Arunima Sen Gupta
For decades, new government policies and activism have helped us make big strides in environmental protection. However, the world continues to see higher temperatures, leading to severe weather events, flooding, drought, wildfires and more. But what environmental challenges should we focus on, moving forward to ensure we are heading in the right direction to slow, stop, or even reverse climate change? Below, we review the biggest environmental problems of 2024 and beyond to help understand what areas we must focus on to reach our climate goals.
1. Fossil fuels
Fossil fuels, whether oil, natural gas, or coal, remain a critical environmental issue. Burning these fuels for energy — powering a vehicle or generating electricity — is the leading cause of climate change, as it makes up over 75% of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG emissions) worldwide and 90% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. If we’re looking to slow global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, we must halve our fossil fuel emissions by 2033. The need to cut our fossil fuel emissions within a decade makes limiting our reliance on fossil fuels the most pressing environmental issue in 2024. Doing this requires help from several industries and consumers, as a large portion of fossil fuel emissions come from both transportation and power generation. Automakers must continue pushing for green vehicle development, including hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles and other alternative fuels and consumers must be willing to adopt this technology. But also, the power-generation industry must continue moving away from gas, coal and oil-fired power plants and switch to green and renewable energy generation, such as hydropower, wind, and solar. Consumers can also do their part by switching to providers offering green options, if available, and even take matters into their own hands by installing solar panels on their homes.
Population continues to grow annually and the more it grows, the land use to build houses, roads, and other structures increases. Building these structures often results in deforestation. This urbanization of forested land has several serious consequences. First, trees are carbon sinks, meaning they absorb carbon from the air. Once we cut them down, we eliminate that absorption. And with CO2 emissions being a huge contributor to global warming, we can’t risk eliminating these carbon-absorbing natural resources. Second, urbanizing forested land impacts wildlife and their habitats and ecosystems, resulting in biodiversity loss and displacement, which can eventually threaten the very existence of certain species.
3. Air quality
As per a World Bank report last year, the air pollution levels in India are among the highest in the world, posing a heavy threat to the country's health and economy. All of India’s 1.4 billion people are exposed to unhealthy levels of ambient PM 2.5 – the most harmful pollutant - emanating from multiple sources. Some of the most common sources include emissions from burning fossil fuels such as coal or oil and biomass such as wood, charcoal, or crop residues. PM 2.5 can also come from windblown dust, including natural dust as well as dust from construction sites, roads, and industrial plants. Various industries need to continue finding ways to limit their emissions. Automakers must continue finding ways to limit the pollutants their vehicles emit. And most of all, consumers must continue pushing industries to make changes by supporting those who’ve made the efforts. Consumers must also be willing to adopt new, reduced-emission transportation and other emission-reducing technology as it becomes available in 2024 and beyond.
4. Drinking water
In August 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Government of India’s commitment to provide piped water supply to every household in the country by 2024 with a new national flagship programme – the Jal Jeevan (Water for life) Mission. By Nov 2023, out of the 19,24,26,914 rural households in the country, as many as 13,47,50,894 households had been provided tap water connection till now, according to Jal Jeevan Mission data. However, climate change has resulted in extreme weather conditions that can cause severe flooding that puts added strain on aging drinking water infrastructures. And should this rainwater infiltrate the drinking water supply, it could bring pollutants and toxins along with it, making the freshwater undrinkable.
5. Waste management
As population grows, so does its consumption. And the more the consumption , the more waste we produce. According to a report by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), India generates over 62 million tons (MT) of waste in a year. Only 43 MT of total waste generated gets collected, with 12 MT being treated before disposal, and the remaining 31 MT simply discarded in wasteyards. Most of the waste generated remains untreated and even unaccounted for. Inadequate waste collection, transport, treatment and disposal have become major causes for environmental and public health concerns in the country. When this waste is in landfills, it doesn’t just decompose and disappear. Instead, as it decomposes, it releases methane, which is 80 times worse than CO2 when contributing to climate change because it traps significantly more heat. Making matters worse, much of it, including plastic waste, ends up in the oceans. This plastic pollution can severely impact marine ecosystems and animals. The solid waste management sector in India has witnessed significant growth in recent years due to the government’s push towards cleanliness and sanitation. However, companies must rethink their packaging, using recyclables or reusable packaging where possible. Consumers should try to support those companies making an effort to reduce wasteful packaging as well as reuse and recycle packaging when possible.
