Environmental issues and human progress are intimately connected. The incredible progress from the Industrial Revolution gave humanity the best health, wealth, and security in world history. It’s also caused irreparable damage to our natural environment. Each environmental issue is connected. These are some of the biggest environmental issues we face today.
There are two types of air pollution. Outdoor air pollution and indoor air pollution. Air pollution is an environmental issue because it impacts our health and well-being.
Outdoor air pollution (also known as ambient air quality) is a major environmental issue. Emissions from coal plants, factories, forest fires, and cars that run on fossil fuels cause air pollution. 4.2 million people die from outdoor air pollution each year, mostly from pre-existing conditions like lung and heart disease according to the United Nations. About 70,000 people die prematurely in the United States from outdoor air pollution. 4 in 10 Americans live in places with unhealthy air according to the American Lung Association.
Indoor air pollution in the United States can be caused by the following sources according to the EPA:
- Natural gas appliances such as ovens and stoves, water heaters, and clothes dryers
- Coal and wood-burning fireplaces
- Newly installed floors and carpets
- Cabinets made of pressed wood
- Household cleaning products
- Outdoor emissions from cars, coal plants, factories, and forest fires
The Clean Air Act of 1972 regulates hazardous emissions from air pollutants.
Animal welfare is an environmental issue for several reasons. One of the first environmental protection agencies was called The Society for the Protection of Birds. Emily Williamson started the organization in 1889 in response to birds being killed for their feathers and used as decoration in women’s hats.
Since that agency was formed writers, environmentalists, and non-profits have worked to protect animals from human cruelty. Today entrepreneurs are working on ways to give us the taste of meat minus the cruelty.
Laws and agencies created to protect animals includes:
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) - The law gives legal protection to living things and animals that are at risk of becoming extinct. It is one of the most important conservation acts that helps protect animals and their habitats in the United States as well as other countries. The law was passed by US Congress in 1973 and is still in effect today.
PETA - PETA stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It is the largest animal rights organization in the world.
Biodiversity loss is the extinction and reduction of plant and animal species and ecological diversity. Extreme weather from climate change, deforestation, pesticide use, and pollution lead to biodiversity loss. Biodiversity loss is an environmental issue because when ecosystems are changed, it changes the entire natural system. Changing any part of a natural system leads to changes in the whole system.
UN Sustainable Development goal # 15 outlines goals for protecting forests and biodiversity around the world. The importance of protecting forests and biodiversity are outlined in Agenda 21. Agenda 21 was one outcome from the 1992 Earth Summit. The Rio Summit is also known as the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).
The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is a global initiative focused on “making nature’s values visible”. It seeks to measure the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystem services so those values can be brought into mainstream planning and development decisions.
Coral bleaching is an environmental issue today largely caused by climate change. Coral bleaching happens when environmental conditions such as temperature, light, and nutrients cause the algae that live on the coral to die. Up to a quarter of marine life depends on the coral reefs, so when coral reefs die, it leads to biodiversity loss and species extinction.
If you're interested in learning more about coral bleaching, the Netflix documentary "Chasing Coral" is inspiring, emotional, and essential for understanding this important environmental issue. You can also watch the full documentary free on YouTube.
Climate change is caused by the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, water vapor, and methane block heat from leaving the atmosphere. When these gases are trapped they cause the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect keeps warm air trapped inside the earth’s atmosphere. Global warming is responsible for changes in weather patterns such as warmer summers, shorter winters, and extreme weather. Fossil fuels used for electricity and
Deforestation is a major environmental issue today and many environmentalists are calling for mass reforestation as a potential solution to climate change.
Deforestation happens when forests are cut down to make space for agriculture, raising cattle, and building roads and cities. Deforestation leads to habitat and biodiversity loss and contributes to climate change. Trees hold carbon dioxide, and when they are cut down, the carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere contributing to climate change.
Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry (LULUCF) - When forests are cut down, burned, or poorly managed they release the carbon they were holding. How forests are managed is a major environmental issue because it impacts the forest's ability to absorb carbon. Therefore, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change monitors land use, land-change, and forestry so land and forests can be carbon sinks rather than carbon emissions.
