Learn about 20 of the most pressing environmental issues facing the world today.
When the environment isn’t healthy, every living thing suffers. Unfortunately, things like the Industrial Revolution, capitalism, and a dependence on fossil fuels have severely harmed the earth. Urgent action is needed, and while the Sustainable Development Goals include priorities like climate action, much of the world isn’t moving fast enough. While many people are aware of climate change, they’re less familiar with the specific causes and impacts. In this list, we’ll break down 20 environmental issues related to climate change and other problems:
#1. Rising global temperatures
According to NASA, the earth’s average global temperature has gone up by at least 1.9° Fahrenheit since 1880. 2022 tied for the fifth warmest year on record, while the last nine years have been the hottest years since modern record-keeping in 1880. A few degrees may not seem like a big deal, but increases in the average global temperatures are different from your local temperature fluctuations. As NASA explains, it takes a massive amount of heat to warm the entire world (which includes all the oceans, the atmosphere, and all the land masses) by even just one degree. A warmer globe means worse storms, heat waves, droughts, and floods. Wet areas get wetter and drier areas get dryer. This translates into more disasters, more environmental destruction, and more death.
#2. Biodiversity loss
In the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2022, biodiversity loss was ranked as the third most severe threat facing the world over the next decade. Using a supercomputer model, one study created a “middle of the road emissions scenario,” which warned we could lose 6% of all earth’s plants and animals by 2050. Why is it important to have a diverse range of species in ecosystems like forests and oceans? There are many reasons, including the fact that diverse ecosystems are more resilient against threats like pests, disease, and weather changes. Biodiversity is also linked to better food security, less soil erosion, and better carbon sequestration, which is when there’s lots of vegetation to absorb C02.
#3. Air pollution
Air pollution, which occurs when chemicals or harmful particles enter the air, is caused by things like car and plane emissions, cigarette smoke, wildfire smoke, and so on. It has serious effects on animals, plants, and people. It’s so serious, indoor and outdoor pollution contributed to 11.6% of global deaths in 2019. According to research, low-to-middle-income countries endure the most deaths from air pollution, so this is an area that needs addressing.
#4. Water pollution
When water harmful substances (like chemicals, trash, parasites, etc) get into water, the water becomes polluted and dangerous. A lot of pollution is caused by untreated wastewater, which is full of soaps, human waste, chemicals, oils, and more. According to the UNEP, about 80% of global wastewater is untreated. By contaminating the water people use for drinking, washing, swimming, and cooking, untreated wastewater can lead to life-threatening diseases like cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and even cancer.
We’ve discussed some health effects caused by things like air and water pollution, but there’s another big risk to know about: pandemics. Research shows a “clear link” between the climate crisis and global health pandemics. A report from IPBES found that human activities were the cause of all previous global health pandemics. Expanding agriculture, disrupting ecosystems, and narrowing the space between animals and humans increase our exposure to pathogens. Unless action is taken, pandemics will become much more common.
#6. Water scarcity
Only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater, but just ⅓ of that is available to humans. According to a UN report, 2 billion people don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water, while 3.6 billion don’t have access to adequate sanitation. Things like drought, poor agricultural management, and pollution worsen water scarcity. Food insecurity and waterborne diseases are just two of the impacts.
#7. Sea level rise
The sea has been rising over the last 100 years, and in recent years, the rate has increased to about ⅛-inch per year. A rising sea level matters because storms can push further inland and cause worse flooding. This puts human and wildlife life at risk, as well as coastal infrastructure like roads, bridges, water supplies, landfills, and more. Sea level rise is primarily caused by ocean warming and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets.
#8. Ocean acidification
The ocean has a delicate pH, but as the amount of C02 in the atmosphere has increased, it’s increased in the ocean, too. The ocean absorbs about 30% of the C02 released into the atmosphere. As the ocean absorbs more C02, there’s a chemical reaction that destroys carbonate ions and makes seawater more acidic. Organisms like oysters, clams, and corals suffer because they need carbonate ions to build their shells and skeletons. This sets off a chain reaction in the ocean’s ecosystem. While ocean acidification may seem slow, it’s still happening too fast for organisms to evolve.
Humans have been fishing for thousands of years, but when we catch too many at one time, the fish population can’t recover. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, around ⅓ of the world’s fisheries (many fisheries aren’t even studied) are at risk. Overfishing is also linked to “bycatch,” which is when ships capture sea life they aren’t trying to catch. This threatens the lives of billions of marine life like dolphins and turtles. Illegal fishing contributes to overfishing, but many fishing companies simply aren’t using sustainable fishing protocols. Overfishing causes problems like food insecurity, coral death, and job loss for people in the fishing industry.
#10. Coral bleaching
When seawater warms, coral reefs are forced to expel the nutrient-rich algae in their tissues. The coral turns white, which is where the term “bleaching” comes from. While bleached coral isn’t dead, it’s more vulnerable to disease and death. If coral dies, it has a severe effect on the species that depend on them, which affects the humans who depend on fishing. Healthy coral reefs are also vital sources of pharmaceutical compounds that treat Alzheimer’s, cancer, ulcers, and more.
