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Unity Environmental University

Brainstorming Ways to Solve Environmental Problems? 5 Simple Ways You Can Help

June 1, 2019

Home  /  News  /  Brainstorming Ways to Solve Environmental Problems? 5 Simple Ways You Can Help

We are currently facing the most critical environmental issues in human history. Our climate, planet, lives, and future as a civilization are all at risk. While the magnitude of that thought can be extremely overwhelming, don’t allow yourself to feel helpless, not knowing where to begin. Making small steps and adjustments in your daily routine will give you a sense of success and a yearning to attempt more.

Here are 5 simple ways you can help the environment and spark others to become more environmentally aware.

1. Replace disposable items with reusable

Anything you use and throw away can potentially spend centuries in a landfill. See below for simple adjustments you can make to decrease the amount of disposable items in your daily life.

  • Carry your own reusable cup or water bottle
  • Use airtight, reusable food containers instead of sandwich bags and plastic wrap
  • Pack a waste-free lunch: carry your utensils, cloth napkin, and containers in a reusable lunch bag
  • Bring your own bags to the grocery store
  • Consider buying bulk containers of your preferred beverages and refilling a reusable bottle, instead of buying individually packaged drinks
  • Use rechargeable batteries

2. Pass on paper

We are living in the Digital Era, but think about all the paper products you use in your daily life. These actions still align with reusing and repurposing, though may take a little more time for transition.

  • Join a library instead of buying books or buy a Kindle
  • Print as little as possible; and if you must, print on both sides
  • Wrap gifts in fabric and tie with ribbon; both are reusable and prettier than paper and sticky-tape
  • Stop using paper towels and incorporate washable cloths
  • Look at labels to make sure you only use FSC-certified wood and paper products
  • Cut out products made by palm oil companies that contribute to deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia

3. Conserve water & electricity

The tips you see below will seem like no-brainers; however, it may take to become more aware of your unconscious habits.

  • Turn the sink water off when brushing your teeth
  • Water the lawn in the morning or evening; cooler air causes less evaporation
  • Switch off anything that uses electricity when not in use (lights, televisions, computers, printers, etc.)
  • Unplug devices when possible; even when an appliance is turned off, it may still use power
  • Remove chemicals inside of the house; research companies that use plant-derived ingredients for their household cleaning products
  • Remove chemicals outside of the house; use eco-friendly pesticides and herbicides that won’t contaminate groundwater
  • Consider signing up for a renewable energy producer that uses 100% renewable energy to power homes

4. Support local & environmentally friendly

Here are a few reasons to start buying local:

  • Reduces plastic and paper waste
  • Boosts cost-efficiency
  • Enables bulk purchasing
  • Helps support your neighbors
  • Retains farmland within the community
  • Builds up the local economy
  • Uses fewer chemicals for both for growing and transporting

5. Recycle (& then recycle properly)

Implementing recycling habits into your daily life is one of the most effective ways to help lessen landfill waste, conserve natural resources, save habitats, reduce pollution, cut down on energy consumption, and slow down global warming.

  • Confirm you are using the proper separation containers for your household per the local recycling services
  • Remember to make sure your trash bags are recycled or biodegradable, and always cut up the plastic rings from packs of beer or soda to prevent wildlife from getting caught
  • Educate yourself about what can and cannot be recycled, as not all plastic and cardboard is acceptable (like pizza boxes for example, due to the grease) ( click here for a simple 101 )
  • Learn how to identify and dispose of hazardous waste properly ( click here to learn more )

Taking the time to simply read this article for ways to solve environmental problems is a step forward to becoming more aware of the needs of your environment. You are now taking action, and every change–big or small–will create an impact.

If you’re already taking action on the suggestions above, see below for additional tips and ideas:

  • Add these simple lists to your digital checklist and pick one at a time to tackle. After a week or so, check it off the list and move on to the next. Remember to pat yourself on the back! You just created a change in your lifestyle!
  • Find a comfortable compromise for your life. Purchase a pack of affordable, reusable rags and give them a specific purpose. For example, perhaps you always clean your countertops with paper towels; try wiping them down with cloth towels instead.
  • Remember to highlight your successes and share them with others! #savetheplanet
  • Calculate your environmental footprint to see how much impact just one person has on the world’s resources and adjust accordingly.
  • Consider an environmentally-focused career like one of the top four environmental jobs of the future.

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10 Environmental Problems and Solutions in 2023

September 6, 2022

Graham Sawrey

There are so many environmental problems we face today, and they all have to be addressed. But which environmental issues demand our attention now?

We’ll discuss 10 environmental problems and solutions that we can work on now to change our collective future for the better!

10 Environmental Problems and Solutions

Want to know even more? Check out our List of Environmental Issues Examples where we discuss the 30 biggest threats earth faces today for a more in-depth understanding of environmental problems.

Here are the top 10 environmental issues that require immediate attention for the health of our planet and our own survival.

  • Climate Change
  • Water Pollution
  • Air Pollution
  • Natural Resource Depletion
  • Waste Management
  • Urban Sprawl
  • Energy Consumption
  • Environmental Degradation
  • Deforestation
  • Recycling Inefficiencies

We’ll discuss these top 10 environmental problems in detail and offer some real-world solutions to each one.

There is no magic bullet solution for the environmental issues we face. The real solution will come when individuals choose to make decisions in favor of the earth’s welfare .

When billions of us combine a lot of small actions they add up to a big impact on the earth.

1. Climate Change

A sign from a protestor saying there is no Planet B trying to fight Climate change

Climate change is a massive topic. Inside this topic are all the subtopics and environmental problems that add up to climate change.

Climate change is the term we use to refer to the changing atmospheric conditions that affect life on earth.

  • Global warming
  • The greenhouse effect
  • Increased saturation of atmospheric carbon dioxide
  • Polar ice melt
  • Rising seawater levels
  • Ozone layer depletion

These things are intertwined and many of them have the same root cause – the main one is the burning of fossil fuels.

However, along with increased carbon dioxide output from fossil fuels, there are mainly CFCs and halons though other substances also destroy ozone molecules.

These substances are found in aerosols, refrigerants (like air conditioners) and other machinery. CFCs are banned, but other ozone-destroying chemicals are still in use.

