Environmental Issues

Category : UPSC

 Environmental Issues


1.           Greenhouse Effect


  • Greenhouse gases absorb long wave (infrared) radiation from the earth, and emit it again towards the earth. The cycle continues till the earth's surface has no long wave radiation to emit.
  • The greenhouse effect is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is responsible for heating of Earth's surface and atmosphere.
  • It is surprising that without greenhouse effect the average temperature at surface of Earth would have been a chilly \[-18{}^\circ C\] rather than the present average of \[15{}^\circ C\].
  • In order to understand the greenhouse effect, it is necessary to know the fate of the energy of sunlight that reaches the outermost atmosphere.
  • Clouds and gases reflect about one-fourth of the incoming solar radiation, and absorb some of it but almost half of incoming solar radiation falls on Earth's surface heating it, while a small proportion is reflected back. Earth's surface re-emits heat in the form of infrared radiation but part of this does not escape into space as atmospheric gases (e.g., carbon dioxide, methane, etc.) absorb a major fraction of it.
  • The molecules of these gases radiate heat energy, and a major part of which again comes to Earth's surface, thus heating it up once again. This cycle is repeated many a times. The above-mentioned gases - carbon dioxide and methane - are corn monly known as greenhouse gases because they are responsible for the greenhouse effect.
  • Increase in the level of greenhouse gases has led to considerable heating of Earth leading to global warming. During the past century, the temperature of Earth has increased by \[0.6{}^\circ C\], most of it during the last three decades.


2.           Ozone Depletion


  • Bad ozone, formed in the lower atmosphere (troposphere) that harms plants and animals. There is 'good' ozone also; this ozone is found in the upper part of the atmosphere called the stratosphere, and it acts as a shield absorbing ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
  • UV rays are highly injurious to living organisms since DNA and proteins of living organisms preferentially absorb UV rays, and its high energy breaks the chemical bonds within these molecules.
  • The thickness of the ozone in a column of air from the ground to the top of the atmosphere is measured in terms of Dobson units (DU).
  • Ozone gas is continuously formed by the action of UV rays on molecular oxygen, and also degraded into molecular oxygen in the stratosphere. There should be a balance between production and degradation of ozone in the stratosphere.
  • Of late, the balance has been dismpted due to enhancement of ozone degradation by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs find wide use as refrigerants.
  • CFCs discharged in the lower part of atmosphere move upward and reach stratosphere. In stratosphere, UV rays act on them releasing Cl atoms.
  • Cl degrades ozone releasing molecular oxygen, with these atoms acting merely as catalysts; Cl atoms are not consumed in the reaction. Hence, whatever CFCs are added to the stratosphere, they have permanent and continuing affects on Ozone levels.
  • Although ozone depletion is occurring widely in the stratosphere, the depletion is particularly marked over the Antarctic region. This has resulted in formation of a large area of thinned ozone layer, commonly called as the ozone hole.
  • UV radiation of wavelengths shorter than UV-B, are almost completely absorbed by Earth's atmosphere, given that the ozone layer is intact. But, UV-B damages DNA and mutation may occur. It causes aging of skin, damage to skin cells and various types of skin cancers.
  • In human eye, cornea absorbs UV-B radiation, and a high dose of UV-B causes inflammation of cornea, called snow-blindness, cataract, etc. Such exposure may permanently damage the cornea.
  • Recognising the deleterious affects of ozone depletion, an international treaty, known as the Montreal Protocol, was signed at Montreal (Canada) in 1987 (effective in 1989) to control the emission of ozone depleting substances.
  • Subsequently many more efforts have been made and protocols have laid down definite roadmaps, separately for developed and developing countries, for reducing the emission of CFCs and other ozone depleting chemicals.