We are all highly dependent on energy to live our lives the way we do. The computer or smartphone we're on, the power to charge it, the car we drive, or the stove we cook on all depends on energy to power it. We need energy to live our lives the way we do.
The energy issue in the United States
The environmental problem with energy today is that 80% of the energy we use in the United States comes from fossil fuels, according to the US Energy Administration. Although fossil fuels have powered our way of life since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels are also the top contributor to climate change. If we are to slow climate change, we will need to change where and how we get our energy.
The issue with energy in developing countries
In developing countries, about one billion people still live without access to modern energy. This is also a major environmental issue because energy allows children greater access to education, computers, and light to read and study. Households with access to modern energy have better health and more financial opportunities. It is essential that all children and mothers have access to energy so they can learn, have healthy children, and provide food for their families.
Every single person on earth has a right to modern energy and electricity according to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Turning off our lights won't offer light to people in developing countries who desperately need it. So we need massive investments in clean and renewable energy innovation that will help the US transition to a clean economy and also help raise living standards for people around the world.
Although the environmental issues associated with energy production may seem insurmountable, they are not. Every day for the last 24 years 262,600 people have gotten access to electricity according to Our World In Data. This is huge progress for humanity and social justice. Now we just need to get everyone on low carbon and renewable energy sources.
If you're interested in learning more about why modern energy is so important, read Factfulness by Hans Rosling.
Fossil fuels are made of fossilized prehistoric plants and animals through a process of anaerobic decomposition. The excavated fossil fuels are petroleum (oil), natural gas, and coal.
Over the last two decades, three-quarters of emissions were caused by fossil fuels. The greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels like natural gas, petroleum, and coal for energy is one of the biggest environmental issues we face today because it contributes to climate change.
Today 80% of energy in the US comes from fossil fuels, 11% from renewable energy, and 8% nuclear energy according to the US Energy Administration.
"In 2017, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels for energy were equal to about 76% of total U.S. anthropogenic GHG emissions (based on global warming potential) and about 93% of total U.S. anthropogenic CO2 emissions," according to the US Energy Administration.
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 passed by the US Congress was enacted to reduce the US dependence on fossil fuels and improving air quality. The law set goals for energy efficiency and clean energy.
When greenhouse gases are released they cause the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere which causes climate change. Greenhouse gases are reported on, regulated, and measured under the Kyoto Protocol. Greenhouse gases are also reported on through the Greenhouse Gas Protocol which was developed by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. The following are considered greenhouse gases:
Carbon dioxide (CO2) - Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned.
Methane (CH4) - Methane is released by landfills, cow farts and agricultural practices. Methane is also released from natural gas and oil production.
Nitrous oxide (N20) - Nitrous oxide is caused by agricultural and industrial activities.
Fluorinated gases - Fluorinated gases are often considered ozone-depleting gases and are regulated under the Kyoto Protocol. These gases include sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbon (HFC), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), and perfluorocarbons (PFC).
Gender inequality is an environmental issue that leads to population growth and poor health for women and children. One solution is universal access to birth control and family planning and health services.
"Securing women’s right to voluntary, high-quality family planning around the world would have powerful positive impacts on the health, welfare, and life expectancy of both women and their children. It also can affect greenhouse gas emissions."- Drawdown.org
In 2012 the United Nations Population Fund declared that access to family planning (contraception) is a human right. However, there are still over 200 million women who want birth control but cannot access it. About 800 women die each day in childbirth around the world. Family planning services could have saved most of these moms.
Families who expect their children to survive childhood are less likely to have more than two children, and they are better able to educate and nourish the children they have. A combination of family planning, equal access to education, and financing are considered essential to sustainability initiatives according to the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
Hunger and food insecurity
Hunger and food insecurity is an environmental issue because when children are hungry, their ability to learn and grow is negatively impacted. When children spend their time securing food rather than going to school, they are unable to get a quality education. Education is essential for all children so they can grow up to be productive members of society.
“Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45 percent) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year,” according to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. “If women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million.”