Depletion of the ozone layer allows more UVB rays to get through the atmosphere which has a warming effect in the atmosphere of the globe. This changes weather patterns and climate expectations everywhere.

Climate Change Solutions

The solutions to climate change involve viewing the world differently than we currently do as a global culture.

We view the world as something to use. We want to get as much as we can while it’s available. This is causing us to use things we don’t need, create waste, and deplete our resources too fast.

Here are a few things we can do to help combat climate change.

  • Drive less often and less far. If there is an option to walk, ride a bike, carpool, or use public transportation then use those options first to help decrease your carbon footprint.
  • Reuse things instead of throwing them away. Americans seem to view recyclables as the way forward but they have limitations. They help us to reuse existing resources, but an even better choice is to choose reusable items every chance we get.
  • Aim for zero waste. Think about it before you buy. Choose to invest your money in things that will last a long time and can be reused or upcycled instead of thrown away. The world is awash in used cheap clothing, single-use plastics, and cheap appliances that are recyclable yet sit in filthy heaps.
  • Get involved. Too many people like to talk about climate change and even yell about climate change but don’t do anything to solve it. Work to increase recycling facilities in your area, educate your community about reusables, and plant native species in your town.
  • Get Renewable Energy. Renewable energy is a must. Buying an EV car isn’t enough because plugging into a fossil fuel electric grid just perpetuates the problem. Investigate your own chain of energy and opt for the cleanest energy you can afford.

Climate change is a real environmental issue and it’s full of uncertainties. One thing we know is that the decisions we make today can have a major impact on the quality of life on planet earth in the future.

2. Water Pollution

A stream with garbage in it showing Water pollution

Water pollution includes marine pollution and freshwater pollution. Let’s take a look at both.

Marine pollution is largely caused by nitrogen that washes away from inland soils and drains into the ocean water.

The excess nitrogen creates algae blooms that prevent sunlight and oxygen from penetrating into the ocean water.

This creates a hypoxic environment called a “dead zone” where fish, crustaceans, and sea mammals can’t live. Mobile marine animals leave the area. Immobile marine life dies.

This is the primary cause of our loss of coral reefs around the globe.

Marine pollution also takes the form of trash and recyclables that wash into the ocean and form massive flotillas of rubbish .

Freshwater pollution refers to the pollution of inland water like rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. We rely on these bodies of water for our drinking water, but they are quickly becoming too polluted to drink.

Freshwater pollution also happens due to nitrogen in the water , but it can also be the result of things people do.

  • Trash that ends up in the water
  • Sewer treatment plant releases (treated and untreated)
  • Dirty stormwater runoff
  • Pharmaceuticals, detergents, and other things people put in the water system
  • Heavy metals like lead and mercury

Some of these things we can’t avoid, but a lot of it is preventable.

Water Pollution Solutions

The effects of pollution could be minimized and possibly healed if we began to consciously make decisions that will protect our watershed instead of polluting it.

  • Farmers can use cover crops to fix nitrogen in the soil . It’s an investment, not an overnight fix, but it will make the biggest impact on the health of the oceans and will eventually eliminate dead zones.
  • Homeowners can use as little culinary water as possible for watering outdoor plants. Try xeriscaping to save water. Install rain barrels to collect free water to use on outdoor plants and trees.
  • Dispose of medicines, motor oil, household chemicals, and paint in the proper facilities so they stay out of the watershed.
  • Eat organic as much as you can. This isn’t fail-proof, but most organic farms rely on natural sources of nitrogen rather than synthetic nitrogen to increase crop yields.
  • Be happy with imperfect produce. There is a massive global cost to get those perfect fruits and vegetables. They’re treated with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers to make them lovely. Go natural to encourage farmers who want to save the planet.
  • Enjoy water sports without a motor. You can greatly reduce your own impact on inland water supplies by enjoying muscle-powered water sports that don’t introduce oils, gasoline, and exhaust particulates into the water supply.

Think about how you’re using our precious water resources. Clean water is so easy to get in developed countries that we tend to forget the watershed it comes from.

That watershed needs our protection to continue to provide us with the clean water we need to survive.

3. Air Pollution

Industrial area with smoke and air pollution

Air pollution is what we call the suspended particulates that become part of the atmospheric gases that we breathe.

We’re not running out of oxygen. The earth has plenty of oxygen. The problem is that the concentration of carbon dioxide is increasing disproportionately and it’s pretty much all our fault.

There is a natural carbon dioxide cycle that we have with all of the plants on the planet. We naturally produce carbon dioxide, and they breathe it in and convert it to oxygen.

In a natural state, this would be in perfect balance.

However, when we burn fossil fuels we pump massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that can’t be offset by the plants in the world.

Furthermore, the carbon dioxide is mixed with a slurry of carcinogens and toxins like methane, formaldehyde, phosphorus, styrene, and more.

Curious to see the full list? The EPA has a list of 188 air pollutants . Nobody benefits from breathing in these compounds.

Air pollution affects everything – us, plants, animals, all water on the planet, and marine fish and mammals.

Air pollution causes and effects have to be clearly understood to really grasp the solutions that we have to implement to clear the air.

Air Pollution Solutions

The biggest solution we can implement is the switch to clean alternative energy sources because fossil fuels are the biggest polluters on the planet.

However, we have to be clear that there isn’t a totally clean energy solution .

  • Solar panels are made with coal and require toxic waste disposal when they’re decommissioned.
  • Wind turbines have some recyclable parts but the huge fiberglass parts end up in landfills. One of the pros of wind energy is that wind turbines produce zero-cost electricity for about 10 years.
  • Nuclear energy pros and cons are hotly debated. It’s a dependable and safe energy source that produces zero carbon emissions . However, uranium mining and disposal cause major environmental hazards.
  • One of the advantages of biomass electricity that it creates fewer carbons than fossil fuels. However, biomass production is resulting in deforestation .

Having said all that, we still have to choose these alternative energy sources over straight-up fossil fuel consumption.

Fossil fuels are the dirtiest sources of energy that we have and they contribute the most to the dirty air that we suffer from around the world.

