Rising sea levels pose a serious threat to the city of Alexandria and thousands of its inhabitants. It is estimated that the entire Nile region, which includes large areas of irrigated agricultural land, will turn into desert by 2040.
Bangladesh has become increasingly vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change, particularly rising sea levels and frequent flooding. Nearly half of the country’s rice cultivation takes place during the monsoon season and much of it is grown in areas most vulnerable to flooding. According to research carried out by the Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services, up to 20 million in the low-lying areas of the country are at risk from sea level rise in the coming decades. Scientists predict that salty waters from the sea could seep into the inland areas, making it extremely difficult if not impossible to cultivate staple foods like rice. Vast tracts of land in the southeast could be inundated every monsoon season. This will throw nearly 26 million people out of work, who will be left with no choice but to migrate to cities in search of livelihood. In order to minimize the potential damage from climate change, the Bangladesh government plans to construct sea defences similar to those in the Netherlands. This will require an investment of $5 billion.
Climate change, waste and mismanagement have resulted in a rapid depletion of the world’s water resources. Water tables are falling in scores of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, including India and China. The top 10 countries faced with severe water shortages, including Somalia, Mauritania, Sudan, Niger, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Turkmenistan, are all Muslim-majority nations. Pakistan is faced with a rapid depletion of its water resources, thanks to climate change, waste and mismanagement. In a 2013 report, the Asian Development Bank described Pakistan as one of the most “water–stressed” countries in the world.
One of the worrying manifestations of the environmental crisis faced by developing countries is widespread contamination of drinking water, which exposes millions of people to the risk of diseases. Nearly 12.3 million people in Sudan and 2.1 million in Tunisia are affected by contaminated water. More than 77 million people in Bangladesh have been exposed to toxic levels of arsenic from contaminated ground water supplies.