Current Environmental Issues in 2024 and How They Affect You

    Welcome to a discourse on the pressing matters of our time. In this edition, we focus on 'Current Environmental Issues 2024'. The year 2024 has brought a slew of environmental challenges that demand our urgent attention. From the scorching heat of global warming to the devastating effects of plastic pollution, these issues threaten not only the planet but also our way of life. In this article, we'll delve into the biggest current environmental problems of 2024, exploring their causes, impacts, and potential solutions.

'Current Environmental Issues 2024

Global Warming From Fossil Fuels

    2023 was marked as the hottest year on record, with global average temperatures soaring 1.46°C above pre-industrial levels. This alarming trend is primarily due to the unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, now well above 420 parts per million (ppm), more than double pre-industrial levels. The relentless burning of fossil fuels for transportation, electricity generation, and other industrial activities has led to this significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which trap the sun's heat and cause global warming.

    The effects are catastrophic: from devastating bushfires in Australia and the US to locust swarms in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and even a heatwave in Antarctica with temperatures above 20°C. Scientists warn that we are crossing critical tipping points that could have irreversible consequences, such as accelerating permafrost melt in the Arctic and the unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

Global Warming From Fossil Fuels

    Global warming intensifies tropical storms, hurricanes, heatwaves, and floods, making them more frequent and severe. Even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today, global temperatures would continue to rise due to existing emissions. Therefore, it's crucial to drastically reduce emissions, invest in renewable energy, and phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

Biodiversity Loss

    While often overlooked, the decline in biodiversity carries profound and far-reaching consequences. Biodiversity, encompassing the vast array of flora and fauna on Earth, not only enhances the planet's beauty but also sustains its functionality, supporting the flourishing of life, including humans.

    A diminishing biodiversity poses a direct threat to humanity's continued existence. The intricate web of interactions between various species means that the loss of even seemingly insignificant organisms can disrupt ecosystems and vital processes. Take bees, for instance, whose role in pollination is well-known. Yet, numerous other insect species play similar crucial roles in maintaining plant diversity and food sources worldwide.

    Moreover, biodiversity is intricately linked to our well-being in ways beyond immediate recognition. Natural remedies, such as morphine derived from poppy seeds or valerian root for anxiety and depression, underscore the reliance of modern medicine on nature's bounty.

Biodiversity Loss

    However, human activities over the past half-century, including rampant consumption, population expansion, global trade, and urbanization, have exacted a heavy toll on Earth's natural resources. A 2020 report by WWF paints a grim picture, revealing a staggering 68% average decline in the populations of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians between 1970 and 2016. Land-use changes, particularly the conversion of vital habitats like forests and mangroves into agricultural land, and the illegal wildlife trade stand as primary drivers of this devastation.

    Species such as pangolins, sharks, and seahorses face severe threats from illicit trafficking, pushing pangolins to the brink of critical endangerment. The alarming acceleration of the sixth mass extinction event is evident, with over 500 land animal species teetering on the brink of extinction, their loss imminent within the next two decades if current trends persist. Even in Antarctica, climate change-induced sea ice melting spells dire consequences for emperor penguin populations, projected to face extinction by 2100.

Plastic Pollution

    Since 1950, global plastic production has skyrocketed, reaching 419 million tons annually by 2015. This surge has resulted in severe plastic pollution, with approximately 14 million tons of plastic entering the oceans each year, harming marine life and ecosystems. If current trends continue, plastic pollution could grow to 29 million metric tons per year by 2040, with cumulative plastic in the ocean potentially reaching 600 million tons.

Plastic Pollution

    Shockingly, only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. With plastic taking 400 years to decompose, its long-term environmental impact is profound and irreversible.

Deforestation

    While not a prominent issue in the UK, deforestation globally stands as a pressing concern, significantly impacting Earth's climate. According to Conservation.org, forest coverage has dwindled by over half since the 1960s. In Brazil alone, an area exceeding twice the size of the UK has succumbed to destruction in the past two decades, with global logging and deforestation showing no signs of abating.

    The repercussions extend far beyond ecological disruption. Indigenous communities, whose livelihoods and cultures are intimately tied to the forests, bear the brunt of deforestation, facing displacement and separation from their ancestral lands.