  • Limit your time on the road. Vehicle emissions are responsible for most of the dirty air that’s found in cities and communities around the world.
  • Turn off the lights and turn down the heat. Electricity usage is directly tied to fossil fuel consumption for powering the electrical grid in many areas.
  • Help plant trees. You can plant native tree species in your own town to help clean the air.
  • Contribute to rainforest reforestation projects that aim to help strengthen the world’s clean air and biodiversity.
  • Choose reusable items and avoid using plastics as much as possible. Manufacturing single-use items contribute a lot to air pollution.

Reducing dependence on fossil fuels will go the farthest in clearing the air around the world.

4. Natural Resource Depletion

A closed dam showing how we can use natural resources effectively.

The world is full of natural resources. A natural resource is anything that we can use to live or make something from.

Some natural resources examples include:

  • Fossil fuels

The world is full of natural resources that we use to enable life as we know it. Natural resources feed us, give us electricity, wire our laptops, and keep us hydrated.

The problem is not all natural resources are renewable . Coal, natural gas, uranium, gold, and even salt are natural resources we depend on but once they’re used up we have no more.

This is why we have to focus on stewarding our renewable natural resources.

  • Keeping our water clean
  • Collecting sunlight for energy
  • Ensuring that fisheries are not over-harvested
  • Keeping soil as clean as possible – avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers
  • Managing timber stands wisely so that we aren’t using more trees than we can replenish in several decades.

When we overuse our natural resources we get a short-term payoff but a long-term loss.

For example, establishing reservoirs in the southwest was a good idea 90 years ago. It allowed the development of desert areas.

However, as communities expand across arid areas under the assumption that established water sources will be reliable, the water sources are being used faster than they can naturally replenish.

Natural Resource Depletion Solutions

One of the main natural resources that we’re depleting is fossil fuel. It is not only going away, but it’s also ruining our planet as we use it for fuel and energy.

Switching to cleaner energy sources is a non-negotiable for solving our climate crisis, but we also have to focus on decreasing our need for energy .

Here are some good ways to decrease your own energy demand so we use fewer natural resources to produce electricity.

  • Use less air conditioning in the summer. Willingness to be a little warm will go a long way toward decreasing your contribution to air pollution.
  • Use less heat in the winter. Wear a sweater and some slippers instead of cranking up the heat.
  • Get up and go to bed with the sun. This is harder in the winter, but by adjusting your waking and sleeping schedule to be more in tune with the sun you’ll feel better and use less electricity in the morning and at night.
  • Help to plant trees. Again, replenishing the world’s forests help ensure that our air is healthy and that we have timber stands ready to harvest in the future.
  • Waste less food. This doesn’t mean cleaning your plate. This means putting less on it in the first place. Food waste begins at the store and it can end there too.
  • Eat whole foods. Whole, natural foods don’t require processing. This means that there isn’t a ton of electricity and fossil fuels going into the production of what you eat. Whole foods are better for the environment and better for your body.
  • Refill your water bottle. The majority of single-use plastics that are wandering around in the environment are plastic water bottles. Get a sturdy reusable bottle and refill it. You can keep thousands of water bottles out of the waste stream in your lifetime.

By focusing on sustainability we can help to reduce our dependence on non-renewable resources and help to conserve the resources that we have so they last longer.

5. Waste Management

A woman sorting her recyclables and garbage so she can help avoid causing environmental problems

Waste management has come a long way in the last decade, but it has a long way to go in certain areas of the United States.

According to the EPA, the total waste production in the United States averages out to 4.9 pounds per person per day . This includes all sorts of trash that is binned and collected.

  • Recyclables (plastic, paper, glass)
  • Landfill items that can’t be recycled
  • Grass clippings
  • Electronics
  • Appliances, etc.

50% of the waste stream goes into landfills .

About 32% of the waste collected in the United States gets recycled or composted .

Nearly 12% gets burned as “biomass” to generate electricity.

Around 6% of the waste is food waste that gets treated in other ways. It might be used in animal feed, turned into fertilizer, used in the creation of biochemicals, or other methods of disposal or reuse.

It’s clear that the US has made a concerted effort to deal with waste streams. The problem is that the amount of waste generated per person is growing drastically.

In 1980 each person generated about 3.66 pounds per day. In 2018 that figure had risen to 4.9 pounds per day. This is the trend that we must change.

Worldwide waste production equals about 1.63 pounds per person with the bulk of that waste being generated in highly developed countries.

Though developing countries don’t tend to generate nearly as much waste per person, they don’t have any safe waste disposal infrastructure which leads to the creation of massive open dumps .

All landfills emit tons of greenhouse gases – mostly methane and carbon dioxide. This is another major contributor to global warming.

While recycling efforts in the United States and elsewhere have produced great results, the recycling waste stream produces much more material than can be currently recycled – ending in waste.

Waste Management Solutions

Waste management must be solved worldwide, but the only thing we can affect is our own consumption and waste patterns.

If each of us becomes wiser consumers we can have a dramatic impact on the waste streams and the carbon emissions from them.

  • Waste stops at the store. We can’t impact how much production waste there is unless we stop supporting it with our money. Less demand equals less production.
  • Choose reusables. The best purchases are things that can be used hundreds of times before they’re broken or used up.
  • Choose recyclables. The recycling stream is quickly outpacing available recycling facilities, so this still isn’t the best choice, though it’s better than throwing things in the landfill.
  • Don’t buy more food than you can eat. Some areas have food composting programs, but when food is thrown away it also releases greenhouse gases. Don’t fill your garbage can with food. Reduce your waste and compost food waste if you can. That will also help increase soil health.
  • Lobby for recycling. There are billions of dollars being spent on United States “infrastructure.” Citizens need to raise awareness of the need for more and bigger recycling centers so the United States can process its own rubbish.
  • Lobby for action. Certain landfills are known as “super emitters.” If local authorities and national politicians will focus on cleaning up the emissions from these sites it will make a huge difference.

In the case of waste streams, part of the responsibility lies with municipal governments to handle waste more cleanly.

The other part of the responsibility lies with the citizens. We are the ones generating the waste. We can all do our part to cut down on our own waste as much as possible.

6. Urban Sprawl

Los Angeles is a prime example of environmental problems caused by urban sprawl

Urban sprawl is the term used to describe the way that cities spread from an urban center into widening suburban neighborhoods. Dwellings go from high-density to low-density, taking up more land.

Urban sprawl is characterized by land use and natural resource consumption .

