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Unearthing 2023's Ecological Concerns: The Top 15 Environmental Challenges


There are several factors contributing to the climate crisis, but certain issues demand more focus. Deforestation, biodiversity loss, food waste, and fast fashion are some of the most significant environmental problems we face in our lifetime.

1. Global Warming From Fossil Fuels:

In May 2023, the parts per million measurement for carbon dioxide, indicated by CO2 PPM, was recorded at 420.00. The rise in global temperature has reached 1.15C compared to pre-industrial levels. Sadly, this is the highest level of carbon dioxide recorded in over 4 million years. The increase in greenhouse gases has resulted in a dangerous and steady rise in temperatures worldwide, which is leading to catastrophic events. For instance, countries such as Australia and the US have experienced some of the most devastating bushfire seasons ever recorded. Furthermore, locusts are devastating crops in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, while a heatwave in Antarctica saw temperatures rise above 20C for the first time. Scientists are warning that the planet has passed several critical tipping points, which could lead to catastrophic consequences, such as melting permafrost in Arctic regions, the unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice sheet, a sixth mass extinction, and growing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

The climate crisis is resulting in more frequent and intensified tropical storms, hurricanes, heatwaves, and flooding. Even if we were to stop all greenhouse gas emissions immediately, global temperatures would still increase in the upcoming years. Therefore, it is crucial that we take action now to significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions, support renewable energy sources, and rapidly transition away from fossil fuels.

2. Poor Governance:

Experts like economist Nicholas Stern attribute the climate crisis to numerous market failures. They have been urging policymakers for years to raise the price of activities that emit greenhouse gases, which is one of the biggest environmental problems we face. Doing so would address the largest market failure and stimulate innovation in low-carbon technologies. Governments must not only increase funding for green innovation to bring down the costs of low-carbon energy sources, but they also need to adopt other policies that address each of the other market failures to cut emissions quickly and effectively. Currently, 27 countries have a national carbon tax, including several EU countries, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Ukraine, and Argentina. However, the 2019 OECD Tax Energy Use report indicates that the current tax structures do not align well enough with the pollution profile of energy sources. Although carbon taxes have been effective for the electricity industry, they are not harsh enough on coal production. Sweden has implemented an effective carbon tax of $127 per tonne, which has reduced emissions by 25% since 1995 while expanding its economy by 75% during the same period. The United Nations, whose primary purpose is to prevent another world war, is not equipped to deal with the climate crisis effectively. While the Paris Agreement calls for significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to keep global temperature rising below 2C by 2100, signing on to it is voluntary, and there are no real penalties for non-compliance. Developing countries are allowed to emit more to develop technologies to emit less, which some countries like China exploit. The issue of equity remains controversial.

3. Food Waste:

Approximately one-third of the food produced for human consumption, which is around 1.3 billion tons, is either lost or wasted. This amount of food could have fed three billion people. Food waste and loss contribute to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions annually. If it were a country, food waste would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases, following China and the US. Food waste and loss occur at different stages in both developing and developed countries. In developing countries, 40% of food waste occurs during the post-harvest and processing levels, while in developed countries, 40% of food waste happens at the retail and consumer levels. At the retail level, a significant amount of food is wasted due to aesthetic reasons. Shockingly, over 50% of all produce thrown away in the US is deemed “too ugly” to be sold to consumers, resulting in approximately 60 million tons of fruits and vegetables being wasted. This leads to food insecurity, which is also one of the significant environmental problems on the list.

4. Biodiversity Loss:

Over the past 50 years, the world has seen a significant increase in human consumption, population growth, global trade, and urbanization. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the depletion of Earth's resources at a faster rate than they can replenish naturally. A recent report by the WWF revealed that between 1970 and 2016, the population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians declined by 68% on average. The report identified land-use change, especially the conversion of habitats like forests, grasslands, and mangroves into agricultural systems, as the main reason for this loss of biodiversity. The illegal wildlife trade is also a significant contributor to the decline of animals such as pangolins, sharks, and seahorses, with pangolins now critically endangered. Sadly, the world is currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction of wildlife, and it's accelerating. Over 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction, and they're likely to be lost within the next 20 years. Shockingly, this number is equal to the total number of species lost over the entire last century. Scientists warn that without human destruction of nature, this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years.

