Environmental degradation is not just one challenge: It is several interrelated sustainability crises facing our world at the same time. From wildfires and food shortages to air pollution and biodiversity loss, the varied environmental challenges all stem from a common cause: A disregard for the environment (particularly by the Global North) that has been accelerated by industrialization and rapid economic expansion. These challenges often require diverse solutions, and all require urgent attention, making them seem like particularly overwhelming policy problems.
However, some of these problems are so intertwined that they can be addressed simultaneously by holistic and well-formulated policies that leverage the synergies between systems. Water sustainability, ecosystem protection, and climate change mitigation are some of the most daunting challenges of our time, but there are policy tools that can tackle all three at once.
Below, I propose three policy solutions that I believe will result in simultaneous progress in all three realms: A tax credit for sustainable farming, zoning requirements for green infrastructure, and a wealth tax to ease inequality. My frame for these policy proposals is the United States.
Agriculture + Tax Credit
Agriculture sits at the intersection of global water, ecosystem, and climate systems. As Jeffery Sachs points out in his book The Age of Sustainable Development, agriculture is the single largest source of human-induced environmental change, and it both causes and is affected by environmental degradation. Sachs notes that while agriculture is a primary driver of changes in water and land use, it also holds huge potential when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — agricultural activity is a major emitter, but when leveraged properly, croplands can also be significant GHG sinks.
Cultivating a sustainable agriculture system is essential simply because food is a basic human need. About 40% of the world’s population is malnourished, and about 10% of households in the U.S. were food insecure in 2019. Despite an ever-growing global population, we can’t afford to keep developing new land for agriculture without risking enormous levels of biodiversity loss and additional GHG emissions. This system needs to become more efficient and sustainable.
I propose a tax credit package that would reward farmers for adopting various sustainable agriculture activities, including the use of more efficient irrigation systems, increased crop biodiversity, and alternatives to nitrogen-based fertilizers. This policy would encourage these practices, helping to maximize the environmental benefits of agriculture while minimizing its harmful tendencies. Because agriculture is so beholden to local geographical characteristics, farmers would be able to mix and match the eligible sustainable agriculture practices that work best in their region, in order to increase efficiency and uptake.
The sustainable agriculture practices supported by such a tax credit would have a number of positive and synergistic effects on water, ecosystem, and climate change systems. By encouraging water-efficient irrigation practices, the tax credit would support what author Brian Richter calls the most cost-effective method of reducing strain on water systems: conservation. Considering that 70% of human freshwater use goes to agriculture, even modest increases in conservation and efficiency could have major impacts on preserving the integrity of water sources.
Pairing this with an incentive to decrease the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers would greatly reduce both nitrogen emissions in the atmosphere and hazardous runoff that currently pollutes waterways and damages marine ecosystems. Encouraging crop rotation can aid with this transition — diversifying the type of crops grown on a given plot can help replenish nutrients in the soil, manage pests, and support pollinators, all while increasing a plot’s capacity to absorb GHG emissions.
Land Use + Zoning Regulations
Zoning regulations for land use can also play a huge role in protecting water resources, ecosystems, and the climate. A case study on water use in Philadelphia presented in the book “Sustainability in America’s Cities” points out that land use is closely tied to water quality: Whatever is allowed to develop adjacent to a water source is inevitably going to have an effect on that source. In U.S. cities across the country, heavy industry has historically been the closest neighbor of riverways since many companies needed a readily available source of water for their industrial processes. This often led to overuse and pollution with downstream consequences.
By requiring new developments to include green space with native plants or green infrastructure such as permeable pavement or rain gardens, governments can ensure that rainwater is filtered back into a natural source instead of flowing into stressed sewer systems and picking up pollution from asphalt and concrete surfaces along the way. By encouraging green space, cities can also secure intra-city GHG sinks that can help mitigate climate change and the urban heat island effect while supporting urban ecosystems and biodiversity.
It is especially vital that these zoning specifications be mandated on riverfront property. The co-benefits associated with green redevelopment on waterfronts are illustrated through the case study of Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley Brownfield transformation. In the land-use plan for this redevelopment project on the Menomonee River, the outlined “Keys to Sustainability” included “open space and habitat restoration,” along with mixed-use development, environmental remediation, and green building, which were implemented with both environmental and economic success. Zoning laws can recreate this success by mandating mixed-use and green space provisions.
In addition, zoning can also mandate the protection of existing green space by preventing new development that causes deforestation. This is smart from an environmental perspective but also from an economic standpoint. The United Nations 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that “the total economic value associated with managing ecosystems more sustainably is often higher than the value associated with the conversion of the ecosystem through farming, clear-cut logging, or other intensive uses.”
Inequality + Wealth Tax
My third policy suggestion has the potential to reap huge benefits across the environmental sustainability spectrum and beyond. A wealth tax, similar to the one proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 election cycle, could be levied to shore up social services and address environmental degradation. The result would include redistributional justice as well as benefits for water, ecosystem, and climate protection.
As Daniel Fiorino points out in his text “A Good Life on a Finite Earth,” climate change is a “significant obstacle to the sustained eradication of poverty.” A growing body of research suggests that the reverse is also true: The more unequal a society, Fiorino writes, “the more resources will be used to sustain growth despite its negative impact on the state of the environment.” Part of this has to do with increased materialism. Lyndsay Grant and Glen O’Hara, in their article “Spotlight on … The Spirit Level,” points out that in unequal societies, symbols of status tend to be more important, leading people to “place a high value on the acquisition of material possessions and looking good in the eyes of others.” This can lead to an unsustainable level of production, resulting in high levels of industrial water use, GHG emissions, litter, and other waste. Wealthy groups can also often insulate themselves from environmental harms, at least to a point, sidelining the motivation for environmental protection until severe damage has already been done.
With inequality and environmental degradation so closely linked, it follows that their solutions should be linked as well. Taxing wealth, even at a relatively modest rate, as Sen. Warren proposes, of 2% on every dollar of net worth above $50 million and a 6% tax on every dollar of net worth above $1 billion, could move the U.S. in the direction of a more equitable society. It would free up $3.75 trillion in revenue over ten years that could be used to fight poverty and improve social services and security for low-income Americans. A portion could also be set aside to address environmental degradation directly.
Using a wealth tax to create a more equitable society would lead to a greater appreciation for public goods, which are typically undervalued by the wealthy, as well as a greater ability to organize around public goals such as the protection of water systems, ecosystems, and the climate. It would also address environmental justice concerns by placing the most vulnerable populations at the center of the effort to protect the environment and strengthen society.
There are a variety of tools that can be used to tackle environmental degradation, and as climate change becomes more severe, we should explore a wide variety of policy alternatives. But we should pay special attention to policies that can work synergistically to tackle a number of sustainability issues at once, including water sustainability, ecosystem protection, and climate change mitigation. The three policy proposals listed here — tax credits for sustainable agriculture, zoning regulations for land use, and a tax on wealth — should not be considered an exhaustive list but merely a step in the right direction for addressing the climate and environmental crisis. If we pursue these policies and more, the U.S. can become a leader in environmental sustainability and prevent additional destruction.