Undeveloped land that was farmland, ranchland, native plants and soil, or forest is paved over for low-density housing and new strip malls, grocery stores, and restaurant chains.

Here are key takeaways you should know about Urban Sprawl.

  • These sprawling areas greatly tax the water supply in the area because the new parks, city strips, lawns, and gardens have to be watered continuously to keep their nice appearance.
  • Urban sprawl is a major contributor to the carbon emissions from vehicles . People must commute from sprawling areas into the downtown area for work and school. This increases time on the road. In the worst cases, these vehicles idle while they’re stuck in traffic.
  • Urban sprawl creates a need for additional garbage processing resources, greenspace planning, freshwater wells, water treatment plants, waste treatment plants, power plants, substations, and more.

Many of these things aren’t bad, and urban sprawl is often the natural outflow of living in a prosperous area .

It can also be a sign that the municipal government is not keeping the urban areas clean and safe.

Regardless, it is a style of living that uses many more resources than a high-density urban lifestyle.

Some cities including the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and Los Angeles are experiencing increasing urban density as more residents refurbish downtown areas to make them desirable neighborhoods.

Urban Sprawl Solutions

There aren’t any surefire solutions to urban sprawl. The fact is that people move away from urban areas for many reasons – not all of which can be solved.

Here are a few things that local governments can do to encourage people to adopt a high-density housing lifestyle in urban areas.

  • Keep residents safe. When people and businesses don’t feel safe in an area they move. Most of the time they choose to move into a suburban or rural area that feels safer. When cities put the safety of residents first they enjoy the prosperity that a thriving urban core brings.
  • Focus on key infrastructure. Garbage services, stormwater runoff, sewage treatment, and traffic controls make a big difference in the quality of life in urban areas. When the urban areas feel dirty and congested people move out of the city.
  • Encourage community spirit. Cities that find ways to involve citizens in city life enjoy a much higher sense of community pride. This benefits everyone because people who take pride in their community work harder to keep it clean and safe.
  • Keep taxes fair. Many people choose to live outside of municipal boundaries because property taxes are much lower in unincorporated areas. Cities that cut fiscal waste can also keep property taxes lower while providing excellent city services.

Over time cities can turn urban life into a desirable living situation for many, diminishing the exodus to outlying areas and helping to curb the rapidity of urban sprawl.

7. Energy Consumption

High voltage transmission lines bring electricity to homes and businesses.

Our overall high energy consumption is the main contributor to climate change because 61% of the electricity generated in the United States is from burning fossil fuels.

So, on top of burning fossil fuels to commute from sprawling communities, we are also burning fossil fuels to charge our EV cars , keep the air conditioners running, and keep the lights on.

There is no denying the negative impact that our high energy consumption has on the planet, but we also rely on it for our highly technological way of life.

For example, let’s take a look at data centers . The world relies on data centers.

They serve all of your cloud storage, social media content, online shopping, virtual worlds, game streaming, on-demand entertainment, and remote workflows.

Right now, data centers alone consume about 2% of all the energy generated in the United States, and that number is growing as data centers pop up everywhere to handle cloud storage needs.

We can’t just stop feeding data centers because we rely on them for work, data storage, and socialization. Younger generations are more dependent on data center capacity and speed than ever before .

That’s just one example of an energy consumer that we can’t just shut down to save the planet. So we have to look at home to decrease energy consumption .

Energy Consumption Solutions

As with most solutions to our global environmental crisis, the answer begins at home.

  • Shut off the lights and opt for sunshine. Even small amounts of wattage saved add up to big savings for the planet.
  • Keep appliances clean. Did you know that vacuuming your refrigerator condenser will help it to run less often and cool more efficiently? Keep the dryer clean too so it can dry clothing faster and use less energy.
  • Accept a little discomfort. Instead of running the heat and air conditioning to keep yourself at the ideal temperature, let it fluctuate up and down to save energy.
  • Reduce energy use during peak hours. 7am to 10pm are peak energy hours for most of the country during most of the year. It’s hard to cut down on energy usage during waking hours, but if you can you’ll save a lot of energy and cut down on your bill too.
  • Invest in solar panels. Even a couple of solar panels can really help offset your energy usage. Many utility companies around the United States are taking advantage of government incentives and may be able to install your solar system for free!
  • Buy into renewable energy. Many energy companies offer programs where subscribers can buy into renewable energy projects. The electricity from renewables costs a bit more, but by buying in you allow your energy provider to buy into renewable and burn fewer fossil fuels.

There are dozens of ways we can all think of to save a little energy here and there. From riding a bike to eating fresh foods we can help decrease the amount of energy it takes to power our lives.

8. Environmental Degradation

Garbage floating in a waterway in India - a land suffering from the effects of air, soil, and water pollution.

Environmental degradation occurs when human activities change the environment for the worse.

Environmental Degradation Definition

Environmental degradation is the destruction or deterioration of the quality of natural resources and habitats including soil, water, air, and wildlife .

Degradation primarily happens through pollution, over-harvesting, and erosion.

Here are some examples of environmental degradation .

  • Strip mining
  • Urban sprawl
  • Overfishing
  • Marine pollution
  • Air pollution

Environmental degradation is inevitable because we have to use the land for food production, energy production, and dwellings, but we can do a lot to help preserve the quality of the land.

Environmental Degradation Solutions

There are a number of thing we can do to help reduce the amount of environmental degradation that happens as a result of our own needs and wants.

  • Replant native trees and plants . Much environmental degradation occurs because native plants are stripped away for development. Replanting exposed soil helps to replenish minerals, nitrogen, habitats, and stop erosion.
  • Curb energy consumption. Again we come back to energy use. The majority of the air pollution in the United States is caused by energy consumption and transportation.
  • Plan travel wisely. Instead of making lots of small trips, try to consolidate trips in the car to cut down on air pollution.
  • Invest in alternative energy. Alternative energy sources also cause soil degradation because of the raw materials that have to be mined to make them and soil disruption from placement. However, it is much less pollutive to the air than fossil fuels.
  • Eat whole foods. Responsible farming and ranching helps to replenish soils through crop rotation and the use of nitrogen-fixing cover crops. However, America’s insatiable appetite for snack foods creates a high demand for irresponsibly grown crops. Eating whole foods is much better for the earth.
  • Invest in urban revitalization. If you’re a renter it can be hard to find an urban dwelling. However, if you’re an invester, consider revitalizing downtown industrial areas for housing instead of developing low-density suburban housing.