5. Plastic Pollution:

Did you know that in 1950, the world produced only 2 million tons of plastic per year? However, this number skyrocketed to 419 million tons by 2015, contributing greatly to the growing issue of plastic waste in our environment. According to a report by the science journal, Nature, an alarming 14 million tons of plastic make their way into the oceans annually, damaging wildlife habitats and endangering the animals that call them home. Shockingly, if we don't take action soon, the plastic crisis will escalate to 29 million metric tons per year by 2040, with the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean potentially reaching 600 million tons by that same year if we also include microplastics. National Geographic found that a staggering 91% of all plastic ever made has not been recycled, which is not only a severe environmental issue but also a massive market failure. It's important to note that plastic takes 400 years to decompose, meaning that it will continue to exist for many generations to come. The long-term effects of plastic pollution on the environment remain uncertain, but it is clear that urgent action is needed to address this pressing issue.

6. Deforestation:

Forests the size of 300 football fields are cut down every hour, which is a concerning issue. If deforestation continues at this rate, the planet may only have 10% of its forests by 2030, and they could all disappear in less than a century. Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia are the three countries that experience the highest levels of deforestation. The Amazon rainforest, which is the world's largest, covering around 40% of South America, is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems with about three million species of plants and animals. Despite efforts to protect the forest, legal deforestation remains widespread. Brazil's Amazon forest alone experiences about a third of global tropical deforestation, with a yearly loss of 1.5 million hectares. Agriculture is the primary cause of deforestation, and it's one of the biggest environmental issues that we face today. Forests play a vital role in preventing soil erosion by binding the soil with tree roots, which also helps to prevent landslides. In addition to carbon sequestration, forests provide numerous benefits to the
planet, including being a habitat for wildlife.

7. Air Pollution :

Outdoor air pollution is a major environmental issue that affects millions of people worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, between 4.2 to 7 million people die annually due to air pollution, with 9 out of 10 people breathing in high levels of pollutants. In Africa alone, UNICEF reported that 258,000 people died from outdoor air pollution in 2017, up from 164,000 in 1990. The main causes of air pollution are industrial sources, motor vehicles, burning biomass, and dust storms. In Europe, a recent report by the EU's environment agency revealed that air pollution caused 400,000 deaths annually in the EU in 2012, the most recent year for which data was available. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of air pollution in transporting the virus has come under scrutiny. Preliminary studies suggest that there is a positive correlation between air pollution and COVID-19-related deaths, with airborne particles potentially aiding viral spread. This may have contributed to the high death toll in China, where air quality is notoriously poor. However, further studies are needed to confirm these findings.

8. Melting Ice Caps and Sea Level Rise:

The Arctic is experiencing the effects of the climate crisis at an alarming rate, with temperatures rising more than twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. This has resulted in a significant increase in sea levels, which are now rising at an average of 3.2 mm per year globally. By the end of the century, they are expected to continue to grow up to 0.7 meters. The melting of land ice, especially the Greenland Ice Sheet, poses the greatest risk for sea levels in the Arctic. Last year's summer saw the loss of 60 billion tons of ice from Greenland, which is a cause for concern. This is equivalent to raising global sea levels by 2.2mm in just two months. According to satellite data, the Greenland ice sheet lost a record amount of ice in 2019, averaging a million tons per minute throughout the year. This is one of the most significant environmental problems, and if the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, sea levels would rise by six meters. Antarctica contributes about 1 millimeter per year to sea level rise, which is a third of the annual global increase. Recently, the last fully intact ice shelf in Canada in the Arctic collapsed, losing about 80 square kilometers, or 40% of its area over a two-day period in late July. This is a significant environmental problem that has cascading effects. The rise in sea levels will have disastrous consequences for inhabitants of coastal regions. Research and advocacy group Climate Central predicts that sea level rise this century could force between 340 million to 480 million people who live in coastal areas to migrate to safer areas. This will contribute to overpopulation and strain resources in the areas they migrate to. Cities that are most at risk of sea level rise and flooding include Bangkok (Thailand), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Manila (Philippines), and Dubai (United Arab Emirates).

