“Three interconnected planetary crises: climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution: are putting global economic and social well-being at risk”. This is how the United Nation Environment Program (UNEP) framed societal challenges in its February 2021 strategy.
CHEM Trust has previously written about how chemical pollution is one of the key drivers of the biodiversity crisis, and published several reports on the impact of chemical pollution on wildlife. But what are the interconnections between chemicals and the climate crisis?
With the UN Climate Change Conference starting this week, we highlight four ways in which climate change and chemical pollution are interlinked:
- Chemical pollution can make species already struggling due to climate change even more vulnerable;
- Climate change could increase the impacts of chemical pollution;
- Climate change is amplifying the release of hazardous chemicals in the environment;
- The chemical industry is responsible for high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
Complex interlinkage between climate change, chemical pollution and biodiversity loss
Research shows that climate change can make wildlife and ecosystems more sensitive to chemical pollution – with the associated knock-on impacts on people.
For species that are already heavily impacted by climate change, such as in the polar regions, exposure to toxic chemicals is an additional critical stressor impacting their chances of survival.
A study from 2017 shows that the combination of sea ice decline and exposure to pollutants has a dramatic impact on polar bears’ ability to store energy via fat to survive through periods of food scarcity and reproductive fasting.
On one hand, sea ice decline induces longer periods of fasting and reduces foraging opportunities, leading to poor body condition. And polar bears in poor body condition have been found to have increased levels of organic pollutants in their fatty tissues. On the other hand, exposure to certain organic pollutants disrupts the lipid metabolism – the ability of marine mammals to produce fat. The study found that the impact of high levels of pollution on lipid metabolism was much higher during periods of high climate stress, when sea ice levels were very low. This example shows how the combination of multiple stressors, climate change and chemical pollution, put vulnerable species at high risk.
Research also shows that changes in external parameters such as temperature, salinity and acidity induced by global climate change can alter the way chemicals interact with organisms, and therefore alter their toxicity.
- For instance, it has been shown that ocean acidification could increase the toxicity of contaminated marine sediments, thus impacting ocean floor ecosystems.
- Another study showed that an organophosphate insecticide was 30-times more lethal to coho salmon in elevated salinity conditions than at lower salinity.
- Other studies have shown how increases in temperature can lead to an increase in toxicity from pesticides or PCBs.
On top of these complex interactions, climate change and chemicals reciprocally amplify each other.
How is climate change increasing chemical pollution?
Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, melting ice sheets, rising sea levels – all of these proven features of climate change have the potential to amplify the release of chemical pollutants into the environment. Here are some examples:
- Polar ice and high altitude glaciers are sinks of the most harmful chemical pollutants released in the past century. They are now found to be liberating their toxic load into the ocean and freshwater sources. PFAS are being released from melting glaciers from the Tibetan Plateau, contaminating downstream lakes and streams. Mercury is being released from the thawing permafrost. Some models forecast up to a 4 fold increase of banned persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in arctic waters due to melting of the ice driven by climate change.
- Increases in temperature and reductions in precipitation enhance volatilization of POPs and pesticides into the atmosphere, which in turn, could lead to more air pollution.
- More intense and frequent storm events will lead to more frequent and severe industrial chemical spills. After category 4 Hurricane Ida ravaged Louisiana in August 2021, over 350 oil and chemical spills were reported, polluting the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi river.
- Rising sea levels and intensification of flooding also threaten historical landfills located in coastal and alluvial areas, which are potentially loaded with banned hazardous chemicals. In Europe there are tens of thousands of such landfills at risk of releasing their toxic load directly into the environment.
In addition, changes in climate can impact the direct use and release of synthetic chemicals. For instance, an increase in the use of pesticides due to greater incidence of pest and disease outbreak is forecasted. Another example is the increase in wildfires across the globe, leading to increased aerial spreading of fire retardant chemicals.
How is chemical production fuelling the climate crisis?
As with any industry that relies on fossil fuels for feedstock and energy, the chemical industry emits greenhouse gases (GHGs), and therefore directly contributes to the climate crisis. And in this case, it is a significant contribution. The chemical industry is:
- the biggest industrial user of fossil fuel for both feedstock and energy purposes, and
- the third largest industrial emitter of CO2.
Greenhouse gases are emitted at every stage of the life cycle of chemicals, from production to use and waste. For instance, it has been recently reported that the production of ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS emits HCFC-22, a greenhouse gas that is 5,000 times more potent than CO2.
This is important because global chemical production is growing exponentially. It has doubled between 2000 and 2017 and is projected to double again by 2030. This growth not only leads to increasing emissions of hazardous chemicals in the environment, but is also projected to place the petrochemical industry as one of the main drivers of increases in fossil fuel demand in the next decade.
As shown in this blog, synthetic chemicals are just one piece of the complex puzzle that needs urgent attention to mitigate the impact of the interlinked planetary crisis of: climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. It involves:
- Reducing the overall toxic stress on people, wildlife and the wider environment.
- Reducing the contribution of the production and use of chemicals to GHGs emissions.
Urgency to reduce the toxic stress
The Human Rights Council has recently adopted a resolution recognizing that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that the resolution is about protecting people and “the natural systems which are basic preconditions to the lives and livelihoods of all people”.
Reducing the load of hazardous chemicals in our daily lives and the wider environment is critical to lowering the overall burden of stress to which people and wildlife are being exposed in these times of climate crisis.
What CHEM Trust recommends
Regarding industrial chemicals, such as the ones used in everyday products which are CHEM Trust’s key focus, the actions which should be urgently adopted by all countries to reduce the flow of hazardous chemicals include:
- Grouping chemicals for regulation in order to accelerate the control of hazardous substances;
- Accounting for mixtures in chemical regulation to protect people and wildlife from the reality of combined exposures to chemicals;
- Banning by default the most hazardous chemicals, including endocrine disrupting chemicals, in consumer products to lower direct human exposure;
- Phasing out the use of ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS and other very persistent chemicals to protect current and future generations from potentially irreversible impacts on health and the environment;
- Ensuring that products are toxic free by design to facilitate the recirculation of materials in a clean circular economy;
- And cleaning up contaminated sites wherever it is possible to reduce the impact of legacy pollution.
Many of these actions are included in the European Chemical Strategy for sustainability published last year by the European Commission. A swift and full implementation of this strategy will be a significant step towards a toxic-free future. And we are hoping to see many of these actions emulated in other nations and at global level.
Dr Anna Watson, CHEM Trust Head of Advocacy, said:
“ Solving the crises that our planet and humanity currently face needs action from all sectors. The chemical sector has a huge part to play in both reducing its own GHGs emissions and reducing the amount and toxicity of chemicals that flood into our environment and bodies.
Global, regional and national regulators also need to urgently act to make sure that the most hazardous chemicals in society are phased out. Otherwise we risk exacerbating the impacts of climate change on people and wildlife.”
- Chemicals, wastes and climate change: Interlinkages and potential for coordinated action. Report produced by the UN Secretariats of the Basel, Minamata, Rotterdam, & Stockholm conventions, May 2021.
- Making Peace With Nature: A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies. UNEP, February 2021.