Humans aren’t responsible for all types of environmental degradation, but we contribute a lot to it. We can also help clean up our habits and use fewer resources that result in habitat destruction.

9. Deforestation

A biomass power plant that burns chipped trees to generate electricity - causing deforestation.

Deforestation happens when trees are stripped away or burned away. It can be human-caused or the result of a natural disaster.

Sometimes humans and nature work together to create deforestation. Examples include when a hydroelectric dam bursts due to catastrophic rainfall, or a volcano like Mt. Saint Helens flattens a forest.

Human-caused deforestation is two-fold. Sometimes managed forests owned by timber companies are stripped and then replanted. This happens for lumber and to create biomass for power plants.

While habitat loss and environmental degradation are heartbreaking, the trees will regrow within a few decades. However, the animals and birds must shift from place to place to survive.

On the other hand, forest fires caused by human activity will deforest an area that may not ever recover. Habitat loss is sometimes permanent .

Deforestation Solutions

The most obvious solution to deforestation is to replant trees in areas that are logged or burned for any reason. Replanting with native species is a must.

The second solution to deforestation is to decrease the demand for paper products and lumber. Choose things that are reusable as much as possible.

The alternative to lumber is steel which creates a different problem because it requires mining and uses non-renewable resources .

However, steel can be recycled forever. One of the benefits of recycling steel is that the recycled steel is just as strong and pure as virgin steel.

So while the recycled steel industry can’t keep up with the need for new steel, as more steel is recycled for construction purposes we should see it gradually relieve some of the need for lumber.

10. Recycling Inefficiencies

Bales of recyclable paper waiting to be processed into new paper products.

The final huge environmental problem that we must solve domestically is our recycling inefficiencies.

Most Americans don’t realize that our recycling system is strained and largely broken because we don’t recycle our trash at home.

The story of US recycling is a long one that’s full of problems, even from the beginning. China used to handle the bulk of our recycling, but it is so polluted that they banned it in 2018.

Now America’s recycling waste is shipped to developing countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia where it is piled waiting to be sorted and recycled into usable materials.

The problem is that anywhere from 20 to 70% of our recyclables end up in a landfill overseas or are burned. This is an outrage that has sparked a lot of discussions but it needs to be addressed at home.

Here are the reasons our recycling is not being recycled.

  • People are putting contaminated items into recycling bins. Dirty recyclables can cause an entire load of recyclables – several tons – to be dumped in a landfill.
  • People include non-recyclables in recycling bins. This wishful recycling is a major cause for discarding entire loads of recyclables. It’s too expensive to go through and sort it all back out, so it all gets put in the dump.
  • The United States isn’t processing recyclables. The United States doesn’t have a federal recycling program and has been dependent on other countries to handle our waste. Now they don’t want it, so we’re stuck with it. We have to implement a recycling program and do it ourselves to succeed.
  • Recycling is expensive. Cities used to sell their recycling as a type of raw material and make money from it. Now that global market has dried up and cities are having to pay to get rid of recyclables. That means tons of it are going into the landfill instead of being recycled.
  • There are too many types of plastic. Plastic is a particular problem because there are so many types and not all are recyclable. Even though there is a number and a recycling symbol on the bottom doesn’t mean it’s accepted for recycling.

All of this is discouraging because those of us who recycle carefully realize that in spite of us our clean, sorted recyclables might still be ending in a landfill.

Recycling Solutions

The keys to our recycling disaster are expensive, and we have to play the long game to win.

  • Education. Educate the public about what’s happening to recyclables and why. When people understand why they can’t throw grocery bags or plastic wrap in with clean water bottles they’ll stop doing it.
  • Federal Investment. The federal government needs to invest in recycling centers that can turn US recyclable waste into clean, usable materials. It’s an expensive solution but the only one that can turn the situation around long-term.
  • Business Investment. One of the major recycling benefits is that businesses can create packaging and goods with recycled materials. This will help to create a circular market for recyclables in the US economy.
  • Reduction. The US must turn away from consumerism and focus on sustainability. As long as we buy into the consumerist culture of getting as much as possible, the waste problem will continue to grow.

We can help at home by ensuring that our recyclables are clean and generating less of a need for recycling by decreasing our dependence on single-use items.

It would also be helpful to limit plastic production to only types that are safe to use and can be recycled.

The benefits of recycling clothes and textiles can’t be overstated. Engaging in this circular economy saves money, eliminates fabric waste, and turns fabric into a renewable resource!

Causes of Environmental Problems

The causes of environmental problems usually come back to excess consumption . As the human population expands we are also collectively demanding more resources per person.

Humans want to use more energy, more precious metals, more water, more food, and more luxurious items like fashionable clothing and multiple vehicles.

All of these demands can be met, but only by expending more of the earth’s natural resources. Metals and fossil fuels are non-renewable so as demand increases the price goes up and the supply goes down.

The key to so many of our major environmental problems is to decrease personal consumption.

Why are environmental problems common in developing countries?

Good question and the answer comes back to excess consumption . Many developing countries receive our excess clothing, recyclables, and used goods.

They develop a market around these used goods, but there is simply too much. It ends up in massive waste piles because many of the goods we discard are low-quality and non-recyclable.

Developing countries lack the infrastructure to deal with polluted water, overflowing landfills, and piles of unused recyclables so they stay in the environment creating health and environmental hazards.

One example is electronics recycling. While we all want to reap the benefits of recycling electronics , when they’re sent overseas for recycling the results are dangerous.

“Informal” recyclers are exposed to extremely high levels of neurotoxins and carcinogens as they break down e-waste by hand to recover gold, silver, copper, and other precious metals.

Instead of exposing the poor to these hazardous materials we should be doing the recycling at home and helping to develop a clean recycling industry abroad.

Final Thoughts

We’ve discussed 10 global environmental problems, and most of them center around the demands of the economically developed world.

The problems we face on planet earth can seem overwhelming, but they aren’t. We can solve them beginning with our own buying and consumption habits .

We can become involved in clean-up efforts in our own communities. We can lobby for domestic recycling plants.