9. Ocean Acidification:

The rise in global temperature has not only affected the earth's surface, but it is also the main cause of ocean acidification. Approximately 30% of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans. As human activities such as burning fossil fuels and climate change effects such as increased wildfires release higher concentrations of carbon emissions, more carbon dioxide is absorbed into the sea. Even the slightest change in the pH scale can have a significant impact on the ocean's acidity. Ocean acidification devastates marine ecosystems and species, their food webs, and causes irreversible changes in habitat quality. Once pH levels become too low, marine organisms like oysters can experience the dissolution of their shells and skeleton. Coral bleaching and subsequent coral reef loss are some of the biggest environmental problems caused by ocean acidification. This phenomenon occurs when rising ocean temperatures disrupt the symbiotic relationship between the reefs and the algae that live within them, causing the algae to leave and coral reefs to lose their natural vibrant colors. Some scientists predict that coral reefs are at risk of being completely wiped out by 2050. Higher ocean acidity obstructs coral reef systems' ability to rebuild their exoskeletons and recover from coral bleaching events. Some studies have also found that ocean acidification can be linked to plastic pollution in the ocean. The bacteria and microorganisms that accumulate from plastic garbage dumped in the ocean can damage marine ecosystems and contribute to coral bleaching.

10. Agriculture :

Research has revealed that the global food system contributes up to 33% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, with 30% of the emissions coming from livestock and fisheries. Crop production also releases greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide, due to the use of fertilizers. Surprisingly, 60% of the world's agricultural land is dedicated to cattle ranching, despite it only accounting for 24% of global meat consumption. Agriculture not only takes up a large portion of land but also consumes a significant amount of freshwater, which is one of the biggest environmental concerns. Arable lands and grazing pastures cover one-third of Earth's surface, yet they consume three-quarters of the world's limited freshwater resources. Environmentalists and scientists have consistently warned that we must reconsider our current food system. Transitioning to a more plant-based diet has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the traditional agriculture industry.

11. Food and Water Insecurity:

The escalating temperatures and unsustainable agricultural practices are causing a rising threat to water and food security, making it one of the most significant environmental issues today. Every year, over 68 billion tonnes of topsoil erode globally at a rate 100 times faster than it can naturally replenish. The soil, laden with fertilizers and biocides, ends up in waterways, contaminating downstream drinking water and protected regions. Exposed and lifeless soil is prone to wind and water erosion due to the absence of root and mycelium systems that hold it together. Over-tilling is a significant contributor to soil erosion, which, though it enhances short-term productivity by mixing in surface nutrients, is physically damaging to the soil's structure. It leads to soil compaction, loss of fertility, and surface crust formation that exacerbates topsoil erosion in the long term. The global population is expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century, and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global food demand may rise by 70% by 2050. Over 820 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat. UN Secretary-General AntΓ³nio Guterres warns of an impending global food security crisis unless immediate action is taken. He urges nations to reconsider their food systems and adopt more sustainable farming practices. Regarding water security, only 3% of the world's water is freshwater, and two-thirds of that is inaccessible or frozen in glaciers. As a result, 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and 2.7 billion face water scarcity for at least one month of the year. By 2025, two-thirds of the world's population may face water shortages.

