13 Urgent Environmental Issues: A Guide to Saving Our Planet

Table of Contents

A Brief on the Current State of the Environment

Have you ever been on a scenic road trip, windows down, feeling the fresh air on your face, only to have that magic moment interrupted by a plastic bag dancing across the highway? If so, you’re not alone. The pervasive issue of plastic pollution is just one symptom of a much larger environmental crisis plaguing our planet.

Indeed, the planet needs our help.  According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 75% of the Earth’s land surface has been significantly affected by human actions (1). On top of this, the global temperature has risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1980 (2), and the sea level is projected to rise 2 feet by the year 2100 (3). Our once-blue skies are now often a murky gray, our crystal-clear waters tainted, and our lush green forests, alarmingly less so.

The Importance of Awareness and Active Participation

On the bright side, awareness about these environmental issues is on the rise. According to a survey by Pew Research Center, 67% of adults in the U.S. say the government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change (4).

But our governments can’t do this alone. We all have a role to play, and understanding the issues is the first step. That’s where we come in. This article will guide you through the most pressing environmental issues we face today and how we, as informed and proactive citizens, can make a significant difference.

We’re going to cover air, water, and soil pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, overfishing, ocean acidification, food and water insecurity, fossil fuel consumption, agricultural practices, and waste management. That sounds like a lot, but we’ve got this.

Air, Water, and Soil

1. Air Pollution

Take a deep breath. Now imagine that very breath carrying harmful particles instead of oxygen. Not a pretty picture, is it? Welcome to the issue of air pollution.

Air pollution is primarily due to human activities, especially burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation (5). Industrial emissions, deforestation, and waste disposal all make it even worse.

The effects of air pollution are far-reaching and severe. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution kills 7 million people each year (6). Beyond that shocking mortality rate, it’s also a significant contributor to lung and heart diseases (7).  On a broader scale, air pollution is a major player in climate change. It increases the planet’s temperature and accelerates the melting of polar ice.

Reducing air pollution starts with us. Individual actions such as using public transportation, carpooling, cycling, or walking, to using energy-efficient appliances and reducing, reusing, and recycling waste all make a difference.  On a larger scale, transitioning to cleaner forms of energy, improving waste management, and developing and enforcing effective policies can significantly reduce air pollution (8).  Each decision we make in our daily lives, no matter how small it may seem, has the potential to contribute to a cleaner, healthier atmosphere.

2. Water Pollution

The connection between humans and water bodies can’t be understated. Unfortunately, our actions can have a significant impact on these life-sustaining waters. 

Water pollution is often a direct result of human activities. Some major contributors are:

  • Industrial waste dumped directly into rivers
  • Oil spills from ships
  • Runoff from agricultural fields
  • Untreated sewage
  • Plastics we casually toss away often end up in our oceans

Water pollution disrupts aquatic ecosystems, killing millions of birds, fish, and other marine species each year (9). But it’s not just a fish problem. It’s our problem too. Contaminated water can lead to deadly diseases like cholera and typhoid when used for drinking or agriculture (10). And let’s not forget, our planet is about 70% water. So, if the water’s not healthy, neither are we.

Despite this grim picture, each person can each make a difference.  For starters, we can be more mindful of our plastic use (remember, every plastic bag counts!). Secondly, supporting and participating in beach clean-ups, reducing chemical use at home, and properly disposing of medicines and chemicals can all help reduce water pollution (11).

At the macro level, stricter laws and enforcement against industrial waste dumping, improved sewage treatment, and the development of greener agriculture practices can make a significant difference. With these steps, we can help ensure everyone (fish, animals, and humans) can enjoy a cleaner, healthier environment.

3. Soil Contamination

We can’t discuss the environment without considering the ground beneath our feet: our soil.   It’s the foundation of agriculture, a home for billions of organisms, and a critical component of our planet’s health. Yet, it’s threatened by an often overlooked issue—soil contamination.