We can help educate our own community members about why recycling is important and why it’s vital to do it right.

What do you think about these environmental problems and solutions? Do you have more ideas for how we can help to solve these environmental problems? Let us know in the comments below!

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6 global environmental issues and ways you can help

1. loss of biodiversity .

In 2019, the United Nations published a groundbreaking report stating that more than one million animal and plant species are at risk of becoming extinct in the upcoming decades. Conservationists have been urging us to protect wildlife for years, and now it’s a race against the clock. The world needs biodiversity. Birds transport seeds across rainforests, sharks balance ocean food webs, mangroves hold important nutrients in wetlands… without diverse species and their unique ecological roles, our planet would suffer greatly. 

What you can do: 

Habitat loss and fragmentation is one of the fastest growing threats against species’ survival. From shrinking elephant corridors in India to bulldozed koala eucalyptus groves in Australia , animals are losing their habitats at a startling rate. Help make a difference by respecting natural landscapes and participating in habitat restoration projects. Like all environmental issues, we also need large scale government action to help save endangered species. Support international and local wildlife protection legislation like the Endangered Species Act, and vote for candidates who advocate for conservation.  

2. Human-wildlife conflict 

Today’s human-dominated landscapes can make it difficult for animals to find abundant habitat and resources. Conflict — real or perceived — between people and wildlife looks different all around the world. For people in Malawi, conflict may include unexpected encounters with large animals like leopards, crocodiles, and hippos that cause serious injury - sometimes leading to retaliatory killing of wildlife. In India, community members face conflict with elephants who graze on crops and cause great economic loss. Across Canada and the United States, government programs kill thousands of wolves, beavers, bobcats, and bears through unscientific poisoning and cull initiatives. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, closed cities and quieter communities led to more accounts of wildlife sightings as animals came out of hiding. In this ever-changing world, it’s important that we understand the role of wildlife and learn how to respect all species so we can better coexist.  

Human wellbeing and wildlife protection are interconnected. When animals are treated with respect and able to play their natural role in the environment, humans benefit greatly. Ecosystems heal, lifestyles improve, eco-tourism thrives, and we get to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of wildlife. 

  • In urban areas and neighborhoods, approaches to human-wildlife coexistence can be as simple as using animal-proof trash cans and walking pets on leashes. 
  • In rural areas, sustainable measures may include installing fencing around crops, training wildlife rangers, and securing wildlife corridors where animals can safely migrate without human encounters. 

Coexistence is possible and there are countless innovative solutions that promote the wellbeing of animals and humans.   

3. Ocean noise and vessel strikes  

These days, most of us can order an item online with the click of a button—but what comes as a convenience to us is a danger to wildlife. The majority of the world’s products are transported by large cargo ships, and unfortunately, they are threatening the lives of marine animals. Ships and other industrial activity produce sound waves known as ocean noise pollution that create a maze of noise and disorient marine animals. Ocean noise pollution can prevent animals like dolphins and whales from communicating, hunting, and finding mates. In some cases, it can even lead to immense stress and death. Another issue facing marine animals is ship strikes and collisions of all sizes. Blunt trauma from propeller strikes and ship collisions can cause internal injury, sliced fluke tails, and a slow death for whales. For the case of the North Atlantic right whale , ship strikes are pushing the species to extinction. 

  • Local consumerism is key to minimizing ocean noise and reliance on ships. Instead of purchasing items online which require shipping and plastic packaging, shop at local stores. 
  • If you do have to make an online purchase, skip the fast shipment option and choose consolidated packaging if you have more than one item. 
  • Reducing ship speeds is also a critical act for protecting marine mammals from ocean noise pollution and ship strikes. When ships operate at slower speeds, ocean noise reduces and the chance of vessel strikes drops drastically.

4. Plastic pollution 

An estimated eight million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year , threatening the health of ecosystems, marine animals, and humans. Plastic debris can entangle marine animals , causing deep lacerations, starvation, and strangulation. Turtles are known to consume floating plastic bags (mistaking them for jellyfish) and 90% of all seabirds have consumed plastic. When plastics break down into microplastics, they are even more dangerous. Species lower on the food chain like fish, plankton, and oysters consume microplastics when filtering water. Toxins from the microplastics then get passed through the food web, reaching their way to large marine animals and humans. 

  • Choose a day to track all of the disposable plastic that you use from morning to night. 
  • After you’ve written a list, research and choose sustainable alternatives made out of material like wood, glass, or natural fibers. 
  • Replacement items could include reusable produce bags for bulk shopping, travel utensils to keep in your car, or reusable snack baggies - the list is endless. 
  • For times when you do purchase plastic, always recycle and do it correctly. Make sure you wash containers before throwing them in the bin and familiarize yourself with local recycling protocols. 

5. Intensive farming of animals   

Intensive farming—also known as factory farming—involves industrialized facilities utilizing confinement systems with high stocking densities. Not only does intensive farming cause immense suffering to millions of animals, but it also has a devastating environmental impact. The Food and Agriculture Organization report, Livestock's Long Shadow, found that 37% of the world's methane emissions come from factory farming. Untreated animal waste full of highly concentrated chemicals and bacteria is stored in giant manure lagoons that emit gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia. When overflow occurs from broken infrastructure or rain, the waste leaches into soil and causes dangerous threats to environmental and human health. This includes harmful algae blooms, contamination of drinking water, ammonia pollution, and pathogen outbreaks.  

 What you can do:  

  • Reduce your meat consumption by incorporating more vegetarian and vegan meals into your diet. Use it as an opportunity to explore new plant-based ingredients and recipes. 
  • Buy local produce and support local farms where animal welfare and environmental impact are prioritized. 
  • Educate yourself on the meanings of certifications and labeling , and advocate for better protection for farmed animals through new legislation propositions.   

6. Food waste  

Food waste and loss occurs along every step of food production, from farms to factories, to grocery stores and consumers. During production, waste happens when production exceeds demand, manufacturing damages product, and food spoils during transportation. On the consumer end, food waste occurs mainly from over-purchasing and throwing out blemished produce. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 30-40% of food in the United States goes to waste . All food has an ecological footprint. When we waste food, we waste the energy and natural resources that went into production, and contribute to landfills that produce greenhouse gases. 

