Ebenezer specialises in Development Communication, International Development, Innovative Finance for…
One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be brokenLeo Tolstoy, Renowned Author & Writer
While the climate crisis has many factors that play a role in the exacerbation of the environment, there are some that warrant more attention than others. Here are some of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime:
- Air Pollution
One of the biggest environmental problems today is outdoor air pollution. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that an estimated 4.2 to 7 million people die from air pollution worldwide every year and that nine out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. In Africa, 258,000 people died as a result of outdoor air pollution in 2017, up from 164,000 in 1990, according to UNICEF. Causes of air pollution mostly comes from industrial sources and motor vehicles, as well as emissions from burning biomass and poor air quality due to dust storms. In Europe, a recent report from the EU’s environment agency showed that air pollution contributed to 400 000 annual deaths in the EU in 2012 (the last year for which data was available).
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, attention has been put on the role that air pollution gases has in transporting the virus molecules. Preliminary studies have identified a positive correlation between COVID-19-related mortalities and air pollution and there is also a plausible association of airborne particles assisting the viral spread. This could have contributed to the high death toll in China, where air quality is notoriously poor, although more definitive studies must be conducted before such a conclusion can be drawn.
- Ocean Acidification
Global temperature rise has not only affected the surface, but it is the main cause of ocean acidification. Our oceans absorb about 30% of carbon dioxide that is released into the Earth’s atmosphere. As higher concentrations of carbon emissions are released thanks to human activities such as burning fossil fuels as well as effects of global climate change such as increased rates of wildfires, so do the amount of carbon dioxide that is absorbed back into the sea.
The smallest change in the pH scale can have a significant impact on the acidity of the ocean. Ocean acidification has devastating impacts on marine ecosystems and species, its food webs, and provoke irreversible changes in habitat quality. Once pH levels reach too low, marine organisms such as oysters, their shells and skeleton could even start to dissolve.
However, one of the biggest environmental problems from ocean acidification is coral bleaching and subsequent coral reef loss. This is a phenomenon that occurs when rising ocean temperatures disrupt the symbiotic relationship between the reefs and algae that lives within it, driving away the algae and causing coral reefs to lose their natural vibrant colours. Some studies have also found that ocean acidification can be linked as one of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. The accumulating bacteria and microorganisms derived from plastic garbage dumped in the ocean to damage marine ecosystems and contribute towards coral bleaching.
- Food and Water Insecurity
Rising temperatures and unsustainable farming practices has resulted in the increasing threat of water and food insecurity and taking the mantle as one of the biggest environmental problems today. Globally, more than 68 billion tonnes of top-soil is eroded every year at a rate 100 times faster than it can naturally be replenished. Laden with biocides and fertiliser, the soil ends up in waterways where it contaminates drinking water and protected areas downstream.
Furthermore, exposed and lifeless soil is more vulnerable to wind and water erosion due to lack of root and mycelium systems that hold it together. A key contributor to soil erosion is over-tilling: although it increases productivity in the short-term by mixing in surface nutrients (e.g. fertiliser), tilling is physically destructive to the soil’s structure and in the long-term leads to soil compaction, loss of fertility and surface crust formation that worsens topsoil erosion. With the global population expected to reach 9 billion people by mid-century, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) projects that global food demand may increase by 70% by 2050. Around the world, more than 820 million people do not get enough to eat.
In terms of water security, only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use. As a result, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages.
- Fast Fashion and Textile Waste
The global demand for fashion and clothing has risen at an unprecedented rate that the fashion industry now accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, becoming one of the biggest environmental problems of our time. Fashion alone produces more greenhouse gas emissions than both the aviation and shipping sectors combined, and nearly 20% of global wastewater, or around 93 billion cubic metres from textile dyeing, according to the UN Environment Programme. What’s more, the world at least generated an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste every year and that number is expected to soar up to 134 million tonnes a year by 2030. Discarded clothing and textile waste ends up in landfills, most of which is non-biodegradable, while microplastics from clothing materials such as polyester, nylon, polyamide, acrylic and other synthetic materials, is leeched into soil and nearby water sources. Monumental amounts of clothing textile are also dumped in less developed countries as seen with Chile’s Atacama, the driest desert in the world, where at least 39,000 tonnes of textile waste from other nations are left there to rot.
This rapidly growing issue is only exacerbated by the ever-expanding fast fashion business model, in which companies relies 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 sees signatory fashion and textile companies to commit to achieving net zero emission by 2050, a majority of businesses around the world have yet to address their roles in climate change.
Over three billion people around the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein. About 12% of the world relies upon fisheries in some form or another, with 90% of these being small-scale fishermen – think a small crew in a boat, not a ship, using small nets or even rods and reels and lures not too different from the kind you probably use. Of the 18.9 million fishermen in the world, 90% of them fall under the latter category. Most people consume approximately twice as much food as they did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people on earth as there were at the close of the 1960s. This is one driver of the 30% of commercially fished waters being classified as being ‘overfished’. This means that the stock of available fishing waters is being depleted faster than it can be replaced.
Overfishing comes with detrimental effects on the environment, including increased algae in the water, destruction of fishing communities, ocean littering as well as extremely high rates of biodiversity loss. As part of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14), the UN and FAO are working towards maintaining the proportion of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels. This, however, requires much stricter regulations of the world’s oceans than the ones already in place. In July 2022, the WTO banned fishing subsidies to reduce global overfishing in a historic deal. Indeed, subsidies for fuel, fishing gear, and building new vessels, only incentivise overfishing and represent thus a huge problem.
- Soil Degradation
Organic matter is a crucial component of soil as it allows it to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Plants absorb CO2 from the air naturally and effectively through photosynthesis and part of this carbon is stored in the soil as soil organic carbon (SOC). Healthy soil has a minimum of 3-6% organic matter. However, almost everywhere in the world, the content is much lower than that.
According to the United Nations, about 40% of the planet’s soil is degraded. Soil degradation refers to the loss of organic matter, changes in its structural condition and/or decline in soil fertility and it is often the result of human activities, such as traditional farming practices including the use of toxic chemicals and pollutants. If business as usual continued through 2050, experts project additional degradation of an area almost the size of South America. But there is more to it. If we do not change our reckless practices and step up to preserve soil health, food security for billions of people around the world will be irreversibly compromised, with an estimated 40% less food expected to be produced in 20 years’ time despite the world’s population projected to reach 9.3 billion people.
Ebenezer specialises in Development Communication, International Development, Innovative Finance for SMEs and Sustainability.