• What are the Top 5 Environmental Concerns for 2024?

Environmental Laboratory

What are the Top 5 Environmental Concerns for 2024?

Dec 20 2023

As 2024 approaches, it’s clear to all that, once again, the landscape of environmental challenges is shifting. Unsurprisingly, our environmental concerns are dominated by climate change, slowing the rate of change and adapting to that change. In a press release for their latest synthesis report, the IPCC stated that ‘the choices made in the next few years will play a critical role in deciding our future and that of generations to come.’ So, whether it’s keeping a more watchful eye on the deterioration of Asia’s Water Tower or eradicating gas flaring in the petroleum industry, it’s all part of one crisis, the climate crisis, and the pressure is really on. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the big environmental challenges of 2024:  

Advancing desalination  

'Humanity is breaking all the wrong records when it comes to climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions reached a new high in 2022. In September 2023, global average temperatures were 1.8°C above pre-industrial levels. When this year is over, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, it is almost certain to be the warmest year on record.'  

That’s how this year’s UNEP Emissions Gap Report begins. Every year, this report delineates the difference between emissions adequate to limiting warming below 1.5°C or 2°C by 2100 and emissions permitted under current global commitments. As things stand, unconditional nationally determined contributions (NDCs) are enough to limit temperature rise to 2.9°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100, with conditional NDCs bringing it down to 2.5°C - so, some distance beyond the Paris Agreement’s upper limit of 2°C (the phrasing is: ‘well below 2°C’) and much hotter than the preferred limit of 1.5°C. Now, to avoid breaching this upper limit, our emissions by 2030 will have to be 28% lower than is currently forecasted; to keep ourselves below or around our actual target of 1.5°C, they’ll need to be 42% lower than the forecast. Earlier this month, the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, a volunteer network of policy experts and researchers advocating for the preservation of the Earth’s glaciers, ice sheets and permafrost, published its annual State of the Cryosphere report – and its introduction is even more chilling:  

'Earth’s frozen water in ice sheets, sea ice, permafrost, polar oceans, glaciers and snow [...] are at ground zero, beginning to reach the boundary where adaptation becomes loss and damage, irreversible on any human timescale. From the Cryosphere point of view, 1.5°C is not simply preferable to 2°C or higher, it is the only option.' 

If this is our diagnosis, it’s likely that the world’s oceans will become a significant source of drinking water in the 21st century, requiring rapid development of our desalination capacities – but this brings up fresh challenges of its own. While it promises a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fresh water, the process is energy-intensive and environmentally taxing. The main issue lies in the discharge of highly concentrated brine, which can drastically alter marine ecosystems and salinity levels. Moreover, the heavy reliance on fossil fuels for powering desalination plants exacerbates greenhouse gas emissions, ironically contributing to the very climate change that intensifies water scarcity. In 2024, the quest is to develop energy-efficient and ecologically harmonious desalination techniques.  

Monitoring the Asian Water Tower  

On a related note, what's called the Asian Water Tower – the Tibetan Plateau and its adjoining mountainous regions which plays a vital role in the lives of around 2 billion people – is not only one of the cryosphere’s most at-risk components but in the process of its depletion, the quality of the water may be deteriorating.  

This year, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences published findings in Nature that the greater quantities of meltwater being produced in contracted time periods within the glacier have increased the force and speed of flows and therefore caused greater erosion. So far, so good; sediment can be sieved from the water, right? Well, the composition of the rock in this region of the world means that increased sediment flux may introduce contaminants like arsenic, calcium and magnesium into the drinking water of hundreds of millions. As a result, stepping up monitoring efforts may well save lives as the cryosphere continues to suffer. Many researchers have called for a research network that accumulates and preserves data on groundwater and surface water quality, glacier run-off geochemistry, permafrost degradation, and pollutant release across borders.    

Since 2017, China has been building up its environmental monitoring infrastructure across the Himalayas in an attempt to get a better picture of what’s happening on the Tibetan Plateau. Last year, a team of Chinese scientists successfully established the world's highest automatic weather station at over 8,800 meters altitude on Mount Qomolangma, known to Westerners as Mount Everest. For the first time, the thickness of ice and snow at the summit was measured using high-precision radar. At time of writing, China boasts eight similar research stations on Everest, monitoring a variety of climatic parameters including temperature, humidity, wind speed and radiation changes. This year, Chinese scientists made history once again by establishing monitoring stations atop the world’s sixth-tallest summit, another Himalayan peak, Mount Cho Oyu, making it only the second time that a Chinese research team has ascended beyond 8,000-meters. Snow-capped and icy year-round, the mountain offers an invaluable natural repository of climatic data, revealing the secrets of high-altitude environmental shifts over time. With ice depths reaching over 70 meters, ice cores extracted from the site offer the prospect of unravelling cryospheric mysteries going back millions of years.   

Pollution by electric vehicles (EVs)  

Limiting warming to levels compatible with our cryosphere will require a total turnover of our car fleet – but whilst this may slash carbon emissions, it pollutes the environment in other ways.  

Firstly, there are all the environmental concerns around lithium mining, which can reasonably be expected to explode over the coming decade as COP28’s final agreement commits the parties to triple renewable capacity by 2030. More electricity; more batteries; more lithium ore. In Silver Peak, for example, Nevada's lithium heartland, production is set to double in the next few years to meet the soaring demand for clean energy solutions, with the state government holding onto over 17,000 claims for lithium prospecting. But lithium mining can have a significantly disruptive impact on ecologies. The most common form of lithium extraction, which dominates operations in Latin America's "lithium triangle" (Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile), for example, involves evaporating mineral-rich brine, which is extremely water-intensive. This process can deplete nearby water sources, affecting local communities, agriculture, and overall ecosystem balance. Furthermore, toxic chemicals used in the process or unearthed during mining can contaminate water sources. Dust and pollutants from mining operations can degrade air quality. The cumulative effects of habitat destruction, water, and soil pollution can lead to a decline in regional biodiversity. Both plant and animal species can be threatened, creating imbalanced ecosystems and affecting species reliant on these habitats.  

