Environmental change is making us less secure.
The Sixth edition of UN Environment’s Global Environment Outlook – GEO6 – was published to coincide with the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March. Focusing on the theme “healthy planet, healthy people”, GEO6 assesses scientific research, analyses environmental policies, and aims to help policymakers and the public identify priority actions to achieve sustainable development. As the GEO process is intended as a global environmental health check, and the publication of its reports is a big deal, Doug Weir and Leonie Nimmo took a look at what the report says about conflicts, and the environmental dimensions of human security.
Seven years’ work
It’s been seven years since the fifth GEO was published. Back in 2012, the focus was on the Rio +20 conference and the birth of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). GEO5 contains a few mentions of conflicts and security, particularly in regard to water conflicts, but more importantly it began a process of moving from the simple data assessments of earlier GEO reports towards the identification of the drivers of global environmental change.
GEO6 is far more forthright about these drivers than its predecessor. It acknowledges that progress has been made in economic development but that in many areas large proportions of the population remain poor, economically insecure and with few life opportunities. Moreover, it identifies that some areas “are experiencing social friction, growing inequality, poor governance, cultural erosion, reactions against globalization, political instability, large numbers of refugees, large-scale migration and violent conflicts due to these economic and social insecurities, injustices and corruption.” It finds that: “Many of these global economic, social and political/military security challenges are related to the environment in terms of causes, impacts and possible solutions.”
It is this finding that underpins the view that “the functions of environmental policy have expanded, and it now contributes to political/military security, economic and social policy and other development activities.” In light of these connections, GEO6 argues for the need for an integrated approach to address environmental, economic and social problems holistically. On this, the report is clear that the environment is closely related to social issues including “hunger, consumption patterns, health, education, inequality, gender gaps, waste and sanitation, refugees, migration, conflicts and intolerance.”
GEO6 does not pull any punches. It explicitly states that environmental problems including “land degradation and resource scarcity and depletion, especially water, energy, food and biodiversity, have the potential to be major sources of conflict, security problems and migration”.
The report identifies climate change as a threat multiplier, particularly in fragile states, and argues that water security is being compromised by pollution and unsustainable use, climate variability, droughts and flooding, as well as demand exceeding sustainable supply. It continues by making the link between environmental degradation, insecurity and migration, which in turn contribute to political uncertainty and instability. Conflict is categorised as a ‘diffuse’ effect of climate change which, alongside migration and famine, could create the largest burden of disease on human populations.
GEO6 cites the Environmental Justice Atlas, which lists more than 2,000 cases of socio-environmental conflicts across the globe since 2015, in arguing that that there is “increased concern over how land resource degradation is leading to widespread migration and even conflict”. This has been compounded by poor governance, which “has led to land degradation, conflict and/or dispossession of resources”.
Conflicts over access to food and water are named as a pervasive cost of failing to address the challenges of poor environmental conditions. The report cites the Syrian conflict to demonstrate the potential link between climate change, drought, land degradation and food security on the one hand, and internal migration and political instability on the other. However, the report does not explore the precise significance of the linkages between these factors, or the fact that they remain contested among researchers (a situation not helped by the simplistic narratives presented in the media).
GEO6 points to the potential negative impact of a slow-down in economic growth on human security, claiming that it could “signal a reversion to a zero-sum world in which conflict and war would proliferate, governance systems atrophy and popular support diminish for social justice, solidarity and civic peace”.
However, the environmental consequences of no slow-down in economic growth appears to be the elephant in the room. It is therefore somewhat ironic that straddling the economic development and growth section of the report is a graph described as an ‘elephant curve’. Instead, the report states that “ideally, economic growth and environmental sustainability are mutually reinforcing rather than in conflict”.
Moving onto inequality, the report begins to lose coherence, citing a source described as a “classic economic argument” that “the poor have a higher propensity to consume than the rich… and transferring income from the former to the latter should therefore reduce the impact on the natural environment”. This is somewhat qualified by the argument that “inequality has the potential to exacerbate conflict, which in turn has an adverse impact on the environment”.
The environmental costs of armed conflicts and military activities
As well as looking at the environmental drivers of insecurity, the report also addresses the environmental consequences of conflicts, finding that they are “major sources of pollution, especially air, water and soil pollution, waste, greenhouse gases and land degradation.” The report also makes clear that environmental degradation linked to conflicts has adverse effects on food and water security, and on human health and well-being. Conflicts are even listed as one of several drivers that affect emissions and alterations in the atmosphere, but the report notes that “emissions generated by military conflicts are not well understood or commonly included in inventories”.