Hunger and food insecurity may increase with global warming. This is also an environmental issue because when crops don't grow due to drought caused by climate change, farmers may need to sell other natural resources like trees for logging and burn forests to make room for cattle in order to make money.
Natural resources that are wasted
Trees, soil, metals, freshwater and even fossil fuels are finite natural resources. Wasting natural resources damages the environment and economy. Today we have a linear economy that takes, makes and then wastes resources that eventually end up in landfills and the ocean. Finite resources can be managed more effectively in a circular economy. A circular economy uses waste to create new things rather than garbage.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are ozone-depleting substances that are regulated under the Montreal Protocol. The Montreal Protocol was signed by most countries in 1987. The ozone is anticipated to heal because of the actions taken by the international community and the passage of the Montreal Protocol.
Pesticides and chemicals
Pesticides and hazardous chemicals are environmental issues because they impact human health, animals, insects, and ecosystems. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) regulates the use of 12 organic chemicals, industrial chemicals, and 30 pesticides. However, there are still unregulated pesticides and chemicals that cause potential concerns for human health and biodiversity.
The issue with pesticides
Over a billion pounds of pesticides are used in the US each year. Natural and synthetic pesticides are used to protect crops against insects and weeds. However, pesticides may be harmful to children, and farmworkers chronically exposed to them.
The Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) states that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must ensure that all pesticides used on food in the United States meet safety standards. However, non-profits like the Environmental Working Group have raised concerns about pesticide use in foods.
Rachel Carson, who wrote Silver Spring, is considered the mother of today’s environmental movement. Silver Spring explained the health effects of the insecticide DDT on people and the environment. The book and resulting outrage led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The issue with hazardous chemicals
Everything made of matter contains chemicals. We're all a collection of chemicals and most chemicals are safe. However, there are still chemicals of concern in use that cause health issues for humans, animals, and ecosystems.
Endocrine disrupters are chemicals found in commonly used products such as non-stick pans, plastic containers, canned foods with bisphenol A (BPA) liners and many synthetic fragrances. Endocrine disrupters are chemicals of concern because they may effect hormone production and function.
The Cuyahoga River fire offer some historical perspective on the issues chemicals can cause. The Cuyahoga River caught fire from the toxic waste and oil spilled from factories in 1969. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but it got a lot of attention from the media. Since then the general public has been aware of the hazards of industrial waste from factories. Today, pesticides and chemicals from agriculture, mines, fabric dyes, and oil refineries still pollute our water.
We are now in the Anthropocene era as human influence is the primary driver of the natural environment. Today there are soon to be eight billion people on earth compared to about one billion people at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Population growth is an environmental issue because it puts a strain on the environment as more land needs to be used for agriculture to grow food. Natural resources are strained to build homes and make consumer products for a growing middle class.
Food, water, and shelter are still the main concern for people living on about $1 per day in developing countries. They need access to electricity, education, vaccines, birth control, proper sanitation, clean water, and healthy food. Poverty is connected to environmental issues through gender inequality, untreated sewage in water and burning bio-fuels like trees for heat and cooking.
Water pollution comes from agricultural runoff, oil and gas leaks from cars and factories, oil spills, raw sewage, and plastic pollution.
“Every year, more people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war,” according to the United Nations. “The most significant sources of water pollution are lack of inadequate treatment of human wastes and inadequately managed and treated industrial and agricultural wastes.” These problems are common in countries where people live on less than $1 per day.
Plastic was invented in 1907 but did not become an integral part of our lives until the 1980s.
“In the early 2000s, our output of plastic waste rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years,” according to UN Environment. “If current trends continue, by 2050 the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.”
Oil, natural gas, and coal are the main ingredient in most plastic. Plastic is in everything from cell phones to yogurt containers. When plastic litter makes its way into rivers and oceans birds and marine life may eat it or get entangled in it. Micro-plastics make their way into our food supply when fish accidentally eat them.
The solution to environmental problems
One hundred years ago I doubt many people imagined the progress humanity has seen or the environmental destruction. Today, we have the opportunity to create a world where people and the planet thrive together. Today's environmental issues can be solved through a circular economy, clean and renewable energy sources, regenerative agriculture, conscious consumption, and sustainable living techniques.