Soil contamination results primarily from human activities, such as:

  • Industrial processes
  • Inadequate waste disposal
  • Overuse of agricultural chemicals
  • Oil spills

These factors introduce various harmful substances into the soil, altering its natural composition and function.

The impact? Soil contamination affects the very food we eat, as toxic chemicals are absorbed by plants and make their way into the food chain. Exposure to these pollutants can lead to health problems like kidney damage and cancer (12). Beyond our health, soil contamination also disrupts ecosystems, harming organisms that live in the soil and contributing to biodiversity loss (13).

Small changes in daily routines, like composting and reducing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, can make a difference. Proper waste disposal can also combat soil contamination.

On a larger scale, stricter regulations for waste disposal, increased soil monitoring, and research into soil remediation technologies are all parts of the solution. By taking collective action, we can safeguard the vitality of our soil, our food supply, and our environment as a whole.

Deteriorating Balance

4. Climate Change

What’s heating up the planet? The biggest factor is the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. This releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, forming a heat-trapping blanket around the Earth.  Rampant deforestation makes this even worse, since forests are a natural method for absorbing these harmful gases.  Together, you get a recipe for a warming planet.

Climate change is more than just hotter days. It’s causing more frequent and severe weather, like hurricanes, droughts, and heatwaves (14). Melting ice caps cause sea levels to rise, threatening coastal communities across the world (15).  Additionally, it disrupts ecosystems, affecting the flora and fauna that keep our world in balance and further endangering diverse species.

Addressing climate change requires concerted global action. On an individual level, we can reduce our carbon footprint by opting for public transport, switching to renewable energy, and reducing meat and dairy consumption (16).  Collectively, we need stronger policy measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions, conserve forests, and transition to renewable energy sources.  We also need to invest in climate technologies to develop innovative solutions.  It won’t be easy, but tackling climate change is a must if we want to keep our home hospitable for the future.

5. Biodiversity Loss

The speed at which species are disappearing is alarming.  Biodiversity loss isn’t just about losing beautiful and exotic species; it’s about the weakening web of life needed to support us all.

What’s causing these dramatic changes?  There are several reasons:

  • Habitat destruction, primarily due to deforestation and urbanization
  • Climate change, which alters the environments where species live
  • Overexploitation, such as overfishing and illegal wildlife trade
  • Pollution, which affects the health of a broad range of species

Biodiversity loss has profound consequences that go beyond the disappearance of individual species.  Our ecosystems are interdependent networks of species, similar to a Jenga tower.  As different species start disappearing, the stability of the ecosystem becomes threatened — as if we’re pulling out Jenga blocks one by one. This impacts ecosystem services that we rely on, such as pollination of plants, natural pest control, and clean water (17). It also robs us of scientific discoveries and new medicines, many of which come from the natural world (18).

The enormity of biodiversity loss is daunting, but there are actions we can take.  On an individual level, we can support conservation efforts, adopt sustainable practices, and plant native species in our gardens.  Globally, protecting natural habitats, enforcing wildlife protection laws, and promoting sustainable agriculture and fishing practices are key solutions (19).  Education also plays a crucial role. The more people understand about biodiversity, the more likely they are to take action to preserve it.

6. Deforestation

Our planet’s forests are being erased.  As these forests disappear, so does their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, preserve water quality, and offer shelter to countless species.

Why is this happening? There are several factors at play (20):

  • Agricultural expansion – forests are regularly cleared to create space for crops and livestock, fuelled by the ever-growing demand for food across the world
  • Commercial logging for timber and fuelwood
  • Urban expansion
  • Mining activities

What happens when we strip away the Earth’s forests?  Climate change accelerates as forests that once absorbed carbon dioxide are replaced with carbon-emitting agricultural lands or urban areas (21).  Deforestation also causes  soil erosion, which can result in barren lands that are unsuitable for farming.  Biodiversity loss also occurs, as many species lose their habitats.

The situation sounds grim, but sustainable farming practices can reduce the need for more land and slow deforestation.  Responsible forestry can ensure that we meet our timber and fuelwood needs without excessive logging..  Lastly, we can all make a difference by reducing consumption, recycling, and choosing products with deforestation-free labels.