3.           Air and Water Pollution


  • In order to control environmental pollution, the Government of India has passed the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to protect and improve the quality of our environment (air, water and soil).
  • Smokestacks of thermal power plants, smelters and other industries release particulate and gaseous air pollutants together with harmless gases, such as nitrogen, oxygen, etc. These pollutants must be separated/filtered out before releasing the harmless gases into the atmosphere.
  • There are several ways of removing paniculate matter; the most widely used of which is the electrostatic precipitator, which can remove over 99 per cent particulate matter present in the exhaust from a thermal power plant.
  • Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), particulate size 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter (PM 2.5) are responsible for causing the greatest harm to human health. These fine particulates can be inhaled deep into the lungs and can cause breathing and respiratory symptoms, irritation, inflammations and damage to the lungs and premature deaths.
  • Proper maintenance of automobiles along with use of lead-free petrol or diesel can reduce the pollutants they emit.
  • Catalytic converters, having expensive metals namely platinum-palladium and rhodium as the catalysts, are fitted into automobiles for reducing emission of poisonous gases. As the exhaust passes through the catalytic converter, unbumt hydrocarbons are converted into carbon dioxide and water, and carbon monoxide and nitric oxide are changed to carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas, respectively.
  • Motor vehicles equipped with catalytic converter should use unleaded petrol because lead in the petrol inactivates the catalyst.
  • In India, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act came into force in 1981, but was amended in 1987 to include noise as an air pollutant. Noise is undesired high level of sound.
  • A brief exposure to extremely high sound level, 150 dB or more generated by take off of a jet plane or rocket, may damage ear drums thus permanently impairing hearing ability.
  • All the buses of Delhi were converted to run on CNG by the end of 2002. CNG bums most efficiently, unlike petrol or diesel, in the automobiles and very little of it is left unbumt. Moreover, CNG is cheaper than petrol or diesel, cannot be siphoned off by thieves and adulterated like petrol or diesel. The main problem with switching over to CNG is the difficulty of laying down pipelines to deliver CNG through distribution points/ pumps and ensuring uninterrupted supply.
  • The Government of India through a new auto fuel policy has laid out a roadmap to cut down vehicular pollution in Indian cities. More stringent norms for fuels means steadily reducing the sulphur and aromatic content in petrol and diesel fuels. Euro III norms, for example, stipulate that sulphur be controlled at 350 parts-per-million (ppm) in diesel and 150 ppm in petrol. Aromatic hydrocarbons are to be contained at 42 per cent of the concerned fuel. The goal, according to the roadmap, is to reduce sulphur to 50 ppm in petrol and diesel and bring down the level to 35 per cent.
  • Realising the importance of maintaining the cleanliness of the water bodies, the Government of India has passed the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 to safeguard our water resources.
  • Changes that one may notice discharge of sewage into a river. Micro-organisms involved in biodegradation of organic matter in the receiving water body consume a lot of oxygen, and as a result there is a sharp decline in dissolved oxygen downstream from the point of sewage discharge. This causes mortality of fish and other aquatic creatures.
  • Presence of large amounts of nutrients in waters also causes excessive growth of planktonic (free-floating) algae, called an algal bloom which imparts a distinct colour to the water bodies. Algal blooms cause deterioration of the water quality and fish mortality. Some bloom-forming algae are extremely toxic to human beings and animals.
  • The beautiful mauve-colored flowers found on very appealingly-shaped floating plants in water bodies. These plants which were introduced into India for their lovely flowers have caused havoc by their excessive growth by causing blocks in our waterways. They grow faster than our ability to remove them. These are plants of water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), the world's most problematic aquatic weed, also called 'Terror of Bengal'. They grow abundantly in eutrophic water bodies, and lead to an imbalance in the ecosystem dynamics of the water body.
  • A few toxic substances, often present in industrial waste waters, can undergo biological magnification (Biomagnification) in the aquatic food chain. Biomagnification refers to increase in concentration of the toxicant at successive trophic levels. This happens because a toxic substance accumulated by an organism cannot be metabolised or excreted, and is thus passed on to the next higher trophic level. This phenomenon is wellknown for mercury and DDT.
  • The concentration of DDT is increased at successive trophic levels; say if it starts at 0.003 ppb (ppb = parts per billion) in water, it can ultimately reach 25 ppm (ppm = parts per million) in fish-eating birds, through biomagnification. High concentrations of DDT disturb calcium metabolism in birds, which causes thinning of eggshell and their premature breaking, eventually causing decline in bird populations.
  • Eutrophication is the natural aging of a lake by nutrient enrichment of its water.
  • In a young lake the water is cold and clear, supporting little life. With time, streams draining into the lake introduce nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which encourage the growth of aquatic organisms.
  • As the lake's fertility increases, plant and animal life burgeons, and organic remains begin to be deposited on the lake bottom.
  • Over the centuries, as silt and organic debris pile up, the lake grows shallower and wanner, with warm-water organisms supplanting those that thrive in a cold environment.
  • Marsh plants take root in the shallows and begin to fill in the original lake basin. Eventually, the lake gives way to large masses of floating plants (bog), finally converting into land.
  • Depending on climate, size of the lake and other factors, the natural aging of a lake may span thousands of years. However, pollutants from man's activities like effluents from the industries and homes can radically accelerate the aging process. This phenomenon has been called Cultural or Accelerated Eutrophication.
  • During the past century, lakes in many parts of the earth have been severely eutrophied by sewage and agricultural and industrial wastes. The prime contaminants are nitrates and phosphates, which act as plant nutrients. They overstimulate the growth of algae, causing unsightly scum and unpleasant odors, and robbing the water of dissolved oxygen vital to other aquatic life.
  • At the same time, other pollutants flowing into a lake may poison whole populations of fish, whose decomposing remains further deplete the water's dissolved oxygen content, In such fashion, a lake can literally choke to death.
  • Heated (thermal) wastewaters flowing out of electricity-generating units, e.g., thermal power plants, constitute another important category of pollutants. Thermal wastewater eliminates or reduces the number of organisms sensitive to high temperature, and may enhance the growth of plants and fish in extremely cold areas but, only after causing damage to the indigenous flora and fauna.
  • Initially, nuclear energy was hailed as a non-polluting way for generating electricity. Later on, it was realised that the use of nuclear energy has two very serious inherent problems. The first is accidental leakage, as occurred in the Three Mile Island and Chemobyl incidents and the second is safe disposal of radioactive wastes.
  • Radiation, that is given off by nuclear waste is extremely damaging to organisms, because it causes mutations at a very high rate.
  • At high doses, nuclear radiation is lethal but at lower doses, it creates various disorders, the most frequent of all being cancer. Therefore, nuclear waste is an extremely potent pollutant and has to be dealt with utmost caution.
  • Irrigation without proper drainage of water leads to waterlogging in the soil. Besides affecting the crops, waterlogging draws salt to the surface of the soil. The salt then is deposited as a thin crust on the land surface or starts collecting at the roots of the plants. This increased salt content is inimical to the growth of crops and is extremely damaging to agriculture. Waterlogging and soil salinity are some of the problems that have come in the wake of the Green Revolution.
  • Deforestation is the conversion of forested areas to non-forested ones. According to an estimrte, almost 40 per cent forests have been lost in the tropics, compared to only 1 per cent in the temperate region.
  • The present scenario of deforestation is particularly grim in India. At the beginning of the twentieth century, forests covered about 30 per cent of the land of India. By the end of the century, it shrunk to 19.4 per cent.

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