Climate change is the great environmental problem that humanity will face in the next decade, but it is not the only one. Next, we will review some of them – from water scarcity to the loss of biodiversity or waste management – and we will address what are the challenges that lie ahead.
The third decade of the 21st century has just begun and the environmental challenges that lie ahead, reflected in the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, are numerous.
This global action plan adopted in 2015 proposes concrete measures to achieve a world that is fairer, more prosperous and respectful of the environment ten years from now. In this sense, the UN itself warns that we are late and the question now is whether we have time to save the planet.
So, starting this year, we present to you the global risks in 2023, which, without a doubt, must be considered by companies, society, leaders and governments, if a sustainable and equitable future is to be achieved. Meet them!
These are some of biggest environmental problems
1. Natural disasters and extreme events
The consequences of climate change are positioned as a great concern for industries and governments, and it is that with natural disasters and more intense meteorological phenomena, the cost of these has increased. It is estimated that, in 2022, just 10 of these events cost 3 billion dollars, only considering the material goods insured.
Even the United Nations Organization has calculated that the price of the climate crisis increased by 800% in the last two decades. Proof of this is that, in 2021, this event cost the entire world 343 billion dollars, not counting human lives, the change in habitats and the destruction of farmland, among others.
‘Floods, heat waves, droughts, and other extreme conditions become more severe and frequent, so a broader set of populations will be affected’, according to the Global Risks Report.
For this reason, the WEF highlights that this is the second of the global risks in 2023, given that it directly affects the most vulnerable communities, in addition to the fact that few measures have been taken to combat global warming, one of the most important factors in terms of exacerbating the phenomena.
2. Fossil Fuel Consumption
Fossil fuels, such as gas, coal, and oil, have been widely used for more than 150 years, but they are finite and unsustainable. While the last drop of fossil fuel may not be used until 2090 according to conservative estimates, it is crucial to start looking at renewable energy sources.
The rate of fossil fuel consumption and extraction is also alarming, with more than 90% of the remaining coal and oil needing to stay in the ground to prevent catastrophic increases in global temperatures.
From devastating bushfires in Australia and the United States, to locust swarms decimating crops in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, to a heat wave in Antarctica with temperatures exceeding 20°C, the effects are far-reaching.
Scientists warn that the planet has passed tipping points that could lead to disastrous consequences, including the melting of permafrost in the Arctic regions, the unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the acceleration of the sixth extinction of the mass and increased deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.
Businesses can take steps toward a fossil fuel-free future by switching to renewable energy providers and investing in clean energy technologies like Pyrocore, which generates power from waste heating products. This can help companies reduce their environmental impact and get closer to net zero.
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3. Reduced Biodiversity
In the last five decades, human consumption, global trade, urbanization and population growth have rapidly increased, causing humanity to exceed the Earth’s natural resource capacity.
A recent report by WWF revealed that the average population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have declined by 68% between 1970 and 2016. Land use change, especially the conversion of habitats such as forests, grasslands, and mangroves into agricultural systems, is the primary cause of this loss of biodiversity.
Illegal wildlife trade has also significantly affected animals such as pangolins, sharks, and seahorses, with pangolins becoming critically endangered.
Scientists have been warning for years about the increase in endangered species and the loss of biodiversity. This is evidenced by works such as the Red List of the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
Nick Nuttall, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), says that ‘we are witnessing a sixth extinction driven by humans.’ The loss of biodiversity not only causes damage to the environment but also to the economy, as the study “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB)” emphasizes.
The world is losing forests at an alarming rate, with the equivalent of 300 football fields disappearing every hour. By 2030, only 10% of the planet’s forests are predicted to remain, and if deforestation continues, all of them could be gone in less than a century.
Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India and Indonesia are the top four countries experiencing deforestation, with Brazil’s Amazon rainforest being particularly vulnerable due to legal deforestation.
Deforestation has had a devastating impact on the world’s forests. Deforestation not only destroys ecosystems, but also disrupts the livelihoods of indigenous communities and distances them from their homes and families.
Trees also play a crucial role in mitigating climate change by converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, which helps maintain the delicate balance of life and cleaner air.