Oceanic Troubles

7. Overfishing

Overfishing is an urgent problem affecting our global ecosystems, as it threatens the long-term viability of our oceanic resources.  What’s causing our oceans to empty?   The primary culprit is the increasing global demand for seafood. We’re catching fish faster than they can reproduce, and advanced fishing technologies have made it easier to capture vast quantities.. In addition, weak regulations and poor enforcement in many regions have allowed illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing to thrive.

Overfishing affects much more than your favorite sushi. Overfishing can disrupt entire ecosystems as key species are removed, leading to the collapse of important food chains (22). It also has serious economic implications, as 600 million people globally depend on fisheries for income (23).

It’s not too late to turn this around.  How?  By advocating for stronger international regulations, supporting sustainable seafood products, and investing in aquaculture practices that lessen the strain on wild fish populations (24).  Reducing our seafood consumption and diversifying our diets can also make a significant difference.

The health of our oceans is a shared responsibility. Effective action can ensure they remain diverse and productive if we act thoughtfully.

8. Ocean Acidification

Though it’s not often discussed, ocean acidification is a serious and immediate challenge to our ecosystem.  What’s behind this silent change? The primary driver is the excess carbon dioxide we’re pumping into the atmosphere. Approximately 30% of the CO2 released by human activities is absorbed by our oceans, and when CO2 reacts with seawater, it forms carbonic acid, leading to higher acidity levels (25).

The consequences of this acidity spike are worrying. It’s particularly damaging to marine life forms like corals, shellfish, and certain plankton that rely on carbonate ions in the water to build their shells and skeletons. As acidity rises, the availability of these ions decreases, hampering the growth and survival of these crucial marine organisms (26). Beyond its impact on individual species, ocean acidification threatens the broader marine ecosystem and the billions of people who rely on it for food and livelihood.

There are actionable solutions to tackle ocean acidification. We must reduce CO2 emissions, the main driver of the problem. This can be achieved by adopting cleaner energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and supporting reforestation efforts. On an individual level, we can make changes such as reducing our carbon footprint, supporting sustainable seafood, and spreading awareness about this issue.  Ocean acidification may not be a household term, but that doesn’t make it any less damaging.

9. Plastic Pollution

Ever have your beach stroll interrupted by plastic debris? From tiny microplastics invisible to the naked eye to massive fishing nets, our oceans are increasingly being smothered by plastic waste.

How did we get to this point? The issue is primarily due to the sheer volume of plastic we produce – nearly 400 million tons each year (27). A significant portion of this finds its way into the ocean, courtesy of littering, poor waste management, and the discard of fishing gear. To make matters worse, plastics are designed to last, taking hundreds of years to decompose (28).

Plastic pollution harms marine life, as creatures become entangled or mistake plastic for food, leading to starvation and death (29). It also threatens human health, as microplastics consumed by fish end up on our plates (30). They also ruin coastal environments, spoiling our beautiful coastlines and seascapes.

There are practical  solutions to the plastic crisis. For starters, we can reduce, reuse, and recycle – familiar concepts that have never been more crucial. Governments and businesses also have a role to play, by implementing stricter regulations, developing biodegradable alternatives, and investing in waste management. As consumers, we can opt for plastic-free products and take part in beach clean-ups.

Every piece of plastic ever created still exists in some form today, so it’s critical that we tackle this issue for the health of our oceans — and by extension, ourselves.

Fossil Fuels

10. Fossil Fuels

The modern world has been built on a foundation of fossil fuels. Our industries, transportation, and domestic energy needs have largely been powered by coal, oil, and natural gas. However, our reliance on these sources carries a heavy price.

Why is society so dependent on fossil fuels? It’s due to their energy density and availability. The energy stored in fossil fuels is immense, and have been easy and cheap to extract and use (31).

Though they’re financially cheap, the environmental cost of this energy choice is staggering. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, a primary contributor to global warming and climate change (32). Fossil fuel extraction and use also lead to air and water pollution, harming both human health and ecosystems (33).