The report includes an examination of the impact of conflicts on particular ecosystems. Human conflict is stated to be one of many causes of dryland degradation. In support of this the report cites the example of the Iran-Iraq war, when “large amounts of waste, garbage and toxic material were dumped and burned in desert ecosystems”. Additional pressures are said to be imposed by factors including drought and unsustainable agricultural practices, though the report notes that “the extent of human versus natural causes are often difficult to disentangle”. Armed conflict is also listed amongst several additional “localised pressures” for mountain ecosystems, alongside factors such as road construction, deforestation and mining.
GEO6 also supports the view that addressing the environment can help mitigate security problems, and recommends that funding to war-torn states is directed to address environmental issues during post-war recovery. This includes funding natural infrastructure and ecosystem restoration, and services such as waste, wastewater and resource management.
The report cites dioxin remediation in Viet Nam, made necessary by the use of Agent Orange, as an example of where multiple processes acting together can improve responses. National governance, international technical cooperation and financial support, and a global agreement on chemicals – in this case the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants – were all necessary.
Resource conflicts and cooperation
GEO6 recognises that resources are a potential driver for conflicts, and that mining and other extraction or production techniques can have negative environmental impacts. It also notes that scarcity can lead to insecurity, as states seek to control the availability of particular resources.
Concurrently, it argues that population growth can have an environmental impact, both directly through the use of natural resources, and indirectly, through increasing the probability of resource-related conflicts and resultant “rapid and unplanned urbanization”.
The report also notes that “the opening of potential new fishing zones, oil and gas development and shipping may result in future conflicts, especially with regard to economic use, governance, cultural interests and marine protected areas”.
As with its predecessor, GEO6 focuses in on water security and cooperation. It finds that there has been a rapid deterioration in freshwater quantity and quality in different regions. Conflicts are found to exacerbate this, alongside human migration, and droughts that are increasing in severity and intensity. In West Asia, where water provision has improved significantly, the report finds that the reliability and continuity of services is being challenged by armed conflicts.
The report cites a UN Environment publication which states that some 286 international transboundary river basins involving 151 countries “pose challenging management problems”. Transboundary lakes and reservoirs are also noted as being problematic, and even within countries such as India or the USA, transboundary problems may arise between states or provinces.
Arguing that water management has historically resulted in “cooperative, rather than conflicting, outcomes”, the report nevertheless notes that conflicts can arise over the implementation of international and inter-state agreements. Similarly, an intensification of water pollution and scarcity can also cause tensions both between and within states, though it is noted that these are rarely the sole trigger of a conflict.
Environmental security in a future GEO7
The elements of GEO6 that address security and conflicts are just part of the bleak picture it paints of the severe environmental threats faced by humanity. The report’s executive summary, which was negotiated and agreed by states in January, argues that “urgent action at an unprecedented scale is necessary to arrest and reverse this situation”. Yet at UNEA-4 in Nairobi this March, the actions of some states seemed wholly at odds with this.
That the environmental drivers and consequences of conflicts feature in GEO6 is to be welcomed. Nevertheless, during negotiations to agree the text of the executive summary, two states objected to reflecting the linkages between environmental change and security in the document. Had the summary failed to do so, it would have struck many as odd given the extent to which the full report communicates the importance of integrated and holistic approaches to address environmental, economic and social problems. The complex relationships between the environment and security are a prime example of precisely why such approaches are needed. As it stands, the executive summary states that environmental degradation and climate change can lead to conflicts but does not refer to the environmental consequences of conflicts.
Which is not to say that the linkages between climate change and environmental degradation, and armed conflicts, are fully understood, particularly as they are often context and location specific. This perhaps underscores the importance of the process leading up to the next GEO report and the potential that the process could have as a vehicle for encouraging research on these linkages. The UNEA-4 resolution Keeping the world environment under review included a suite of proposals for improving data collection on environmental change, and called for UN Environment, in consultation with stakeholders, to prepare an options document on the scope and process for GEO7. It also called on them to accelerate efforts to assist states in developing their national environmental data management capacities and environmental monitoring systems for environmental security.
As a minority of spoiler states failed to block language on the relationship between environmental change and human security in March, there is now an opportunity for environmental security to feature in whatever comes next for the GEO process. While its next incarnation is yet to be fully determined, if UN Environment’s moves toward the greater use of Big Data are realised, there is the potential for GEO to become more regular, more accessible, more policy-orientated and more relevant for those seeking to underpin decision-making with reliable environmental data.
Doug Weir is the Research and Policy Director at CEOBS; Leonie Nimmo is a Research Associate.