The climate crisis is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, and we are not ready for it. While the crisis has many factors that play a role in its exacerbation, there are some that warrant more attention than others. Here are some of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime.
Earth.Org’s data visualization team has decided to wrap up 2021 with some of its most popular articles. We hope you enjoy, and wish you a happy new year!
1. Poor Governance
In a world governed by economics, our society has failed to factor in the value of Nature. It provides us with indispensable resources, yet is inexplicably free to overdraw from. Its services range from air, water, food, and medicine to other less obvious things like climate regulation and natural flood defences provided by forests.
In many cases, damaging or changing the environment is considered no more than a side-effect of business activities. In economics, this is known as an externality, i.e. a cost (or benefit) incurred by the producer, that is paid (or received) by a third party who did not agree to it.
Right now, our externalities are resulting in very real financial costs for those going through amplified natural disasters (droughts, floods, hurricanes), suffering from poor health due to air pollution, being displaced by sea level rise, and many other things.
Today, the prices we pay don’t capture all the costs, and this in and of itself is one of our biggest environmental problems. We ignore this fact because the unseen costs have only begun to appear and often in places of high vulnerability.
Current attempts at pricing externalities have come in the form of carbon taxes or emission trading schemes (ETS). As you can see from the map below, the vast majority of countries have opted for the latter, but ETS have had many shortcomings so far (for more, see our article here).
Actual carbon taxes have only been implemented in Argentina, South Africa and Singapore, at values of (US) $10, $8 and $5 per ton of CO2-equivalent (CO2eq) emissions. Is that enough?
Accurately pricing carbon based on its detrimental effect on the environment is extremely difficult to do, because our best climate predictions have quite a bit of uncertainty. Therefore estimating the extent of a ton of CO2eq’s damage on the environment is impossible to confine to a single number, and the range is very wide (US $30 to over US $100).
While uncertainty and market properties make it difficult for the world to adopt a set carbon tax, it is still safe to say that US $10 a ton and under is not enough.
What you can do: be aware of when your next local or national elections are, and vote for candidates who are engaged on climate issues.
2. Food Waste
In 2013, the US Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that around ⅓ of the world’s food was wasted every year. Since then, it has become a major issue which many entities around the world are attempting to solve.
The amount of food lost is equivalent to roughly 1.3 billion tons, which is enough to feed 3 billion people. Considering there are 690 million people suffering from malnutrition, it is clear we have more than enough for everyone to eat their fill. Beyond the human tragedy, the damage from producing this food is one of the biggest environmental problems on our planet, which we will expand on in the agriculture section furhter down.
Regarding food waste, the situation varies from country to country, but some is lost at every point along the food chain: on farms and fishing boats, in processing and distribution, in retail, in restaurants and at home. Developing countries see most of the loss occur in pre retail stages while developed countries waste more at the retail and consumer levels. In the US for instance, households waste around 43% of all food. For more, check out our article: 20 Facts About Food Waste.
What you can do: to reduce food waste, we can shop more efficiently as consumers and avoid letting things sit past their expiration date. Governments are also addressing the problem; in 2015 the Obama administration pledged to cut food waste by half by 2030. The movement has also entered the entrepreneurial world, led by Too Good To Go, a company that connects you with retailers to help you pick up food that would otherwise go to waste.
3. Biodiversity Loss
Ever since the first Homo sapiens, biodiversity has suffered wherever we went. Today, it has developed into one of our biggeest environmental problems, with animal populations in critical state.
The 2020 Living Planet Report (LPR), published by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), gathered data on the declining population levels of biodiversity around the world. Globally, all monitored populations have declined by an average 68% since 1975, but some regions are in a far more critical state. Latin America & the Caribbean sustained a 94% loss over the same period.
The main cause of decline worldwide is land-use change, i.e. when we convert habitats like forests, mangroves or grasslands into agricultural systems. In fact, some scientists say that we are undergoing the 6th mass extinction.
What you can do: there are big initiatives to help save our biodiversity, like 30 by 30, by which world leaders have pledged to protect 30% of land and ocean by 2030. You can support these by electing representatives who support the movement.
4. Plastic Pollution
After World War I, improvements in chemistry allowed for the mass production of plastics to begin. By the 1950s, around 2 million tons of plastic was produced every year, and the wonder material’s popularity has increased ever since.
Unfortunately, market incentives for post-use processing haven’t kept up with production, resulting in one of the biggest environmental problems of our time: plastic pollution.
Of the 270 million tons of plastic produced each year, a small portion (that is, 8 million tons) ends up in the ocean. It then either sinks to the bottom, or decomposes into progressively smaller pieces called microplastics at the surface. Microplastics act like toxin sponges, binding many of the chemicals we carelessly let leak into our oceans, before being ingested by marine life. These can work their way up the food chain back to us.
But it’s more than just our oceans. Plastics have been found near the peak of Mount Everest, and car tyre rubber can go airborne and get carried hundreds of miles away. You’ll find pieces in your tap water, your beer and your tea bags.
