What are the biggest sustainability threats?


Climate change is perceived as the main threat to our environment because it is the most visible. But there are several other major environmental threats that can impact the sustainability of our planet that need attention, and many of them are interrelated. Governments, companies and individuals are becoming aware of what are the threats to sustainability and are taking action.

Climate Change

Climate change is widely seen as the biggest challenge of our age. Vast financial and human resources are being mobilized to deal with the causes and effects of climate change, and to bring about an energy transition away from fossil fuels to renewable resources. In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 6th Assessment Report – widely seen to be the most authoritative and up-to-date source on the topic -- issued the most severe warning yet on climate change: “Recent changes in the climate are widespread, rapid, and intensifying, and unprecedented in thousands of years,” the report said. The impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels, changes in rainfall patterns, and higher temperatures are already unavoidable even if the world succeeds in reaching the 2050 zero-carbon emissions targets set at Glasgow in 2021 which would limit warming to an annual increase of 1.5 degrees centigrade above 1850-1900 levels. But the world is not on track to meet these targets.

Biodiversity Loss

Human life is possible because of the contribution of a variety of plants, insects and animal specials on land, in the air, and in the water every day. Many of the estimated 1.5 million species in the world we have never heard of, and cannot see. Yet their interaction is vital to our survival, and loss of a single species could have unpredictable impacts on the overall ecosystem. This delicate “biodiversity” or biological diversity is under threat from intensive agriculture, unsustainable fishing, wildlife poaching, habitat degradation and destruction, acid rain, and climate change. According to the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report in 2019 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), some 1 million species are at risk of extinction. The IPBES report was the most comprehensive study of life on earth ever undertaken, and, as with climate change, found that human actions were the main reason for biodiversity loss. According to the World Health Organization, “Biodiversity loss can have significant direct human health impacts if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet social needs. Indirectly, changes in ecosystem services affect livelihoods, income, local migration and, on occasion, may even cause or exacerbate political conflict.”

Pollution

Awareness of air, water, plastic and other forms of pollution began in the 1970s and has soared in recent years. Governments in most industrialized countries have passed regulations banning air and water pollution, and mandate the recycling of plastic, glass and metal. Despite this, human environmental damage in the form of air, water, and land pollution was named again by the 650 respondents of the World Economic Forum’s leadership communities in the Global Risks Perception Survey as one of the top risks in 17th Global Risks Report in 2022 in terms of both likelihood and impact. Population growth and a move to cities are far outpacing environmental protection regulation that limit air and water pollution. Air pollution causes some 7 million deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization. This is more than the 6.3 million people estimated to have died of Covid-19. The impact falls disproportionally on poorer countries, where air quality is worse. Water pollution has traditionally involved industrial and human wastes being dumped into the water supply. In recent years, a new threat has emerged: plastics and water pollution. Some 83% of tap water samples collected from over a dozen countries on five continents tested positive for microplastic, according to a study commissioned by data journalism outlet Orb, TIME magazine reported in 2017.

Drought and water scarcity

Most of the planet is covered by water, but only 3% of the world’s water is suitable for drinking. The term “water scarcity” refers to the lack of fresh water to meet demand. Some regions, like sub-Saharan Africa, have traditionally suffered from water scarcity because of the dry climate. But now, the increasing population, changing habits (such as eating more meat), and shifting weather patterns due to global warming are all putting pressure on the world’s water resources. According to a report called “The 2021 State of Climate Services” prepared by the World Meteorological Association, in 2018, 2.3 billion people were living in countries under water stress, and 3.6 billion people faced inadequate access to water at least one month per year. By 2050, the latter is expected to be more than five billion. The UN points out that in most places suffering from a water shortage, the cause is mismanagement. In the U.S., an estimated 20-50% of water may be lost through underground leakages. Though water shortage occurs in dry areas or during a drought, in many cases it is due to carelessness. This type of problem can be fixed and is also avoidable. Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is vital to achieving long-term social, economic and environmental well-being. But, although most countries have advanced their level of IWRM implementation, 107 countries remain off track to hitting the goal of sustainably managing their water resources by 2030, according to the “2021 State of Climate Services” report.

Resource Depletion

When a growing world population consumes resources beyond the level at which they can naturally be replaced, the result is resource depletion. This is measured each year by Earth Overshoot Day, which falls on July 28 this year. It marks the day when humanity consumed all the biological resources that the Earth generates that year. When Earth Overshoot Day was first calculated in 1971, the date was December 25. It has now moved forward steadily as demands on the Earth’s resources grow. Common examples of resource depletion can take place with water use, deforestation, fossil fuels, minerals, agricultural practices, soil erosion, and overconsumption. Since the 1970s, the global population has doubled and global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown fourfold, and resource extraction has more than tripled since then, including a fivefold increase in the use of non-metallic minerals and a 45% increase in fossil fuel use, according to the Global Resources Outlook 2019, a report by UN Environment. This is a major driver of climate change. Resource extraction and processing of materials, fuels and food contribute half of total global greenhouse gas emissions and over 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress. A shift to sustainable and renewable energy can help solve the problem of resource depletion.

Deforestation

The world’s forests are disappearing at a rate of about 10 million hectares per year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Agency – an area about the size of Portugal. Only half of that is replanted, making deforestation a major environmental problem, according to the WWF. The consequences of deforestation are serious because it contributes to climate change. Forests are vital for absorbing the greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet. Moreover, when a region loses its biodiversity, it becomes more vulnerable to other environmental stresses. At the climate change summit COP26 in Glasgow last year, more than 100 governments promised to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030. The Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest forest, is undergoing accelerating deforestation. The portion of Amazon rainforest impacted by deforestation in the first three months of 2022 was the highest ever recorded, according to a new report by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), CNN reported in April.

Reuters reports that the deforestation of Brazil's Amazon rainforest in August 2019 contributed to a 5% increase in the deforestation. In October 2019, the total year-to-date deforestation for that region was up a total of 83%.