#11. Soil degradation
Soil degradation occurs when soil loses its quality and can’t support plant growth. Things like erosion (driven by water and/or wind), the loss of organic matter, and contamination contribute to soil degradation. Healthy soil is necessary for supporting livelihoods and growing food, but soil serves many purposes. It filters water, helps prevent floods, contains organisms used in medicine (like penicillin), and supports the biodiversity of plants and animals. According to data from 2015, land degradation impacts around 1.5 billion people.
In the last 10,000 years, ⅓ of the world’s forests have vanished. That may not sound so bad, but half of that loss happened in just the last 100 years. There are a few reasons for deforestation, including wood extraction, agricultural expansion, and urbanization. Climate change, soil erosion, flooding, biodiversity loss, and harm to people who depend on forests are just a few consequences of deforestation. According to the FAO’s 2022 forest report, steps like sustainable forest management, empowering local actors, and funding recovery are essential to stopping deforestation.
Droughts occur when an area hasn’t had enough rain for a long time. In Somalia, where rains have failed for several seasons, drought contributed to the deaths of 43,000 people in 2022. A “megadrought” affecting the Western United States has caused the area’s driest 20 years in the last 1,200 years. Effects will last for years to come. Climate change is a big driver of drought, so as climate change worsens, so will droughts.
While coal mines remain a serious environmental issue, the world is also dealing with precious metal mines, like cobalt mines. Cobalt is used in nearly all lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, which are needed for most electronics and electric vehicles. In a 2021 study on cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, researchers found a link between mining and increases in violence, food and water insecurity, pollution, health problems, and the loss of farmland and homes. This shows that even when mining materials for lower-emission electric cars, there are serious environmental and human health impacts to address.
#15. Urban sprawl
As cities grow, natural areas get smaller. Impacts include the loss of farmland, reduced biodiversity, accelerated deforestation and climate change, and exposure to pathogens from wildlife. In a study examining land take in the EU and UK’s urban areas (2012-2018), researchers found that urban sprawl affected mostly croplands and pastures. “Soil sealing,” which happens when people build housing and roads over soil, was also an issue. If new construction hadn’t occurred, the soil could have sequestered as much as 4.2 million tonnes of carbon.
When you throw plastic away, it doesn’t disappear; it degrades into smaller and smaller bits. Known as microplastic, these tiny pieces have been found in water, soil, the air, and even human blood. The health effects on humans aren’t clear, but there are documented harms to animal life. Plastic is also an issue because most of it is made from fossil fuels. Can plastic be recycled? Technically yes, but an investigation by PBS Frontline and NPR found that most of the plastic tossed in recycling bins wasn’t being recycled. Collecting, sorting, and recycling plastic is expensive for companies while making new plastic is cheap. Dealing with plastic (and reducing plastic use in the first place) is a major environmental issue.
#17. Permafrost thaw
When the ground has been frozen for two or more years in a row, it becomes permafrost. Some permafrost, which can be as thick as 4,900 feet, has been frozen for hundreds of thousands of years. What happens when it thaws? It releases carbon. The world’s permafrost could be holding as many as 1,500 billion tons of carbon. Permafrost can also contain pathogens that escape when the ground thaws. In 2016, following a series of hot summers in Siberia, there was an anthrax outbreak that infected dozens of people and 2,000 reindeer. Scientists are also concerned about pathogens our immune systems won’t recognize. Protecting permafrost is a serious environmental issue.
#18. Waste disposal
Humans produce a lot of waste. Much of it ends up in landfills. According to The World Bank, around 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste gets thrown away every year. At least 33% of that isn’t managed with the environment in mind. When it sits in landfills without gas collection systems, waste can create around 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Building landfills has an environmental cost, too; the average landfill takes up 600 acres of land. As the population grows, managing waste responsibly will become even more important.
#19. Environmental racism
The impacts of things like pollution and improper waste disposal aren’t distributed equally. Research shows race is often a factor. In the United States, Black and Hispanic Americans are exposed to 56-63% more pollution than what they produce. Black Americans are 75% more likely to live near waste-producing facilities, which increases exposure to lead, arsenic, and mercury. In an area of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley,” residents (mostly Black) live pressed against chemical plants and oil refineries. The cancer risk is significantly higher than the national average. When addressing environmental issues, racism can’t be ignored.
#20. Unequal climate change impacts
Climate change doesn’t see race, gender, or class, but it’s affecting certain countries more than others. Despite polluting the least, the world’s poorest countries bear the most devastating climate change impacts. Pakistan, which contributes just 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, is a good example. An article from PBS describes the floods in the summer of 2022, which put ⅓ of the country underwater. More than 1,700 people were killed, millions lost their homes, and more than 4 million acres of crops and orchards were damaged. The entire continent of Africa, which experiences the worst climate change effects, accounts for just 3.8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Many believe it’s only fair the biggest polluters pay for climate damage.
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