12. Fast Fashion and Textile Waste:

The fashion industry has experienced an unprecedented rise in demand, but this has come at a great cost to the environment. In fact, fashion now accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, making it one of the biggest environmental problems we face today. Shockingly, the fashion industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than both the aviation and shipping sectors combined. Additionally, around 20% of global wastewater comes from textile dyeing, which amounts to approximately 93 billion cubic meters, according to the UN Environment Programme. Moreover, discarded clothing and textile waste is a rapidly growing problem. The world generates an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste every year, and this number is expected to increase to 134 million tonnes a year by 2030. Much of this waste ends up in landfills, where it remains non-biodegradable. Furthermore, microplastics from clothing materials, such as polyester, nylon, polyamide, acrylic and other synthetic materials, contaminate soil and water sources. Enormous amounts of textile waste are also dumped in less developed countries, such as Chile's Atacama, where at least 39,000 tonnes of textile waste from other nations are left to decay. To make matters worse, the fast fashion business model aggravates this issue. Companies rely on cheap and speedy production of low-quality clothing to meet the latest and newest trends. While the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the majority of fashion and textile companies around the world have yet to address their roles in climate change. These are just a few of the environmental problems that we face, but there are many more, such as overfishing, urban sprawl, toxic superfund sites, and land use changes. To tackle this crisis, we must consider many different factors, and our response must be coordinated, practical and far-reaching enough to make a significant difference.

13. Overfishing:

Fish is the main source of protein for more than three billion people worldwide. The majority of fishers rely on small-scale methods, such as using small nets or rods and reels. These small-scale fishers make up about 90% of the 18.9 million fishermen across the globe. The world's population has grown four times larger in the past 50 years, and people now consume twice as much food as they did then. This has led to 30% of commercially fished waters being overfished, meaning the amount of fish in these areas is being depleted at a faster rate than it can be replaced. Overfishing has negative effects on the environment, including increased algae in the water, damage to fishing communities, ocean littering, and a significant loss of biodiversity. To maintain sustainable fish stocks, the United Nations and FAO are working towards SDG 14 by regulating the world's oceans more strictly. In July 2022, the WTO banned fishing subsidies that incentivized overfishing. Subsidies for fuel, fishing gear, and vessel construction were problematic and contributed to overfishing.

14. Cobalt Mining:

The renewable energy transition is currently facing a challenge with the mineral cobalt. Cobalt is an essential element in battery materials that power electric vehicles (EVs), and its demand is increasing as decarbonization efforts progress. However, the main supplier of cobalt is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which relies on artisanal miners for up to a fifth of its production. Unfortunately, cobalt mining is associated with dangerous workers' exploitation, as well as serious environmental and social issues. The environmental costs of cobalt mining activities are also significant. The southern regions of the DRC, where cobalt and copper are found, also contain large amounts of uranium, leading to high radioactivity levels. Moreover, mineral mining, like other industrial mining efforts, often pollutes neighboring rivers and water sources. Additionally, dust from pulverized rock can cause respiratory problems for local communities.

15. Soil Degradation:

Soil organic matter is a critical component of the earth's soil as it enables it to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Through photosynthesis, plants naturally and efficiently absorb CO2 from the air, and a portion of this carbon is stored in soil as soil organic carbon (SOC). Healthy soil should contain a minimum of 3-6% organic matter, but in most areas around the globe, the content is much lower. Unfortunately, according to the United Nations, almost 40% of the earth's soil is degraded. Soil degradation refers to the decline in soil fertility, changes in its structural condition, and/or the loss of organic matter, often due to human activities like traditional farming practices involving the use of toxic chemicals and pollutants. If we continue with our current practices, it is projected that an additional area almost the size of South America will experience degradation by 2050. However, the stakes are even higher. If we don't change our harmful practices and take steps to preserve soil health, food security for billions of people worldwide will be irreversibly compromised. Despite the world's population projected to reach 9.3 billion people in 20 years' time, experts estimate that 40% less food will be produced if we fail to act.


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Unearthing 2023's Ecological Concerns: The Top 15 Environmental Challenges
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