6. Natural resources
As our population grows, so does our demand for natural resources. If our demand exceeds the supply, we risk natural resource depletion, which is when we consume them faster than they are replaced. An example of natural resource depletion would be removing fish from the ocean for food at a rate that exceeds their breeding rate. And this can apply to any natural resource, whether it’s renewable or not, including water, fossil fuels, trees, and more. Natural resource depletion can lead to many issues, including water shortages, oil shortages, loss of forested lands, mineral depletion, and even species extinction. Through policies limiting resource use, we can help ensure plenty of natural resources are available for future generations. Also, we can use technology to find new and renewable resources to replace more limited natural resources. While future generations will likely have plenty of environmental problems to tackle, one stands head and shoulders above all others. That’s climate change. A whopping 97% of science papers agree that human activities have led to the climate crisis known as global warming.
7. Climate change
Global warming and climate change are about more than just warmer temperatures. They can cause other serious issues, including rising ocean levels impacting coastal cities and states; dramatic climate events, such as long droughts or massive flooding; and the extinction of certain species. This is why it’s so critical to get the problem under control. Reversing climate change isn’t something that’ll happen quickly. It will take many years of incremental improvement before we reach our goals. A rising global climate is also bringing about more intense water cycles. This increases the risk and severity of sudden flooding and long droughts. Experts anticipate increased rainfall in higher latitudes and decreased rainfall in the subtropics. Sea ice — a key indicator in global warming — hit extreme lows in 2023. As global temperatures rise, so does the temperature of our oceans. Ocean water expands as it warms, compounding the coastal flooding mentioned earlier. Also, the ocean can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, but this results in the ocean becoming more acidic, threatening sensitive marine species and damaging key ecological settings, such as coral reefs.
As per the United Nations, the following would help:
Saving energy at home: Much of our electricity and heat are powered by coal, oil and gas. Use less energy by reducing your heating and cooling use, switching to LED light bulbs and energy-efficient electric appliances, washing laundry with cold water, or hanging things to dry instead of using a dryer. Improving your home’s energy efficiency, through better insulation can reduce your carbon footprint by up to 900 kg of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year.
Switching to renewable energy: If possible, switch to renewable sources such as wind or solar. Or install solar panels on your roof to generate energy for your home. This can reduce your carbon footprint by up to 1.5 tons of CO2e per year.
Walking, biking or taking public transport: Walking or riding a bike instead of driving will reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- and help health and fitness. For longer distances, consider taking a train or bus. And carpool whenever possible. Living car-free can reduce your carbon footprint by up to 2 tons of CO2e per year compared to a lifestyle using a car.
Reducing, reusing, repairing and recycling: Electronics, clothes, plastics and other items we buy cause carbon emissions at each point in production, from the extraction of raw materials to manufacturing and transporting goods to market. To protect the climate, buy fewer things, shop second-hand, and repair what you can. Plastics alone generated 1.8 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 – 3.4 per cent of the global total. Less than 10 per cent is recycled, and once plastic is discarded, it can linger for hundreds of years. Buying fewer new clothes – and other consumer goods – can also reduce your carbon footprint. Every kilogram of textiles produced generates about 17 kilograms of CO2e.
Eating more vegetables: Eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and less meat and dairy, can significantly lower your environmental impact. Producing plant-based foods generally results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requires less energy, land, and water. Shifting from a mixed to a vegetarian diet can reduce your carbon footprint by up to 500 kilograms of CO2e per year (or up to 900 kilograms for a vegan diet).
Cutting food waste: When you throw food away, you're also wasting the resources and energy that were used to grow, produce, package, and transport it. And when food rots in a landfill, it produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. So, purchase only what you need, use what you buy and compost any leftovers. Cutting your food waste can reduce your carbon footprint by up to 300 kilograms of CO2e per year.
Planting native species: If you have a garden or even just a plant or two outside your home, check for native species. Plants, animals and insects depend on each other. Most insects will not eat non-native plants, which means birds and other species lose a food source. Biodiversity suffers. Even a single tree or shrub can offer a refuge.
Cleaning the environment: Humans, animals and plants all suffer from land and water contaminated by improperly discarded garbage. Use what you need, and when you have to throw something out, dispose of it properly. Educate others to do the same, and participate in local clean-ups of parks, rivers and beyond. Every year, people throw out 2 billion tons of trash. About a third causes environment harms, from choking water supplies to poisoning soil.