Environmental Degradation Meaning, Causes, and Examples

environmental degradation, pollution

Environmental degradation is a decline in quality of the environment, mainly as a result of human activity. This article discusses environmental degradation meaning, causes and examples;

-Meaning of Environmental Degradation

-Natural Causes of Environmental Degradation

-Anthropogenic Causes of Environmental Degradation

-15 Examples of Environmental Degradation





Meaning of Environmental Degradation

Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment by alteration of physical, chemical and biological conditions.

In the process of environmental degradation, some important natural resources may be lost from the environment [3]. This understanding can be used to define environmental degradation.

Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment as a result of the depletion of natural resources.

When defining environmental degradation, the quality of the environment is one important factor to consider;

Environmental degradation is a decline in air quality, as well as soil and water quality, in the environment, due to various activities and processes.

The role of humans in environmental degradation is very important [10]. This role can be used to define the concept.

Environmental degradation is the disintegration and deterioration of the natural environment as a result of human activities, such as the exploitation of natural resources and the production of energy.

Sustainability is another concept that is important to environmental degradation.

Environmental degradation is a reduction of the sustainability of the environment, and therefore its capacity to meet social, economic and ecological needs and objectives.

An observable cause, as well as effect, of environmental degradation; is pollution. This effect can also be included in the definition, as follows;

Environmental degradation is the alteration of the environment in a negative manner; as a result of factors like contamination and pollution.

Biological impacts of environmental degradation are significant [11]. They affect both humans and lower organisms, and should be considered when defining environmental degradation;

Environmental degradation is a process involving a compromise of the natural environment, and which may affect human health and biological diversity.

Lastly, we can define environmental degradation in terms of natural hazards and other associated processes;

Environmental degradation is the outcome of any of various processes that have potential negative impacts on the environment, such as desertification, erosion, pollution, flooding, over-exploitation and landslides.


Causes of Environmental Degradation

Causes of environmental degradation include pollution, overpopulation, waste disposal, industrialization, deforestation, urbanization, agriculture, energy development, and natural hazards.

These causes can be broadly classified into natural and anthropogenic/man made causes, as discussed below;


-Natural Causes of Environmental Degradation

1). Natural Hazards

Natural hazards can lead to environmental degradation, because these events affect the physicochemical and biological aspects of the environment.

In any ecosystem, the occurrence of a natural hazard potentially affects both the biotic and abiotic components of the ecosystem in a negative manner.

An example of environmental degradation as a result of a natural hazard is flooding. This phenomenon can lead to the loss of soil and the leaching of important minerals required for plant growth.

It can also cause a loss of biomass, by drowning plants and animals. Pollution may occur as a side-effect of flooding [4], especially when the flood water transports and spreads toxic materials in the environment.

Other natural hazards that cause environmental degradation include landslides (which cause destruction of land and loss of soil); wildfires (which produce greenhouse emissions, and harm plants and animals); and earthquakes (which lead to loss of land and other natural resources).

Environmental degradation can occur naturally, because the Earth is dynamic and constantly changing. However, the natural causes of environmental degradation are minor in their overall impact, compared to anthropogenic causes.


-Anthropogenic or Man-Made Causes of Environmental Degradation

1). Overpopulation

Overpopulation causes environmental degradation, because it increases the demand for natural resources [5].

When there is a high level of strain placed upon natural resources, such as water, air, oil and gas, and minerals; these resources are extracted at an alarming rate.

The extraction of natural resources through mining, petroleum exploration, dredging, and agriculture (among other methods) has potential effects on the environment.

These effects often degrade the environment, by altering its physical, chemical and biological attributes, while reducing environmental quality and the quantity of available resources.

2). Pollution

Pollution is both a cause and an effect of environmental degradation.

There are various ways by which pollution may occur. They include fossil-fuel burning, industrial effluent release, and unsustainable manufacturing.

Also, pollution may affect various aspects of the environment. including water, soil, and air [8].

When these aspects of the environment are polluted, their quality reduces. This can be observed in air or water which has been rendered unsafe by pollution.

environmental degradation, pollution
Pollution as A Cause of Environmental Degradation (Credit: meg and rahul 2005 .CC BY 2.0.)


Some measures can be taken to address environmental degradation as a result of pollution. These include bioremediation, thermal remediation, and electrokinetic remediation. Such measures aim to reduce or totally eliminate pollutants from the environment.

3). Improper Waste Management

When waste is not managed effectively, environmental degradation may occur.

The reason for this is that waste usually contains materials that are potentially harmful to the environment.

Examples of such materials are heavy metals, synthetic polymers, and leachate.

Heavy metals can be released from municipal waste, into the environment [6]. These metals, including lead, arsenic and chromium, may enter into the soil or water, causing pollution.

Other toxic materials like leachate, are produced when waste undergoes biodegradation. These materials can penetrate the soil and enter into groundwater aquifers [13].

Also, improperly managed waste can cause air pollution by releasing toxic and vile gases like carbon monoxide (CO), methane, carbon dioxide (CO2), and sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the air.