What you can do: a recent study found that the vast majority of plastic found in the environment actually comes from takeout.
We have more power than we know as consumers. Every small effort can turn into a habit, and every bit makes a difference.
10,000 years ago, around the start of agriculture, forests used to cover 57% of all habitable land. Since then, we’ve lost a third, much of it replaced by crops or grazing land.
According to The World Counts, we are losing 20 football pitches worth of forest every minute, though much of it regrows. Far more critical is the rate of loss of primary forests that have remained untouched for millenia. 75% of these are found in just seven countries, and they are home to some of the most ecologically rich and diverse ecosystems in the world. New forests are not able to build up such biodiversity without centuries to do so, nor are they able to capture and store carbon so densely.
According to the WRI, we lost a football pitch of primary rainforest every 6 seconds last year, equivalent to 3.8 million hectares or an area roughly the size of Switzerland.
Not only does this lead to one of the other biggest environmental problems in biodiversity loss, but old, large forests like the Amazon provide water, materials, medicine and livelihoods for an entire continent (and beyond). Scientists say we are nearing a tipping point, past which enough deforestation will mean its slow, but inevitable disappearance.
What you can do: solutions here are more difficult for the average individual to apply, but since cattle are a large driver of deforestation, eating less meat can help. Many other products we use every day come from rainforests, such as cashews, vanilla, avocado, coffee, tea and cocoa. Make sure the ones you consume are sourced responsibly.
6. Air Pollution
Air pollution is one of the world’s worst killers, attributed ~10 million deaths each year making it one of our biggest environmental problems. This is far more than was previously thought, and as the world continues to industrialize, it is not expected to subside soon.
When countries develop, this comes hand in hand with air pollution – mostly from industrial and vehicular sources, but also from indoor fuel combustion. Pollution builds up in the early stages, then legislation catches up and it begins reducing. Countries in Africa are a good example, with 258,000 people having died as a result of outdoor air pollution in 2017.
In the past four decades, China went through a very polluted stretch due to its rapid development, but it has made huge progress in the last decade. Most of its major cities now are just above the WHO’s guideline levels for fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
India remains in a critical state, with routine smogs in its densely populated agglomerations, affecting millions of people everyday.
What you can do: walk, cycle or use public transport rather than your car where possible. You can also use air quality index apps on your phone to track pollution in real time and choose healthier routes for yourself and others.
Agriculture appeared around 10,000 years ago, and has since become the principal type of land usage on Earth: nearly 50% of all habitable land hass become either crop or pasture.
The bulk of its growth came after the Industrial Revolution around 1780, and expansion only recently slowed. The amount of environmental destruction necessary for such land change could be one of our biggest environmental problems on its own, but there’s more. It also emits about a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Sustainable food production is one of the biggest challenges ahead, because climate change threatens food production while our current farming methods degrade our soils. Traditional farming techniques have given way to chemical fertilizer-heavy monocultures where soils are left bare after harvest. Wind and water erode it and fertilizers make their way to the oceans where they can cause oxygen-depleting algae blooms, also known as dead zones.
The current philosophy is to always maximize yields, when it is actually unnecessary. We produce more than we need, and farmers have reported low cereal prices due to overproduction.
In order for this to stop, everyone needs to be on the same page, because the lone farmer who reduces fertilizer use will find himself at a disadvantage. It will likely require authorities to step in and regulate the system rather than let the market do so, but this issue is very low on their priority list if at all, bringing us back to the first biggest environmental problem on the list – bad governance.
What you can do: inform and educate those around you. Vote for the right people.
8. Global Warming From Fossil Fuels
At time of publication, CO2 parts per million (ppm) is at 417.55 and the global average temperature has risen by 1 degree celsius. This phenomenon is central to climate change, with a myriad knock-on effects, and making it one of the biggest environmental problems of our time.
The Earth has a number of carbon emitting and capturing mechanisms that interact to create patterns over long periods of time. Despite large fluctuations in the past, the past 12,000 years have been uncharacteristically stable and temperate, allowing humans to flourish.
But since the Industrial Revolution, we have been drawing on long-stored carbon reserves, emitting it into the atmosphere far faster and longer than any natural process would.
As a result, we are experiencing rapid warming, launching a cascade of effects. Rain patterns change, ice caps melt, sea levels rise, weather extremes become more intense, ecosystems falter and we struggle to adapt.
You may have heard that stopping emissions today would only mean an end to global warming around 2033. This is because, once emitted, CO2 takes some time to reach its full warming potential. Thankfully, the bulk of it happens quite fast as demonstrated by the graph below.
What you can do: be aware of your carbon footprint. There are many ways to calculate and monitor it – for more see this carbon footprint calculator.
9. Melting Ice Caps
Most of the world’s freshwater is trapped in ice-form at the north and south poles, and in glaciers around the world. If all of it were to melt, sea level would rise by about 70 meters. Of course, that isn’t happening anytime soon, but the world as we know it could change quite a bit with just 1 to 2 meters sea level rise, which is expected to occur by the end of the century.