    Moreover, trees serve as a vital defense against rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Through photosynthesis, trees convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, crucial for sustaining life and maintaining environmental equilibrium. Deforestation disrupts this cycle, releasing stored carbon dioxide and exacerbating climate change. The WWF estimates that 10% of recent global warming can be directly attributed to deforestation.

Deforestation

    The pace of forest destruction is alarming, with an area equivalent to 300 football fields cleared every hour. Projections suggest that by 2030, only 10% of Earth's forests may remain, with complete depletion possible within a century if current trends persist. Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia are among the hardest-hit countries, driven primarily by agricultural expansion for livestock and crops like sugar cane and palm oil.

    Forests play pivotal roles in carbon sequestration, soil erosion prevention, and biodiversity preservation. As such, urgent action is needed to curb deforestation and safeguard these critical ecosystems for future generations.

Air Pollution

    Outdoor air pollution stands as one of the most pressing environmental challenges today. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 4.2 to 7 million people succumb to air pollution annually, with nine out of 10 individuals breathing air containing elevated pollutant levels. In Africa, the toll is stark, with 258,000 deaths attributed to outdoor air pollution in 2017, a significant rise from 164,000 in 1990.

    Sources of air pollution vary, encompassing industrial emissions, vehicular exhaust, biomass burning, and dust storms. In regions like South Asia, inadequate infrastructure exacerbates pollution's toll, shaving off approximately five years of life expectancy. Similarly, Europe grapples with over half a million pollution-related deaths in 2021 alone.

    Ensuring the quality and healthiness of the air we breathe is paramount. However, pollutants and chemicals disrupting this balance pose a substantial threat, emerging as one of the foremost environmental concerns of 2024. Despite assumptions that air pollution might not affect individuals directly, WHO's alarming statistic reveals that 99% of the global populace is exposed to polluted air.

Air Pollution

    Various factors contribute to the degradation of air quality. Notably, industries relying on coal or oil fuels emit harmful toxins, while transportation hubs like roads and airports also significantly contribute to pollution. Moreover, beyond immediate health risks, air pollution plays a pivotal role in driving global climate change.

Extreme Weather

    In the UK, we rarely face extreme weather, aside from occasional thunderstorms or strong winds. However, this is not the case for the rest of the world. One of the major environmental challenges in 2024 is the increasing frequency of extreme weather events.

    This includes everything from typhoons and monsoons to droughts and intense heat waves. As the planet's temperature continues to rise, these extreme weather conditions are becoming more common. According to research from the International Monetary Fund, this trend is expected to continue.

Flooding

    Since 1850, temperatures have been rising steadily, accompanied by rising sea levels and melting polar ice caps, making extreme weather events more likely. However, there are measures that both businesses and consumers can take to make a positive impact.  

Melting Ice Caps and Sea Level Rise

    The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, causing sea levels to rise rapidly. Seas are now rising an average of 3.2 mm per year globally and could rise up to 0.7 meters by the end of the century. The Greenland ice sheet is a major contributor, losing 60 billion tons of ice last summer alone.

    If the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, global sea levels could rise by 7.2 meters, inundating coastal cities. Extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods, and tsunamis are exacerbated by sea level rise, posing severe threats to coastal communities and infrastructure.

Ocean Acidification

    Increased CO2 emissions from human activities are causing ocean acidification. The oceans absorb 30% of atmospheric CO2, forming carbonic acid and increasing acidity. Since the Industrial Revolution, ocean acidity has increased by 30%, leading to devastating effects on marine life, particularly coral reefs.

    Coral reefs, vital ecosystems supporting 25% of marine life, are threatened by acidification and warming seas. Coral bleaching, caused by warmer temperatures, has decimated reefs globally, including Australia's Great Barrier Reef. If current trends continue, the oceans could be acidic enough to dissolve the shells of many marine species by 2100.

Agriculture

    Agriculture contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. It accounts for 80% of global deforestation and uses 70% of the world's freshwater. With the world's population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, the demand for food, particularly meat, is set to increase, further straining resources.

    Meat production is resource-intensive, requiring 1,800 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. Livestock farming also produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Sustainable farming practices, such as reducing pesticide use, adopting water-efficient irrigation systems, and planting cover crops, are crucial for mitigating agriculture's environmental impact.

