From pollution to resolution: Why Cop15 needs to tackle chemical use to address biodiversity loss

As global leaders meet at Cop15 to find a way for wildlife to survive Fidra make the case for getting a grip on chemical pollution.

At this time of year as we look back on 2022, we might remember it for a lot of things: when Russia invaded Ukraine, the year the UK had 3 Prime Ministers in 6 months, or for its controversial World Cup. But perhaps future generations will remember 2022 as the year the human race realised we had crossed the line, putting the future of the planet at risk.

Planetary Boundaries 2022 Credit Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Persson et al 2022 and Steffen et al 2015

Planetary Boundaries 2022 Credit: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Persson et al 2022 and Steffen et al 2015

That line is the ‘planetary boundary’ for pollution (both plastic and chemical) and it marks the point beyond which our planet may no longer be able to sustain life, ours and all other living things. Scientists from around the world published their chilling findings this year in an American Chemical Society journal. They concluded that we are already living in a danger zone full of hidden hazards that are harming us, future generations and the wildlife we love and rely on. Sometimes the hazards are plastic but often they are chemical.

Unknown chemicals

Chemical production has grown so rapidly we don’t even know how many chemicals are on the market, let alone what all these chemicals are, how they are being used and what they do to us and the planet. Recent estimates suggest there may up to 350,000 chemicals in use [1]. Whilst we don’t know exactly how many chemicals are on today’s market, we do know only a few hundred have been thoroughly tested before being used [2] , and in some countries only a handful are restricted or banned. We are missing vital information about the rest of the chemicals in use, putting us all at risk.

A risk to life

Not all chemicals with missing data will be harmful but we know some are likely to be toxic given their similarity to other substances known to be hazardous. If you know where to look the signs that these untested chemicals and known hazards are already having an impact are there. Scientists, who applied the planetary boundary concept to pollution, took evidence from around the world and found the risks are real and growing. Chemical pollution is already impacting vulnerable species with polar bears contaminated with forever chemicals, PFAS [3], and bisphenols reaching remote seabirds [4], while chemical flame retardants are impacting orcas [5] . This is just the tip of the iceberg.

The issue isn’t just a few problem chemicals, there are thousands of hazardous chemical out there, and the volume of chemicals is staggering with the industry set to double on 2019 levels by 2030 [6]. This scale and the combined impact of thousands of chemicals, most of which have unknown consequences in isolation let alone when taken together, are not just risk they are already impacting life. The UN already cites pollution as one of the drivers biodiversity loss but to date the scope of targets to address it only cover a few of the worst pollutants, further action is needed to reduce the risks to life on earth from chemical pollution as a whole.

No one is doubting the critical roles plastic and chemicals play in every day life, we need medicines and solar panels, but we need to make sure we use the right materials in right the way and avoid any that might prove harmful wherever possible. It is the way we manage chemicals that is important, and it is clear we haven’t been doing a good enough job.

Solutions to pollution

The scientists that say we have crossed the line with pollution must do so with a heavy heart, no one wants to find out that every living thing is at risk, then have to tell everyone else the bad news. But it is not all bad news. Thankfully, there is still plenty we can do to reverse it. Leaders at COP15 can set more ambitious and wide ranging targets to address pollution that threatens biodiversity including targets on forever chemicals, PFAS and endocrine disrupters like bisphenols. The private sector can embrace benign by design concepts in circular supply chains to support reuse, repair, remanufacture and eventually recycling. Governments can enforce more stringent chemical management and regulation.

Not only will biodiversity benefit, we all will. Using benign chemicals benefits workers, public health and supports recycling. Using chemicals we don’t need is also a massive waste of energy, resources, fossil fuels and an unnecessary risk. Pollution is a loss of resources, as well as a risk in itself. If we fix the pollution problem, we can save species, save energy, save money, save resources, and save lives.

Unbeknownst to us, we’ve been living blind to signs that our chemical and plastic use is causing life threatening pollution for years, but this is the year we realised it. Maybe 2023 will be the year we do something about it and learn to live within earth’s limits.

To find out more about the impacts of chemical pollution on our environment and how we can address it, explore our projects which are taking practical steps to end unnecessary and harmful chemical use.



[1] Wang Z, Walker GW, Muir DCG, Nagatani-Yoshida K. Toward a Global Understanding of Chemical Pollution: A First Comprehensive Analysis of National and Regional Chemical Inventories. Environ Sci Technol. 2020 Mar 3;54(5):2575–84.

[2] Screening for PBT Chemicals among the “Existing” and “New” Chemicals of the EU nSebastian Strempel, Martin Scheringer, Carla A. Ng, and Konrad Hungerbühler Environmental Science & Technology 2012 46 (11), 5680-5687 DOI: 10.1021/es3002713

[3] Eggers Pedersen K, Basu N, Letcher R, Greaves AK, Sonne C, Dietz R, Styrishave B. Brain region-specific perfluoroalkylated sulfonate (PFSA) and carboxylic acid (PFCA) accumulation and neurochemical biomarker Responses in east Greenland polar Bears (Ursus maritimus). Environmental Research 2015;138:22-31.

[4] Lucia et. al Screening of UV chemicals, bisphenols and siloxanes in the Arctic, Norwegian Polar Institute 2016. Accessed 13 December 2022 

[5] ROSS, P. S. Fireproof killer whales (Orcinus orca): flame-retardant chemicals and the conservation imperative in the charismatic icon of British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, v. 63, n. 1, p. 224-234, 2006.

[6] Environment UN. Global Chemicals Outlook II: From Legacies to Innovative Solutions [Internet]. UNEP – UN Environment Programme. 2019 [cited 2022 Nov 30]. Available from: