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  • Rob Elgar

The top environmental issues we face on a global scale.

Updated: Aug 31, 2020



In a world of constant littering, overpopulation, overconsumption, and a need for environmentally friendly alternatives of power it is no doubt why you may be concerned about the environment. This article on environmental issues will help you better understand our top environmental issues of 2020 and suggest ways on how to solve them.

Before we can move on to solving issues related to the environment we need to first understand what the leading cause of pollution is. Now it is difficult to point out a single issue so I am going to list a few major contributing topics.

WATER POLLUTION

Water is the most solvent substance on Earth. It is because of this that we have beautiful blue waterfalls and aquamarine oceans. It is also the reason that water is particularly prone to pollution. As a “universal solvent” water is easily contaminated by toxins from farms, towns, and our unsustainable lifestyles.

WHAT CAUSES WATER POLLUTION

Water pollution bodies can be broken up into 5 main categories: Groundwater, Surface water, Point source, Non-point source, and Trans-boundary. To fully understand what each of these means you can read the basement guides wonderful infographic.

There are 4 main contributors to water pollution: Agricultural, Sewage and wastewater, Oil, and Radioactive material.

AGRICULTURAL POLLUTION IN WATER

Agriculture is the largest consumer of water resources beyond any other industry - farming and livestock production use more than 70% of the Earth's natural surface water supplies. Above using the majority of the water, agricultural practices are the leading pollutants of rivers and streams. The industry also contributes highly to pollution in wetlands, estuaries, and lakes.

When there is rain, water runoff is spilled into nearby rivers. This would not be a problem if those runoffs were not contaminated with nutrients, pesticides, and animal waste.

An excess of nutrients in rivers and lakes leads to nitrification, or commonly known as nutrient pollution. The excess of nitrogen and other nutrients leads to an algae bloom. Algae bloom not only makes the water undrinkable but forms a soupy green-blue layer on the surface - thus preventing plant life at the bottom to photosynthesize.

WATER POLLUTION FROM SEWAGE AND WASTEWATER

All water that has been used can be called wastewater. Wastewater originates from our showers, sinks, toilets, industrial use, agriculture, and stormwater runoff. Chemicals and non-eco-friendly products are hazardous to and the flora and fauna of water bodies.

Heavy metals, grease, oil, and trash are swept into storm-water drains when it rains. Remember, all waterways eventually lead to the ocean. According to UNESCO ( United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization), more than 80% of the world's wastewater flows back into the natural environment without treatment. They also claim that the level of polluted water that enters back into the environment untreated could look as high as 95% in less developed countries.

As one of the world's more advanced countries, The U.S has waste-water treatment processes to treat 31 billion gallons of water each day in order to reduce the environmental effect of heavy metals, nitrogen, and pathogens entering into the natural water cycle says the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). They also, however, estimate that 850 billion gallons of untreated water enter the environment each year by the treatment plants alone. This does not account for water that does not go through the plant or for the other 194 countries in the world.

WATER CONTAMINATION BY OIL

Although massive tanker spills may seem to be the biggest cause of oil pollution, it will surprise you that they only count for 10% of the estimated 1 million tons of oil that enters the marine environment each year.

Where does the rest come from? Half of this amount comes not from ocean tankers but from land sources such as Factories, farms, and cities. A huge majority of this can be accredited to oils and grease from motor vehicles.

Furthermore, 1/3rd of the 1 million tons is found to come from regular shipping practices, whether these are legal, or illegal ones.


RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL

Nuclear power stations, uranium mining, production, and testing of military weapons, as well as universities and research centers that base their studies on radioactivity, are all contributing factors to environmental radioactive pollution.

It takes thousands of years for radioactive material to break down into a non-harmful state. Any radioactive material that enters the environment above what naturally occurs in nature can be considered as a pollutant. Nuclear spills (think the Chernobyl disaster) can introduce harmful radioactive materials into waterways through rain and by seeping into groundwater. This directly affects life as it can kill everything it comes in contact with and has been proven to create gene malfunctions for generations after its release.


DEFORESTATION


Deforestation can simply be defined as clearing a large area of trees. However, his definition of deforestation does not fully reach the depth of what deforestation is, why it happens, and what the environmental consequences are.


So what exactly is deforestation? Deforestation is the permanent removal of trees for the purpose of agriculture, grazing areas, mining, lumber resources, or construction.


DEFORESTATION CAUSES



AGRICULTURE AND DEFORESTATION

Agriculture is responsible for approximately 80% of the 500,000 acres of forests cut down each day worldwide. Of these astonishing numbers, 10,000 football fields of trees are directly linked to deforestation in the Amazon.


Around 40% of this comes from industrial agriculture and 33% is made up of subsistence farming.


DEFORESTATION DUE TO MINING

Mining is responsible for nearly 10% of the world's deforestation - mainly concentrating on the Amazon rainforest. According to mongabay - mining has an effect on deforestation up to 70 kilometers away from the mine site.


THE CUTTING DOWN OF TREES AND URBANIZATION

As land becomes harder to live off and self-sustaining becomes scarce more people have and are moving towards cities in hopes of work, security, food, and shelter. Urbanization defines this act of moving into densely populated areas and forming cities.


As density rises so does the need for space. Take for example a small village near a forest. People move there as it is prospering g and create the need to expand. In order to expand the forest is slowly cut away.


Deforestation due to population growth only contributes to around 5% of the cutting down of trees, but still should not be forgotten as the rate of urbanization increases each year.

As shown in the graph below 54% of the world was urbanized by September 2019 and does not seem to be slowing. As poorer continents such as Africa and Asia develop; their rates of urbanization will increase.



EFFECT OF DEFORESTATION

Forest contains a wide range of biodiversity according to the world bank - giving a home to 80% of terrestrial biodiversity including trees, plants, animals, and microbes. Rain forests such as Amazon hold an incredibly high percentage of the world's biodiversity. The Amazon jungle alone holds 10% of fauna and flora diversity and its river contributing between 15-16% of the world's total water discharge into the ocean.


Apart from the loss of biodiversity deforestation is a leading contributor to soil erosion, disruption of the natural water cycle, and an increase in greenhouse gasses. Sciencing has written further on each of these issues.


LOSS OF BIODIVERSITY


The definition of biodiversity or biological diversity - according to Britannica is "the variety of life found in a place on earth or, often, the total variety of life on Earth". A common way to measure this is a method called species enrichment, which measures the number of different species in an area.


Strong biodiversity boosts the productivity of an ecosystem. Each species benefits from this, no matter the size of the organism. As an example, the larger the variety of plant species the higher the number of crops. This, in turn, allows for a greater variety of animal species. Permaculture principles understand the importance of diversity and work towards increasing it.


Global warming, deforestation, and pollution all play major roles in the loss of biodiversity. Large animals, species living in forests, and sea diversity are particularly prone to a decline.


The loss of ecological diversity is increasing at an alarming rate, with some scientists predicting there will be an extinction of 30% of the world's animal and plant species by 2050.


The above graph indicates the main driving factors towards the loss of biodiversity. As can be seen, habitat destruction and exploitation are the leading causes. Both of these factors can be directly attributed to human greed.


OVERCONSUMPTION


We now live in an age of convenience and overconsumption, a time where everyone believes they deserve everything and will stop at just about nothing to get it. This 'I want' lifestyle that many humans live is throwing the balance of not only the environment but our own species off.


Overconsumption can define as buying, having, or using more than is needed. If we stop and think about it, this is the majority of the things we own. Fashion, new phone, computer or car models, fancy exotic food, and more are all contributors to an excessive amount of production.


POLLUTION AND FASHION

The textile industry is a major contributor to water pollution and the second-biggest consumer of freshwater next to agriculture. Approximately 200 tons of fresh water is required to produce only 1 tone of fabric.


Apart from the massive consumption of water, the fashion industry is responsible for massive amounts of water pollution as factories release their wastewater into rivers and streams, introducing heavy metals such as led and mercury into the system.


Furthermore, a massive 15 million tons of fabric waste is thrown away each year by the U.S alone. The graph bellow found on common object shows the distribution of fabric waste each year.

As indicated in the graph only 18% of all used or off cut fabric is reused or recycled. All of this does still not take into account the tons of microfibers that enter our water waste systems from each wash.


CONSUMPTION OF FOOD AND ITS WASTE

Besides the point that many people consume a large margin more food than is needed to survive which evidently pushes up demand for production, but a large amount of food is wasted because of this demand. How? More food is created on a daily bases to give consumers the option of buying it. If they don't, it goes in the bin, and more are created for the next day.



An estimated 1.3 billion tones of food is wasted each year - this is one-third of the total food produced for human consumption. This yearly food waste sums up the cost of 2.6 trillion USD a year - FOUR times more that is needed to feed the world's 815 million starving people.


TECHNOLOGY AND POLLUTION

Everyone wants the new best thing. The new iPhone, the latest 3D TV, the slickest most up to date PlayStation or the newest game, but what happens to the old module that is only a year or two old?


Remember the good old days when you would keep a phone or pc for 10 years+ ? Things don't last anymore and that is all in the name of the consumer. If there is something new, people will buy it. According to The Atlantic approximately 50 million tones of electronic waste was dumped in the year of 2017. This is 20% higher than just two years prior. This number has not gone down.


Plastics, heavy metals, and other pollutants are left to waste away in landfills for thousands of years because we find the need to be the most 'hip' and up to date.

THE MOTHER OF ALL ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS - CLIMATE CHANGE


Climate change is one of the leading issues we have been facing as a planet in the not so recent history. As this environmental problem is, possibly the biggest threat to the environment and world as we know it I feel it deserves its very own article. For now, let's just look at the leading climate change causes and consequences of global warming.


Climate change definition: "a change in global or regional climate patterns, in particular a change apparent from the mid to late 20th century onwards and attributed largely to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels." - Oxford dictionary

WHAT CAUSES CLIMATE CHANGE

- Deforestation

- Agriculture and livestock production

- The burning of fossil fuels

- Use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers


Greenhouse gasses - some of which occur naturally, but at a much smaller level. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and floriated gases are amongst the greenhouse gases that humans are most responsible for. According to the EU, carbon dioxide is responsible for 64% of man-made global-warming.


Green-house gasses leade to the rising of Earth's temperature as they act as a head trapping barrier or a "greenhouse".

As indicated above, naturally some of the sun's heat is naturally trapped in the atmosphere of the earth, but due to an excess amount of these greenhouse gasses more of the heat is trapped, thus leading to an increase in the temperature of the earth.


EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON THE ENVIRONMENT

Increase in average temperatures leads to many global worries, amongst the highest include:


- Melting of polar ice caps

- Rising sea levels (directly related to above point)

- Change in weather patterns ( cold places are becoming hotter and hot places becoming colder). This change in temperatures causes pressure shifts and results in unusual natural disasters such as hurricanes.

- Increase in ocean acidity

- Plant and animal migration

- Numerous social factors such as agricultural disruptions and land becoming unhabitable.


This video bellow by Live Science is an interesting visual representation of the effects of global warming.


FINAL NOTES


In the year of 2020 we face some major environmental problems. These problems are not new but are steadily increasing. The risk of running out of freshwater due to farming and the textile industry, the loss of biodiversity due to deforestation, and world hunger due to greed are but a few of the challenges we will face this year and in years to come. Ask yourself what kind of world you want to live in, then make a change to live it.

To stay up to date with future posts please subscribe bellow or visit the sustainable lifestyle page. Stay tuned for a follow-up article where I will layout steps for each of us to make our own path and solve the top environmental issues of 2020.


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