Furthermore, the heavier weight of EVs compared to traditional vehicles leads to increased tyre wear which, in turn, contributes to higher emissions of particulate matter, posing a fresh challenge in air quality management. According to a report by Imperial College London, toxic chemicals are released from tyre wear particles. This includes harmful substances like polyaromatic hydrocarbons, benzothiazoles, zinc, and lead, which either hang in the air or seep into nearby soil and bodies of water. In his address to the Environmental Audit Committee in early July, England’s Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty emphasized the urgency of addressing tyre pollution, which, he argues, could potentially worsen in a future dominated by electric vehicles. There is a growing body of research suggesting that tiny particles produced by tyre wear, together with those from road surfaces and markings, pose a significant health risk, now surpassing the hazards of exhaust emissions. These particulates can be deeply inhaled into the lungs and even infiltrate the food chain. According to Jonathan Grigg, Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine at Queen Mary University of London, further research is needed to understand the health effects of these non-combustion particles. Moreover, particles from tyre and brake wear, road abrasions, and their paint markings contributed to about 76% of all small particle pollution from road transport in 2021, as per UK government data. This figure is remarkably higher than the mere 15% from car exhausts, underscoring the urgency of the tyre pollution issue. Experts and policymakers are calling for further research on tyre wear and new solutions to this pressing problem.   

Meanwhile, efforts to reduce tyre emissions are gaining traction. Experimental trials of new tyre designs sponsored by Transport for London found them to emit 35% fewer pollutants. Similarly, the EU is working on legislation to regulate tyre emissions, with new standards expected to be in place by 2025. Regulatory tools and surveillance measures for tyre wear and chemical content are currently lacking. Given the substantial variation in wear rate and toxic chemical content among different tyre brands, Molden suggests that even low-cost changes could significantly reduce their environmental impact.   

Tracking pollutants from biofuels  

Made from biomass, biofuel and biogas represent renewable replacements for fossil fuels and natural gas – but not necessarily carbon-neutral replacements. Being composed of organic material, bioenergy releases carbon dioxide during combustion. Proponents, however, contend that these emissions are re-absorbed by the re-growing crops, rendering bioenergy de facto carbon neutral. In their report, the IPCC argue that when produced correctly, bioenergy is ‘able to deliver 80 to 90% emission reductions compared to the fossil fuel energy baseline.’ But they share other pollutants with fossil fuels – unsurprising, as all that separates biomass from oil or coal is millions of years of compression. In 2002, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency released a draft technical report on the tailpipe emissions of biofuelled engines which concluded that increasing the volume of biofuel reduces the emission of particulate matter, the most dangerous form of air pollution, whilst slightly increasing NOx, which can give those exposed chronic respiratory conditions. We know how to monitor these pollutants; the question is whether we can monitor them on the scale that may be required, as biofuels are set to take off. 

Indeed, COP28’s commitment to ‘Tripling renewable energy capacity globally [...] by 2030’ means ramping up production volumes of bioenergy, as well as wind, solar and hydropower. In October at this year’s G20 summit, the Global Biofuels Alliance was announced, with participation from many members, including Brazil, Canada, India, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates as well as Sri Lanka, Kenya, Iceland, and Finland. Two of the Alliance’s members, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil, struck an important deal earlier this year in which the Emirates will provide Brazil’s world-leading biofuel producers with the capital to develop exporting capacities – a convenient investment for a petrostate looking for some carbon credits to justify a planned expansion in production. But officials from Atvos, Brazil’s ethanol giant, spent their COP28 looking for even more investment beyond Abu Dhabi’s 30% stake, Energy Monitor reported.     

Curbing gas flaring   

Whilst gas flaring has long been a common practice in oil extraction, where excess natural gas is burned off, it's considered both wasteful and environmentally harmful as it releases a cocktail of carbon dioxide, methane, black carbon and carcinogenic air pollutants into the atmosphere, pushing up temperatures whilst endangering public health.  

In 2023, the BBC discovered that significant illegal and unreported gas flaring by major oil companies had occurred on oil fields operated by giants like BP, Eni, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell in the Gulf region. While some countries like Norway have successfully regulated gas flaring, others in the Gulf region lag behind, often due to the intertwined interests of national oil companies and government policies. All of this flaring would not have been recorded in official tallies of these companies’ emissions due to reporting standards, which only account for emissions from sites they directly operate. In many cases, the responsibility for declaring emissions is passed between the primary contractors and the operators, leading to a lack of accountability. This significant loophole threatens to undermine efforts to end routine flaring, like the World Bank's pledge to eradicate the practice by 2030, to which many of the companies involved in the scandal have committed.  

These practices are particularly prevalent in Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait, but they can be seen in the UAE, too, with the pollution spreading across the Gulf, impacting public health over vast distances. Communities near flaring sites, particularly in Iraq, show increased incidence of cancer, particularly childhood leukaemia – in Basra, for instance, cancer cases have risen sharply in direct correlation with increased flaring. Such impacts are the result of combusted natural gas forming carcinogenic chemicals like benzene and naphthalene.  


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