As the latest IPCC report warned, it is ‘now or never’ to limit global warming below 1.5C. Countries around the world are already bearing the brunt of climate change but the reality is that, unless we reverse this trend, the effects that we are going to experience in the near future are going to be significantly more devastating. The US is certainly not spared by global warming. From north to south, from east to west, all of its states are affected by pollution and extreme weather events in some shape or form. Here are the top environmental issues in North America and what the government is doing to tackle them.
Top Environmental Issues in the US in 2023
1. Air Pollution
As the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, preceded only by China, it comes as no surprise that air pollution is one of the biggest environmental issues in the US. In 2021 alone, about 67 million tons of pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in the country, mainly coming from the transportation and electric power sectors. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), in the same year, the country’s electric power sector emissions from coal increased for the first time since 2014.
The latest assessment on air pollution conducted by the American Lung Association found that 4 in 10 individuals – accounting for about 135 million people – are currently living in areas with unhealthy and polluted air. While the main cause is the burning of fossil fuels, climate change-related events such as wildfires and prolonged pollen seasons further exacerbate the quality of air in the country.
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Adopted in 1970, the Clean Air Act (CAA) is a comprehensive US federal law that led to the specific standards of emissions of hazardous pollutants that cause smog, acid rain, and other health hazards by setting specific limits on the atmospheric concentration of these pollutants. However, this alone will not solve air pollution in the country and the government’s best solution is drastically cut emissions.
A promising step forward was made in August 2022, as the Biden Administration passed the long-awaited Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate investment in the country’s history. Through investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles, the landmark bill is expected to help cut greenhouse gas emissions in the US by around 40% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade and bring the country one step closer to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. In the long run, this will significantly reduce air pollution.
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2. Water Pollution
According to a survey conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately half of the country’s rivers and streams – amounting to more than 700,000 miles of waterways – and more than one-third of its lakes are polluted and unfit for swimming, fishing, and drinking.
In the US, agricultural pollution is the top source of contamination in rivers and streams, the second-biggest source in wetlands, and the third main source in lakes as well as a major contributor of contamination to estuaries and groundwater. This type of pollution includes how we grow, raise, transport, process, and even store food and nonfood crops as well as other agricultural products.
A report released in August 2022 by California’s State Water Resources Control Board found that in the Western state alone, nearly one million people face possible long-term health conditions from drinking water containing unsafe levels of contaminants such as arsenic and nitrate. The audit found that 371 of California’s water systems contained high levels of toxic chemicals that can result in long-term, negative health risks including liver and kidney problems as well as cancer.
The report comes as California, along with several other western states, battles one of the worst and longest droughts in nearly 1,200 years, which has forced the state to increase its reliance on groundwater. The auditor noted that the risks of toxic pollutants contaminating drinking water are higher in drought conditions: as groundwater levels sink, hazardous farm chemicals seep deeper into the soil, tainting underground drinking water supplies.
Tainted water has extremely detrimental effects on human health as well as the environment, with repercussions on biodiversity. According to a study published in The Lancet, water pollution alone killed more than 500,000 people in 2019 and makes about 1 billion people sick every year, especially among low-income communities. Even swimming can pose a risk. Every year, approximately 3.5 million Americans contract health issues such as skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, and hepatitis from sewage-laden coastal waters, according to EPA estimates.
In the US, the Clean Water Act of 1972 established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters and regulating quality standards for surface waters. As for water destined for humans, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is the main federal law that ensures the quality of drinking water across the nation by protecting aquifers, the main source of drinking water. Groundwater can become contaminated by human activity through the illegal or accidental dumping of chemicals.
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3. Water Shortages
The consequences of climate change are felt across the entire country, with some states experiencing worst effects than others. Historically, droughts in the US have had catastrophic impacts on agriculture and water reserves: the country has been experiencing continuous droughts over the last 20 years and each of them has caused billions of dollars in economic loss.
Droughts bring with them a whole host of problems for the environment and the larger human population. With diminishing precipitation and rainfall, soils and crops dry out easily and die. In July 2022, nearly 230 million acres of crops were found to be undergoing drought conditions. Moreover, when these events occur over prolonged periods, they severely impact water levels in lakes and reservoirs, resulting in water shortages in nearby communities and cities.
Water scarcity has been and will continue to be a salient environmental issue for the US as drought seasons become more prolonged and severe. At Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in the southwestern US that some 40 million Americans depend on, water levels have crawled down progressively and at a dangerous speed. Here, the first-ever Tier 1 Water Shortage declaration for the reservoir has been in effect since early 2022.
Image 1: Severe drought threatens Hoover Dam Reservoir on the Colorado River and Lake Mead in southwestern US (photo by Wikimedia Commons)
As the climate crisis worsens, the task of solving or at least tackling the consequences of droughts in the US becomes increasingly challenging. One thing is for sure: to reduce water shortage in cities and urban environments, water conservation and efficiency are key. Ageing infrastructure and deteriorating water delivery systems including pipes and mains cost the US an estimated 2.1 trillion gallons of lost drinkable water each year. Adopting widespread energy-efficient technologies and appliances could significantly reduce water wastage. Other methods worth expanding and considering include water recycling infrastructures and stormwater capture technologies.
As for the agriculture sector, adding more resources in crop rotation, no-till farming – a method for growing crops with minimal soil disturbance – and the use of cover crops could help build up soil health, enabling it to absorb and retain more water.