Such gases contribute to the greenhouse effect, global warming and climate change.

Some waste management practices like incineration also degrade the environment by producing toxic gaseous emissions.

4). Industrialization

Industrialization is a major cause of environmental degradation, because it leads to changes in the natural equilibrium of the environment, through resource-depletion and pollutant-emission.

While industrialization has been very useful in bringing about the advancement of the human society in recent centuries, it has also been a cause of several devastating effects on the biotic and abiotic aspects of the global ecosystem.

Industrialization involves the exploitation of environmental resources, and the alteration of natural conditions. These two scenarios contribute to degradation.

It is important to understand that industrialization itself contains other concepts and practices that affect the environment negatively, like energy production and usage, manufacturing, waste production, deforestation, and urbanization.

industrialization, environmental degradation
Industrial Causes Environmental Degradation (Credit: Alexvye 2003 .CC BY-SA 3.0.)


5). Deforestation

Deforestation is the progressive removal or destruction of forest vegetation, mainly as a result of human activities [1].

One of the effects on deforestation on the environment is greenhouse emission.

It is estimated that deforestation accounts for up to 15% of total greenhouse emissions on Earth. This occurs because of the role which is played by vegetation, in the absorption of carbon dioxide.

Vegetation is referred to as a natural carbon sink, because it uses carbon dioxide to produce its own food through the process of photosynthesis

When this vegetation is removed through deforestation, the carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Deforestation also exposes the environment to other problems like landslides and flooding, which can lead to degradation.

Lastly, it is important to recognize the role of deforestation in the depletion of natural resources. When deforestation occurs, forest resources including land, vegetation, oxygen, water and soil, are lost, either due to exploitation or pollution.

6). Urbanization

Urbanization causes environmental degradation by destroying habitats, increasing the demand for natural resources, and altering the environment [2].

Other causes of environmental degradation are related to urbanization as well. These include deforestation, whereby forest vegetation is removed or destroyed to clear the land for urban settlement.

Energy production and industrialization are both facilitated by urbanization, due to the rise in demand for electricity and processed products.

In many cases, urban development leads to natural hazards like flooding [7]. This is because urban structures can alter the natural landscape and topography, and can block important water ways.

Urbanization facilitates other potentially harmful activities like the excessive use of fertilizers in agriculture, indiscriminate waste disposal, and excessive pesticide usage.

7). Agriculture

Agriculture causes environmental degradation by consuming natural resources and releasing toxic materials into the environment.

In the process of agricultural cultivation, minerals in the soil are used up. Environmental degradation may occur in the form of a decline in soil fertility, provided these minerals are not replenished at an equal or higher rate than they are consumed.

In agriculture, potentially toxic chemicals in the form of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides are used [9]. These chemicals may flow into water and cause pollution.  

Livestock farming (which is an aspect of agriculture) is known to contribute notably to greenhouse emissions.

Some greenhouse gases released in the process of livestock farming include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide [12].

Overgrazing by livestock, exposes the environment to potential degradation through leaching and erosion.

Also, agriculture is associated with other causes of environmental degradation, such as deforestation.

8). Energy Development

Environmental degradation is caused by the production and consumption of energy, because these processes exert pressure on the environment, and lead to the release of pollutants.

Most sources and forms of energy can have negative impacts on the environment. This includes fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and biomass energy.

Renewable forms of energy like solar and wind can also affect the environment. Solar panels and wind turbines are known to cause aesthetic pollution, and can be harmful when disposed improperly.

There are many ways whereby energy development can contribute to environmental degradation. These include thermal pollution, climate change, global warming, greenhouse gas emission, solid waste production, radioactive pollution.


15 Examples of Environmental Degradation

Examples of environmental degradation are;

  1. Soil Erosion
  2. Groundwater depletion
  3. Clogging of natural waterways
  4. Greenhouse gas emission
  5. Industrial effluent release
  6. Burning of fossil fuels
  7. Deforestation
  8. Excessive mineral exploration
  9. Radioactive pollution
  10. Mine waste exposure
  11. Ozone layer depletion
  12. Reef destruction
  13. Oil spillage
  14. Over-fishing
  15. Overgrazing



Environmental degradation is any process involving a decline in the quality of the environment, either through the loss of resources, destruction of ecosystems, pollution, or alteration of the physicochemical and biological attributes of the environment.

9 causes of environmental degradation are;

1). Natural Hazards

2). Overpopulation

3). Pollution

4). Improper Waste Management

5). Industrialization

6). Deforestation

7). Urbanization

8). Agriculture

9). Energy Development


Examples of environmental degradation include; Soil Erosion, Groundwater depletion, Clogging of natural waterways, Greenhouse gas emission, Industrial effluent release, Burning of fossil fuels, Deforestation, Excessive mineral exploration, Radioactive pollution, Mine waste exposure, Ozone layer depletion, Reef destruction, Oil spillage, Over-fishing, and Overgrazing.



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