The key to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels?  Transitioning to renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. These sustainable alternatives offer the promise of a low-carbon future and are becoming increasingly cost-competitive (34). Governments can incentivize this shift by providing subsidies for renewable energy and implementing carbon taxes. As consumers, we can support renewable energy companies and strive to reduce our personal energy use.  Fossil fuels may have fueled our past, but they don’t have to determine our future.

Food & Water Insecurity

11. Food & Water Insecurity

Today, an increasing portion of the world faces the grim realities of food and water insecurity, a daunting challenge with far-reaching implications.

Food and water insecurity has a variety of causes (35):

  • Climate change
  • Population growth
  • Unsustainable agricultural practices
  • Unequal access to resources
  • Conflict

As the global population surges towards 9.8 billion by 2050 (36), the demand for food and clean water is set to rise substantially, adding stress to already strained systems.

Food and water insecurity have profound consequences at both the individual and societal levels. They contribute to malnutrition and increased disease (37), and can also trigger political instability, forced migration, and conflict (38).

What can we do to improve the situation?  Sustainable farming practices like agroforestry and permaculture can increase food production efficiency while minimizing environmental impact (39). Innovations like precision irrigation and drought-resistant crops can help adapt to the realities of climate change (40).  At the individual level, we can contribute by reducing food waste, supporting local farmers, and making water-conscious choices. Every small step counts towards a world where access to basic necessities isn’t a privilege.

Sustainable Practices for a Greener Future

12. Sustainable Agriculture

The current state of global agriculture is far from environmentally healthy. Intensive farming practices lead to problems such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, and soil degradation (41). The overuse of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is another significant issue, contributing to water pollution (42). Furthermore, the agricultural sector accounts for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (43).

Sustainable agriculture can eliminate all of this.  It offers a host of benefits in contrast to conventional farming (44):

  • Promotes biodiversity
  • Preserves natural resources
  • Helps mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil
  • Can also boost yields over time
  • Increases farmers’ resilience to climate shocks
  • Improves local economies

How do we implement more sustainable farming?  Governments and policymakers can incentivize eco-friendly farming practices and invest in agricultural research. Farmers can adopt techniques like crop rotation, organic farming, and agroecology.  We, as consumers, can play our part too. By supporting local farmers and choosing organic and sustainably grown produce, we can help drive the demand for more sustainable agriculture.

13. Waste Management

Today, we generate a whopping 2.01 billion tons of municipal solid waste annually, and less than 20% of it gets recycled or composted (45). The remaining 80% ends up in one of the following:

  1. Our oceans, worsening our plastic pollution problem
  2. Landfills, where it contributes to potent greenhouse gas emissions

It’s clear our current “take, make, dispose” model is causing more harm than good.  How different would things be if our waste could be re-used, not merely discarded?

Switching to a more sustainable waste management model has numerous benefits (46):

  • Reduces the strain on our natural resources
  • Cuts greenhouse gas emissions
  • Powers job creation

Improving our waste management starts at the individual level—by reducing, reusing, and recycling. However, systematic change requires larger entities, such as governments and corporations, to take action as well.  Governments can enact more rigorous waste management laws, promote recycling programs, and fund research into waste-to-energy technologies. Meanwhile, businesses can adopt sustainable practices, such as using recyclable packaging, minimizing waste production, and implementing take-back programs.  This sort of circular economy promises environmental, social, and economic benefits for all.

A Call to Action

So there you have it—thirteen environmental issues that affect our planet and our future. It’s a sobering list, but remember this: the first step towards solving any problem is understanding its existence.  By reading this far, you’ve done just that.

We urge you to use the knowledge you’ve gained here as a catalyst for change in your own life. Start small, but think big. Whether it’s reducing your use of plastics, supporting sustainable agriculture, or advocating for cleaner energy, your actions matter. It’s the collective effort of billions of small, everyday actions that can lead to significant change.

In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” We invite you to be part of that change.


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