  • Vegetables don’t need to be perfect. As long as the food isn't spoiled, blemishes and imperfections are safe to consume. 
  • Remember to take what you need and eat what you take. If you have a habit of over-purchasing food, try to actively buy less or donate to local food banks. 
  • Learn how to properly store and freeze food to make it last longer and save money. 
  • Consider starting a compost bin where leftover food scraps can turn into nutritious soil for your garden. Don’t have a garden of your own? Donate your compost soil to a nearby farm, urban garden, or school. 

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Ten solutions to climate change that will actually make a difference

Jun 20, 2022

Man inspecting his papaya fruits on his farm (seeds provided by Concern).

At this point we need solutions bigger than any one person. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

There are a lot of differing opinions on whether it's too late to climate change — and, if it's not the best way of going about it. Some say recycling is useless and that individual action means nothing against the larger policy reforms that need to happen. This is, in part, true — although you should absolutely still be recycling. But it doesn’t tell the whole story, and it doesn’t help those who are currently on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Here, we break down 10 solutions to climate change that will actually make a difference — and how you can help make them all a reality.

Stand with the people most affected by climate change

1. shift to renewable energy sources in all key sectors.

The United Nations identified a six-sector solution to climate change, focusing on actions that can be taken by the energy, industry, agriculture, transportation, nature-based solutions, and urban planning. If all of these actions are completed, the UN Environment Programme estimates we could reduce global carbon emissions by 29 to 32 gigatonnes, thereby limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5º C.

One key element of this plan is shifting to renewable energy sources, both at home and at work. “We have the necessary technology to make this reduction by shifting to renewable energy and using less energy,” the UNEP writes of our personal energy consumption (generally, fossil fuels power our homes, keeping the lights on, our rooms warm, and Netflix streaming). But the energy usage of the industrial sector also plays a key role: Addressing issues like methane leaks and switching at large scale to passive or renewable energy-based heating and cooling systems could reduce industrial carbon emissions by 7.3 gigatonnes every year.

Graphic of the United Nations Environment Program's Six Sector Solution to Climate Change

2. Reduce food loss and waste and shift to more sustainable diets

There are a few different ways that climate change and hunger go hand-in-hand. Whether it’s kale or Kobe beef, producing food accounts for some measure of greenhouse gasses. In 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated we consumed more meat than ever before . By 2050 this will, by some estimates, increase greenhouse gas emissions from food production by 60%. Likewise, many farmers use nitrous-based fertilizers to grow more crops, more quickly to meet demand.

It’s important to reduce food waste at every step of the food system . For us as consumers, we can commit to eating what we buy and composting what we don’t get to in time. We can also switch our focus to plant-based and other sustainable diets, supporting farms that use organic fertilizers and making beef and other meat products the exception rather than the rule at the dinner table.

Woman and her vegetables for sale at the central market of the town of Manono, Tanganyika Province.

3. Halt deforestation and commit to rebuilding damaged ecosystems

The rapid deforestation of the Earth, especially over the last 60 years, has contributed to climate change, creating “heat islands” out of land that would normally be protected by trees and other flora from overheating. Simply put, this has to stop. There are actions each of us can take as individuals to help halt this—going paperless and buying recycled paper products, planting trees or supporting organizations that do this (like Concern ), and recycling.

But change has to happen at a larger scale here. Illegal logging happens both in the United States and abroad. Last year, world leaders committed to halting this and other harmful practices by 2030 as part of COP26. You can help by holding your own elected leaders to account.

A tree nursery in Bangladesh

4. Embrace electric vehicles, public transport, and other non-motorized options for getting around

The carbon savings on junking your current car in favor of an electric model are basically nullified if you aren’t seriously in the market for a new vehicle. However, mass adoption of electric vehicles and public transport — along with walking, biking, skating, and scooting — is key to cutting the greenhouse gas emissions from fuel-based motor vehicles.

Woman riding a bicycle with a man standing behind her

This is another issue you can raise with elected officials. Earlier this year, for example, you may remember hearing that President Biden had been encouraging the US Postal System to adopt electric vans as part of its new fleet. This didn’t come to pass , but it’s changes like these — changes beyond any one person’s transportation method — that need to happen. You can call on your representatives to support these switchovers for delivery vehicles, cab and taxi fleets, ambulances, and other auto-centric services. Or, if your city or town lacks decent public transportation or enough bike lanes or sidewalks to make those alternatives to driving, lobby for those.

5. Subsidize low-carbon alternatives for urban planning

In tandem with low-carbon alternatives for public transportation, governments need to commit to similar measures with our growing cities. New buildings mean a new opportunity to reward green design methods that help to decrease the strain on urban resources, whether they’re apartments or entertainment venues. (Fun fact: The Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center in Athens runs almost entirely off of solar panels during the bright and sunny summer months. ) In cities like New York, we’ve seen the toll that excessive power use can take through rolling blackouts and brown-outs, especially in the summer months. Changes to public infrastructure that reduce our reliance on the power grid will help to keep the system from becoming untenably overloaded.

A solar-powered water point in Marsabit, Kenya

6. Strengthen resilience and climate adaptation methods in MAPA communities

So far, we’ve looked at solutions to climate change that can take place within our own homes and communities. However, these only go so far to mitigate the damage that the climate crisis has already inflicted on a large portion of the world. The most affected people and areas (MAPAs) are largely in the Global South. Many are located in low-income countries without the resources or infrastructure to respond and adapt to climate disasters, even as they become more frequent and destructive.

Countries like the United States and organizations responding to the climate crisis must support MAPA communities, particularly the most vulnerable, in developing and carrying out strategies specific to context and designed to bolster resilience where it’s needed most. Often these communities know what needs to be done to mitigate the effects of climate change, and they simply need to be supported with access to additional research and meteorological data, new technologies, and funding.

ways of solving environmental problems

What we talk about when we talk about resilience

The word “resilience” has taken on new meanings and contexts in recent years, but at Concern it still has a specific definition relating to our emergency and climate response. Here’s what we mean when we use it.