While the world has warmed by an average of 1°C, the north pole is now 2.8°C hotter than it was 100 years ago. Mountain glaciers and the Antarctic are also warming faster than the average, and as a result, ice melt has been accelerating globally. This visualization by Iman Ghosh illustrates the situation admirably.
Ice bodies are self-sustaining systems, and once enough is lost, they can enter the long, irreversible process of fully disappearing. The question of when exactly that threshold is crossed is incredibly hard to determine, so it would be wise to play this extra safe.
Mountain glacier melt is of particular concern, because they melt quicker and earlier each year, leading to potentially dangerous water overflow, followed by water shortage. The Hindu Kush, also known as the Third Pole, provides water to 2 billion people, and it is melting rapidly. The Andean glaciers in South America shrank nearly a third between 2000 and 2016.
All the above leads to sea level rise, the next biggest environmental problem on the list.
What you can do: once again, this comes down to carbon emissions. You can make smart decisions in your everyday life, but you must also make sure you elect the right representatives to push for green reform in your country.
10. Sea Level Rise
A recent paper published in Nature tripled the previous estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding. Most sea level rise projections prior to this one fell below 1 to 1.5 meters, but it seems now that 2 meters is possible. Were that to happen, the authors of the study estimate that 680 million people would find themselves displaced, ushering in a gradual yet inexorable rearrangement of the coastal world.
Up to 3 billion people depend on the ocean and its ecosystems, and as a result, a massive amount of infrastructure and operations have been set up on low lying coastal land. Little attention has been given to rising sea levels, meaning adaptation will be arduous and costly.
Rising sea levels also make storm surges more potent, thus increasing flood potential in storm susceptible places like Bangladesh, the US and many others. In fact, over 70% of all natural disasters since 2000 were water-related, so their itensification spells trouble for people all over the world (Germany was hit with an unexpectedly powerful flood just a few days prior to publishing).
FOr a more visual example, let’s look at Shanghai’s megalopolis, built around the low-lying Yangtze river delta.
As the 4th most populous city in the world, it could find itself so vulnerable to flooding that the whole area would have to be evacuated, or massively engineered to resist, by the end of the century. Sea level rise, while slow, is undeniably one of the biggest environmental problem on our hands and we need to prepare.
If you want to see more, we’ve made similar coastal flooding projection maps for 70 different locations around the world.
What you can do: if you are deciding where to live, be aware that a low coastal area may not be viable within the next few decades. If you do live in one, get in touch with your local representatives to find out what they are doing to prepare.
11. Food and Water Insecurity
The final of the biggest environmental problems on our list is food and water insecurity. Conflict and climate have long left people bereft of food and water. Now, climate change and population growth are set to worsen access to these fundamental resources.
While the number of undernourished people has been decreasing, there remain over 650 million worldwide. As explained above, we have a food surplus that is going to waste, and we need to do a better job of directing it toward places in need.
Undernourished numbers have stalled since the early 2000s, and there is no real reason to think they will drop again soon. In fact, they are more likely to begin rising again due to climate change.
A warmer atmosphere changes rain patterns, making droughts more frequent and intense, and rains more torrential and destructive. Countries with food insecurity usually have difficult climates to start with and as things get worse, other problems arise. Hunger drives conflict, which combined with a lack of finances makes it incredibly difficult to adapt.
Nations in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and many others will need external help, as they will bear the early brunt of the climate crisis; how the global community handles these crises could be a defining moment of solidarity for humankind.
As for water issues, they will affect rich and poor countries alike, though the latter will once again have more to deal with.
Water issues are tightly linked to natural disasters, 73.6% of which were water-related between 2001 and 2018. According to UNICEF, 450 million children live with high water vulnerability, meaning they do not have enough to meet their everyday needs. When a disaster strikes, their water sources can be contaminated with diseases like cholera or typhoid disease, or simply destroyed.
High-income countries have their share of problems too – rising temperatures can make freshwater more suitable to microbes like Vibrio vulnificus, otherwise known as flesh-eating bacteria, cases of which have been occurring in the US. It’s western portions are also dealing with one of the worst droughts in recent history, and water reservoirs are at all-time lows. Since 70% of freshwater goes toward agriculture, this will eventually come back to affect food supply.
To cap it off, sea level rise is making coastal freshwater salty, and sometimes even causes ocean water to seep into underground aquifers, our last resort water stores.
The UN has warned that one in four children, nearly 600 million, will be living with extreme water scarcity by 2040.
What you can do: these issues are tied to the development of poorer countries, and how we handle climate change as a global community. The more we do now, the easier it will be for high-income countries to lend aid to those in need. It must not be underestimated how crucial it is for world leaders to set the right example for the rest to follow.
Stay informed, educate those around you and vote; the little things add up.
This article was written by Owen Mulhern. Cover photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash.
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