Deforestation contributes to global warming by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which exacerbates the already strained ozone layer. According to the WWF, deforestation is responsible for 10% of recent global warming.
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5. Air Pollution
Outdoor air pollution is one of the most significant environmental problems facing the world today. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution is responsible for the deaths of 4.2 to 7 million people worldwide each year, and that 90% of people breathe air with high levels of pollutants.
In Africa, UNICEF reports that 258,000 people died due to outdoor air pollution in 2017, compared to 164,000 in 1990.
The sources of air pollution are mainly industrial activities and motor vehicles, as well as biomass and dust storms in burn. These contaminants pose a significant risk to human health and the environment.
60% of the world’s most important commercial species are overexploited or depleted, and only 25% of current fishery resources are considered constant.
Overfishing, which affects both large seas and oceans as well as rivers, endangers the survival of marine resources and, therefore, the availability of an important source of food for the world’s population.
The European Union has reformed its Common Fisheries Policy to protect the marine environment through sustainable fishing.
7. Fast Fashion and Textile Waste
The rapid growth of the fashion industry has led it to become a major contributor to global carbon emissions, accounting for 10% of emissions worldwide. The industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the aviation and shipping sectors combined. Textile accounts for almost 20% of global wastewater, amounting to approximately 93 billion cubic meters.
The production of synthetic fibers like polyester requires fossil fuels and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, while the production of cotton uses large amounts of water and pesticides. This industry is also responsible for generating at least 92 million tons of textile waste annually, which is expected to increase to 134 million tons by 2030.
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Most discarded clothing and textiles end up in landfills, where most of it does not biodegrade. Microplastics from synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic are also released into soil and water sources. Huge amounts of textile waste are often dumped in developing countries like Chile’s Atacama, which receives around 39,000 tons of waste from other nations, contributing to the accumulation of environmental damage.
8. Water scarcity
Water, access to it in minimal quality conditions and its scarcity are increasingly worrying. Some experts even say that water will be the most valuable element of the 21st century and the main cause of wars and conflicts.
The United Nations declared 2013 as the International Year of Cooperation in the Sphere of Water to raise awareness of the importance of protecting and guaranteeing this natural resource.
The problem is particularly acute in arid and semi-arid regions, where water is already scarce, and population growth and increased demand exacerbate the situation. Lack of access to safe, clean water also poses significant health risks, as waterborne diseases are a major cause of illness and death in developing countries.
9. Food Waste
Approximately 1.3 billion tons of food, equivalent to one-third of the food destined for human consumption, is lost or wasted. This amount of food could feed 3 billion people. Food waste and loss are responsible for a third of annual greenhouse gas emissions, making it the third highest emitter behind China and the United States.
Food waste and loss occurs in both developing and developed countries, with 40% of waste in developing countries occurring during the post-harvest and processing stages, while 40% in developed countries it occurs at the retail and consumer level.
At the retail level, a significant amount of food is wasted due to its appearance, with over 50% of produce in the United States discarded because it is deemed ‘too ugly’ for consumers, amounting to approximately 60 million tons of fruit and vegetables. This situation leads to food insecurity, which is also one of the most significant environmental problems.
10. Plastic Pollution
The excessive production and use of disposable plastic products has led to a global crisis of plastic pollution, which has become one of the most pressing environmental problems of our time. This problem is particularly evident in developing Asian and African nations, where the lack of efficient garbage collection systems exacerbates the problem.
However, even in developed countries with low recycling rates, the collection and disposal of plastics poses a challenge. The overwhelming presence of plastic waste has led to calls for a global treaty to address this problem, which is being negotiated by the United Nations.
Over the years, plastic production has increased rapidly, leading to an increase in the generation of plastic waste. In 1950, the world produced more than 2 million tons of plastic per year, which skyrocketed to 419 million tons in 2015, exacerbating plastic pollution.
According to a report in the Science Journal, Nature, around 14 million tons of plastic find themselves in the oceans every year, causing significant damage to the habitats of wildlife and the animals that depend on them. If no action is taken, the plastic crisis will only worsen, with the amount of plastic debris expected to reach 29 million metric tons per year by 2040. If we add microplastics to this, the amount of plastic accumulating in the ocean could rise A staggering 600 million tons by 2040.