Food Waste

    Food waste is a massive issue, with a third of all food produced for human consumption—around 1.3 billion tons—being lost or wasted annually. This is enough to feed 3 billion people and accounts for approximately one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions each year. If food waste were a nation, it would rank as the third-largest producer of greenhouse gases, following China and the United States.

    In developing countries, 40% of food waste happens after harvest and during processing, whereas in developed countries, 40% occurs at the retail and consumer stages. In the US, over 50% of produce is discarded for aesthetic reasons, contributing significantly to food insecurity and environmental degradation. 

Poor Governance

    Economists like Nicholas Stern argue that the climate crisis stems from multiple market failures. One significant failure is the insufficient pricing of activities that emit greenhouse gases, which could be addressed through measures like carbon taxes. Such taxes would incentivize innovations in low-carbon technologies and reduce emissions effectively.

    However, the implementation of carbon taxes varies globally. For instance, Sweden's carbon tax, at $127 per tone, has successfully reduced emissions by 25% since 1995 while expanding its economy by 75%. Conversely, current tax structures in many countries do not align well with the pollution profiles of energy sources, leading to ineffective policies.

    International organizations like the United Nations face challenges in addressing the climate crisis. The Paris Agreement, for example, aims to limit global temperature rise but lacks enforcement mechanisms, making compliance voluntary. Additionally, equity issues allow developing countries to emit more to facilitate development, leading to exploitation by countries like China.

Overfishing

    Overfishing is a critical issue, with 34% of the world's fisheries overexploited and another 60% fully exploited. Fish provide 3.3 billion people with 20% of their animal protein intake. Unsustainable fishing practices threaten marine ecosystems, leading to the collapse of fish populations and the loss of biodiversity.

Overfishing

    Efforts to regulate fishing through quotas and sustainable practices are essential for preserving fish stocks and maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems. However, enforcement of regulations and combating illegal fishing remain significant challenges.

Soil Degradation

    Soil is a vital component of the Earth's ecosystem, supporting plant growth, regulating water, and storing carbon. However, soil degradation, driven by deforestation, overgrazing, and unsustainable farming practices, poses a significant threat to food security and environmental health.

Soil Degradation

    Soil organic matter (SOM) is crucial for maintaining soil fertility and water retention. Its depletion, along with soil erosion, reduces agricultural productivity and contributes to desertification. By 2050, soil degradation could reduce global food production by 12%, exacerbating food insecurity and poverty.

Food and Water Insecurity

    Soil erosion, exacerbated by deforestation, agriculture, and climate change, significantly impacts food and water security. It affects 25% of the world's population and could reduce global crop yields by 10% by 2050. Soil degradation also diminishes soil organic matter, essential for water retention and fertility.

Water insecurity

    Currently, 2.3 billion people face water scarcity, with predictions of a 40% shortfall in global water supply by 2030. Droughts, exacerbated by climate change, further threaten water and food security, highlighting the urgent need for sustainable land and water management practices.

Fast Fashion and Textile Waste

    The fashion industry is a significant polluter, accounting for 10% of global CO2 emissions, more than aviation and shipping combined. Textile waste is a major issue, with 85% of all textiles ending up in landfills or being incinerated. Fast fashion exacerbates the problem, promoting a culture of disposable clothing and frequent wardrobe changes.

Textile Waste

    In the UK, 1.7 billion clothing items, or 33 million tones, are discarded annually. The production and disposal of textiles have severe environmental impacts, including water pollution, chemical use, and excessive resource consumption. Sustainable fashion practices, such as using recycled materials and promoting slow fashion, are essential for reducing the industry's environmental footprint.

Cobalt Mining

    Cobalt is crucial for renewable energy technologies like electric vehicle batteries and solar panels. However, mining has severe environmental and social impacts, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which supplies 70% of the world's cobalt. The extraction process releases harmful chemicals and heavy metals into the environment, polluting water sources and harming local communities.

    Moreover, cobalt mining in the DRC is often associated with human rights abuses, including child labor and poor working conditions. Addressing these issues requires stringent regulations, improved mining practices, and fair labor standards.

Conclusion

    The environmental challenges of 2024 are vast and complex, requiring immediate and sustained action from governments, businesses, and individuals worldwide. Addressing these issues involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting sustainable practices, protecting biodiversity, and ensuring responsible resource management. By tackling these problems head-on, we can work towards a more sustainable and resilient future for our planet and its inhabitants.