Published: 28 November 2023
Contributors: Amanda McGrath, Alexandra Jonker
Environmental issues are the set of challenges and problems facing Earth and its natural systems. From climate change and pollution to overpopulation and energy use, these issues are complex and interconnected.
As they affect the health of the natural world, environmental issues can have significant impacts on human health and well-being, as well as organizations and business operations.
Environmental issues result from a combination of natural causes and human impact. While the Earth's ecosystems are designed to handle certain amounts of natural disturbances (such as forest fires and floods), human activities can create circumstances in which they happen with greater frequency or intensity.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the burning of fossil fuels and other activities have increased the number of greenhouse gas emissions in Earth’s atmosphere, leading to an increase in global warming. The resulting climate change has accelerated disruption of the environment and vital natural processes. Land use practices, extraction of natural resources, waste disposal and other human behaviors also contribute to environmental issues.
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Each environmental issue contributes to a host of interconnected challenges facing the Earth and human beings. Here's a closer look at some of the main types of environmental issues:
Climate change refers to the long-term changes in temperature, precipitation, and other weather patterns caused by human activities such as burning fossil fuels. These activities have increased the number of greenhouse gas emissions released; these emissions trap heat within Earth’s atmosphere, leading to increasing global temperatures.
According to NASA, the Earth's average surface temperature has risen by about 1°C since the late 19th century.1 The results include melting glaciers, rising sea levels, disrupted ecosystems and an increase in severe weather events such as droughts, floods, heat waves and wildfires.
Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth, including animals, plants, and microorganisms. From the Amazon to the tundra, biodiversity is essential to the ecological balance of the planet. A loss of biodiversity can lead to species extinction, put food and water supplies at risk and reduce carbon sequestration (the natural process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is essential to reducing climate change).
Human activities, such as deforestation, agricultural expansion, land use changes and pollution, contribute to the overall loss of biodiversity. The use of pesticides can also harm nontarget species and disrupt ecosystems. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Earth has lost 69% of its wildlife populations since 1970.2
Air pollution refers to the presence of harmful substances such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen dioxide in the air that people breathe. The burning of fossil fuels, industrial processes, transportation, and wildfires can have a negative impact on air quality. Exposure to fine particles, ground-level ozone, and other pollutants can cause respiratory problems, heart disease, cancer, and other health conditions. According to the World Health Organization, outdoor air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths every year.3
The Earth’s oceans face several threats. Oceans absorb almost a third of the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere; as global carbon emissions rise, so does the amount that is absorbed by oceans, leading to acidification. Ocean acidification can harm marine life, disrupt ecosystems, and impact global food security.
Pollution also puts the oceans at risk: the United Nations estimates that 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the water each year.4 While wastewater, oil spills, chemicals, and other pollutants cause harm to living organisms and their habitats. Also, as global warming melts Earth’s glaciers, sea levels rise, which can harm marine life and cause coastal flooding and erosion.
Beyond the ocean, Earth’s other water supplies are also facing challenges. Safe drinking water is critical for human health; however, industrial waste, pesticides, and agricultural processes can pollute water sources. The presence of the resulting bacteria and chemical concentrations in drinking water can cause digestive problems, neurological illnesses, skin infections and more.
More than a billion people worldwide do not have access to clean water. As climate change and human actions shrink the available water supply, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages by 2025.5
According to the United Nations, the world's population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.6 As the global population grows, so does demand for natural resources, as well as human impact on the environment. Without sustainable development, overpopulation can lead to shortages in food and water and other resource depletion. It can also exacerbate issues like waste disposal, pollution, and deforestation that can contribute to public health problems.
Overall energy use can have a major impact on the environment. Today, fossil fuels are the primary source of energy for most individuals, businesses, and industries. However, their combustion is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and may contribute to other environmental problems such as acid rain. Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower may offer ways to reduce carbon emissions but come with potential environmental impacts of their own.
Extreme weather events—such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts, and snowstorms—are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change. These events pose a threat to both the environment and human populations, and can cause significant damage to infrastructure, homes and ways of life.
Rising temperatures and rising sea levels, among other factors, contribute to the increase in extreme weather conditions.According to the World Meteorological Organization, extreme weather and climate events were responsible for 2 million deaths and USD 4.3 trillion in economic losses between 1970 and 2021.7
Individuals, governments, organizations, and communities are attempting to address environmental issues in various ways:
Through scientific research and development, people are learning more about the causes of environmental issues and ways to limit or repair their negative consequences. New technologies, including advances in renewable energy sources and energy-efficient operations, can help reduce carbon emissions.
Ecology and environmental science can offer a better understanding of how human activities affect Earth in complex ways. Public education efforts spread knowledge about the harmful impact of some behaviors and practices on the environment and can drive interest in environmental protection and sustainable development.
Collaborative international efforts are attempting to find and implement solutions that mitigate environmental problems. Environment, health and safety (EHS) organizations focus on safeguarding the environment from pollution and degradation. They play a role in researching and advising on environmental management and protection measures to reduce the negative impact of human activities, emissions, and hazardous materials on ecosystems.
Treaties, such as the Paris Agreement, are aimed at addressing climate change on an international scale. Sharing resources and best practices between countries can also lead to more effective environmental protection efforts.
More companies are adopting corporate social responsibility policies and operating with environmental challenges in mind. They seek to increase sustainability in business to minimize any contribution to environmental change. Their efforts might include reducing emissions and their carbon footprint, by using less water and energy, and minimizing waste and improving waste management.
Transparency in reporting their environmental impact, by using environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting frameworks. And as mandated by directives like Europe’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), helps hold companies accountable and allows consumers to make informed choices.
Many are following the recommendations set forth by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, or TCFD, to inform investors, shareholders, and the public of their climate-related financial risks. Efforts to address environmental impact might help businesses find cost-saving measures and build trust and loyalty from consumers and investors.
Some governments use economic incentives, such as taxes and subsidies to address environmental problems and foster environmentally friendly practices. For example, some used carbon taxes in an attempt to deter pollution-causing activities or used subsidies to help make electric cars or solar panels more affordable. Investments in sustainable infrastructure, such as public transportation and energy-efficient buildings, can also provide long-term economic and social benefits while reducing environmental impact.
Some people are making lifestyle choices with the goal of reducing their environmental impact at an individual level. These choices may include reducing energy use, recycling, choosing sustainable products, or reducing water waste. Individuals can also advocate for environmental issues and support policies and businesses that prioritize sustainability.
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Sustainability in business refers to a company's strategy and actions to eliminate the adverse environmental and social impacts caused by business operations.
ESG reporting frameworks are used for the disclosure of data covering opportunities and risks related to the environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects of the business.
The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) seeks to keep investors better-informed about companies' climate-related risks.
Environment, health and safety (EHS) focuses on the protection of human health and the environment in various settings, including worksites, communities and public spaces.
The CSRD requires EU businesses to report on the environmental and social impact of their activities, and on the impact of their ESG efforts and initiatives.
Decarbonization is a method of climate change mitigation that reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
1How do we know climate change is real? (link resides outside ibm.com), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), November 2023.
2Living Planet Report 2022 (link resides outside ibm.com), World Wildlife Fund, October 2022.
3Ambient (outdoor) air pollution (link resides outside ibm.com), World Health Organization (WHO), December 2022.
4Fast Facts — What is plastic pollution? (link resides outside ibm.com), United Nations, August 2023.
5Water scarcity (link resides outside ibm.com), World Wildlife Fund, October 2023.
6Global issues: Population (link resides outside ibm.com), United Nations, October 2023.
7Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water-related Hazards (link resides outside ibm.com), World Meteorological Organization, May 2023.