In the US, a typical fire season that used to last for four months on average is now lasting nearly double that time because of climate change. In 2020, the country experienced one of the largest wildfires in history, which lasted for the entire year, tearing through parts of California, Oregon, and Washington state.
A 2017 report found that careless human activities were behind about 84% of all wildfires in the US and accounted for 44% of the total area burned. This includes abandoned cigarettes, campfires, and barbecues that were not put out properly, as well as so-called “gender reveal parties” – particularly popular in the country where expectant parents use pyrotechnic devices to reveal a baby’s gender. One notable example is the El Dorado fire, where a smoke bomb led to a fire that lasted more than two months and covered over 22,000 acres of southern California. Another study showed that human-sparked fires typically spread about 1.83 kilometres per day, more than twice as fast as lightning-induced fires.
Smoke from large-scale wildfires causes significant air pollution in the affected area and is a threat to public health. In 2022, for example, 7 out of 15 most polluted cities in the US were located in California, a state that was most affected by severe fires that season. Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases. Smoke and poor air quality inhalation can lead to minor issues such as burning eyes and allergies or in a worst-case scenario, premature death. The 2021 wildfires that plagued much of the southwest US were visible from the east coast, and near-surface smoke from it contributed to hazy and even smog conditions.
To establish healthy and resilient forests and communities that can adapt themselves to these fires, the state set up the California Wildfire and Forest Management Task Force, in charge of developing a comprehensive plan to expedite efforts to reduce wildfire risk for vulnerable communities, improve the health of forests and wildlands, and accelerate action to combat climate change. This would include prescribing controlled burning to thin forest overgrowth – which acts as tinder for wildlife – and increase sustainable timber harvest programmes.
While these mitigation measures could lower the intensity of California wildfires, researchers suggest it might soon be not enough. “The trends that are driving this increase in fire risk, fire size, fire severity over time are continuing – that’s climate change,” Professor LeRoy Westerling of the University of California Merced, who studies how the climate crisis affects wildfires, warned.
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5. Food Waste
Food waste in America has skyrocketed in recent years, tripling in just five decades and it is now estimated to be 30-40% of its entire food supply, valued between US$161 and $218 billion. Today, the US counts as the second highest country in the world for food waste per capita, behind only Australia. Sadly, Americans throw away more food than the citizens of the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Sweden combined, equivalent to nearly 206 billion pounds (103 million tons). On a daily basis, that’s about 0.5 kilograms (one pound) of food discarded by one American.
As the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports, about 6-8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced if we stopped wasting food. In the US alone, the production of lost or wasted food generates the equivalent of 37 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions.
Food production is one of the most water-intensive practices as growing crops requires extensive amounts of water. In the US, agriculture alone is responsible for 80% of all water consumed, and it is estimated that between 21% and 33% of it is wasted every year.
Ironically, while almost 40% of food in the US is wasted, 37 million Americans and 11 million children are considered to be food insecure, a number that is expected to further rise in the coming years.
But there is some good news. Fortunately, the US is home to some of the world’s most successful food waste startups that are changing the game and helping tackle one of the most pressing environmental issues of our times. Moreover, in 2015, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched the 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal alongside a series of programmes and initiatives aimed at reducing climate and environmental impacts associated with food loss and waste while improving food security and saving money for families and businesses. Led by EPA, USDA, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal government is “seeking to work with communities, organisations and businesses along with our partners in state, tribal and local government to achieve this goal.”
These initiatives alone, however, will not completely eliminate food insecurity or solve the issue of food waste. In order to achieve this, it is necessary that individuals do their part as well, learning first and foremost how to reduce food waste in their households and communities.
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6. Plastic Pollution
Last but not least on our list of the most pressing environmental issues in the US in 2022 is plastic pollution.
A congressionally mandated report released in late 2021 described the US as the leading country for plastic waste generation. The analysis found that the country produces more plastic waste than any other nation, equivalent to about 42 million metric tons every year, which amounts to 287 pounds (130 kilogram) per person. In total, the country produces almost twice as much as China, and more than all the countries in the EU combined.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 82.2 million tons of containers and packaging were discarded in the US in 2018. The situation has further deteriorated since China imposed a plastic ban in the same year.
Researchers note that recycling infrastructure in the US has been unable to keep up with the growth of plastic production, and they estimate that 1.13-2.24 million metric tons of waste are leaked into the environment and oceans each year. This includes everything from plastic bottles and straws to packaging, most of which are made from fossil fuels and can take hundreds of years to decompose.
Plastic production in the US is also currently responsible for 232 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year, the equivalent of 116.5 gigawatts of coal plants. But, according to the report, the production is set to outpace coal plants in the country by 2030.
Implementing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies has been increasingly more popular in several US states as a solution for plastic pollution. An EPR legislates that the responsibility and costs of disposing of packaging materials and waste lie with the producers and manufacturers that made them, as opposed to consumers. While a number of European countries and Canadian provinces already have EPR in practice, the state of Maine became the first in the US to implement it in July 2021. Several others are now hopping on the bandwagon, including New York and California, aiming to implement it in the next year or two.
The latter has also recently introduced strict rules on single-use plastic packaging, requiring a 25% cut in production as well as 65% of all single-use plastic packaging to be recycled within the next decade. Companies that fail to comply with the new regulations could face fines of up to $50,000 a day.
In August 2014, California also became the first state to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. Other states such as Hawaii and New York followed suit, mandating plastic bag bans on grocery stores and other retailers in 2015 and 2019 respectively.
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