Greater meat consumption and demand for fossil fuels worldwide are expected to cause increasingly more harmful algal blooms and dead zones in coastal and freshwater areas.
“Nutrient pollution in aquatic ecosystems, or eutrophication, is a rapidly growing environmental crisis,” said Mindy Selman, the lead author of a new report released today by the World Resources Institute (WRI). “Nearly 500 coastal areas already suffer from hypoxia. Our research indicates that number is expected to rise in the foreseeable future.”
Eutrophication: Sources and Drivers of Nutrient Pollution, the second report of a three-part series, finds that developing countries will see more nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in coastal and freshwater areas in the coming decades as a result of population and economic growth.
“More people and rising incomes will increase the demand for food, energy, land and other natural resources, which will ultimately lead to greater agricultural production and burning of fossil fuels to heat homes, power cars, and fuel industry,” added Selman, a senior associate and water-pollution expert at WRI.
According to the research, worldwide per capita meat consumption is expected to rise by 14 percent by 2030. When factoring in population growth, the rise equates to an estimated increase of 53 percent in total meat consumed globally.
Increased livestock production will have significant implications for the severity of nutrient pollution, particularly in countries without effective environmental regulations. For example, meat production in China has increased by 127 percent from 1990 to 2002, but fewer than 14,000 livestock operations have pollution controls.
Selman added that “one swine operation in the Black Sea region that is now closed had more than 1 million pigs and generated sewage equivalent to a town of 5 million people.”
The manure from these operations is often applied to fields as fertilizer and then leaches and runs off into nearby waterways. According to the report, 80 percent of the nitrogen used in swine production is excreted as manure or lost to the environment during the production of animal feed.
The report also suggests that the demand for energy will increase eutrophic conditions worldwide. Total global energy consumption is expected to rise by 50 percent by 2030 and a majority of that will be in the developing world.
“Though renewable energy sources are being developed, fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas, are expected to continue meeting 86 percent of global energy needs,” said Selman. “When fossil fuels are burned, they release nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, which are then deposited to land and water through rain and snow.”
Some studies have found that atmospheric sources of nitrogen are a significant source of coastal pollution, particularly in industrialized countries with high NOx emissions. In the Chesapeake Bay, atmospheric deposition accounts for 30 percent of the nitrogen pollution found in the watershed.
“Because there are so many pathways, sources, and drivers of nutrient pollution, the policies that address eutrophication cannot be limited to traditional environmental regulations,” said Selman. “Instead, policymakers must look more broadly at agricultural, energy, land use, and public health policies and find ways that these policies can be designed to mitigate nutrient pollution.”
The third report in the series will focus on the types of institutions, actions and policies that are critical for addressing eutrophication. The first report, Eutrophication and Hypoxia in coastal Areas, is a survey of where coastal eutrophication is occurring worldwide.
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