7. Address poverty and other inequalities that increase vulnerability

The tem MAPA can also apply to individuals within a community. Women, disabled people, children, the elderly, people living in poverty, indigenous peoples, and LGBTQIA+ people are among those who are most likely to be hit harder by climate change because of preexisting societal marginalization. This is why it’s critical that they also have a seat at the decision-making table when it comes to solutions to climate change within their own communities. Ending poverty and the other systemic inequalities that give some people greater access to resources than others will help to offset some of the greatest threats posed by the climate crisis.

Esime Jenaia, a Lead Farmer for conservation Agriculture, at her plot in Chituke village, Mangochi, Malawi, with neighbor Esnart Kasimu. Concern has been carrying out Conservation Agriculture and livelihoods programming in Malawi since 2012, with the assistance of Accenture Ireland.

8. Invest in disaster risk reduction (DRR)

Disaster Risk Reduction (otherwise known as DRR) protects the lives and livelihoods of communities and individuals who are most vulnerable to disasters or emergencies. Whether the crisis is caused by nature or humans (or a combination of both), DRR limits its negative impact on those who stand to lose the most.

We can’t undo much of climate change’s impact so far, but we can help the communities who are hit hardest by these impacts to prepare for and respond to these emergencies once they strike.

9. Commit to fair financing and climate justice

Of course, DRR strategies and other resilience, adaptation, and mitigation practices cost money. Money that the countries most affected by climate change often lack. As part of a global commitment to climate justice , countries with the highest carbon footprints should be making restitution to those countries with lower footprints, countries that tend to be more vulnerable to global warming.

Countries like the United States must increase investments in disaster prevention and DRR strategies, such as early warning and response systems, forecast-based financing mechanisms, and adapted infrastructure. What’s more, these funds need to be made rapidly dispersible and flexible so that when emergency strikes, they can be accessed more quickly. Additional investment to prevent conflicts over the use of natural resources will also help countries facing both fragile political systems and a high risk for climate-related disasters.

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Project Profile

Responding to Pakistan's Internally Displaced (RAPID)

RAPID is a funding program that allows Concern to quickly and efficiently deliver aid to people displaced by conflict or natural disaster.

10. Guarantee these changes in the long-term via policy reform

Few of the solutions listed above are not sustainable without policy reform. You can help by encouraging your elected officials to consider the above points, and to support bills that incorporate one or more of these solutions to climate change, many of which are currently being written and shared at the local and national levels.

Smart climate policy will prioritize people over corporations, consider the framework of climate justice — including land and water rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities, address the intersectional effects of climate change on hunger, poverty, and gender equality, and enforce regulatory frameworks and standards that commit people and institutions to honoring these new standards. Bold and aggressive action must be taken if we’re to reach the goal of not exceeding 1.5º C and mitigating the current effects of climate change by 2030. But it’s not a lost cause yet. It’s on all of us to now support those actions that are needed most.

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Ten of the countries most affected by climate change

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A sunset lights a glacier in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park. Around the world, many glaciers are melting quickly as the planet warms.

  • ENVIRONMENT

Are there real ways to fight climate change? Yes.

Humans have the solutions to fight a global environmental crisis. Do we have the will?

The evidence that humans are causing climate change, with drastic consequences for life on the planet, is overwhelming .

Experts began raising the alarm about global warming in 1979 , a change now referred to under the broader term climate change , preferred by scientists to describe the complex shifts now affecting our planet’s weather and climate systems. Climate change encompasses not only rising average temperatures but also extreme weather events, shifting wildlife populations and habitats, rising seas , and a range of other impacts.  

Over 200 countries—193 countries plus the 27 members of the European Union—have signed the Paris Climate Agreement , a treaty created in 2015 to fight climate change on a global scale. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which synthesizes the scientific consensus on the issue, has set a goal of keeping warming under 2°C (3.6°F) and pursuing an even lower warming cap of 1.5 °C (2.7° F).

But no country has created policies that will keep the world below 1.5 °C, according to the Climate Action Tracker . Current emissions have the world on track to warm 2.8°C by the end of this century.  

Addressing climate change will require many solutions —there's no magic bullet. Yet nearly all of these solutions exist today. They range from worldwide changes to where we source our electricity to protecting forests from deforestation.  

The promise of new technology

Better technology will help reduce emissions from activities like manufacturing and driving.  

Scientists are working on ways to sustainably produce hydrogen, most of which is currently derived from natural gas, to feed zero-emission fuel cells for transportation and electricity.  

Renewable energy is growing, and in the U.S., a combination of wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewable sources provide 20 percen t of the nation’s electricity.  

New technological developments promise to build better batteries to store that renewable energy, engineer a smarter electric grid, and capture carbon dioxide from power plants and store it underground or turn it into valuable products such as gasoline . Some argue that nuclear power—despite concerns over safety, water use, and toxic waste—should also be part of the solution, because nuclear plants don't contribute any direct air pollution while operating.

Should we turn to geoengineering?

While halting new greenhouse gas emissions is critical, scientists say we need to extract existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, effectively sucking it out of the sky.  

Pulling carbon out of the atmosphere is a type of geoengineering , a science that interferes with the Earth’s natural systems, and it’s a controversial approach to fighting climate change.

Other types of geoengineering involve spraying sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the air or blocking the sun with a giant space mirror. Studies suggest we don’t know enough about the potential dangers of geoengineering to deploy it.

a melting iceberg

Restoring nature to protect the planet  

Planting trees, restoring seagrasses, and boosting the use of agricultural cover crops could help clean up significant amounts of carbon dioxide .  

The Amazon rainforest is an important reservoir of the Earth’s carbon, but a study published in 2021, showed deforestation was transforming this reservoir into a source of pollution.  

Restoring and protecting nature may provide as much as   37 percent of the climate mitigation needed to reach the Paris Agreement’s 203o targets. Protecting these ecosystems can also benefit biodiversity, providing a win-win for nature .

Adapt—or else

Communities around the world are already recognizing that adaptation must also be part of the response to climate change . From flood-prone coastal towns to regions facing increased droughts and fires, a new wave of initiatives focuses on boosting resilience . Those include managing or preventing land erosion, building microgrids and other energy systems built to withstand disruptions, and designing buildings with rising sea levels in mind.

Last year, the Inflation Reduction Act was signed into law and was a historic investment in fighting and adapting to climate change.

( Read more about how the bill will dramatically reduce emissions. )

Recent books such as Drawdown and Designing Climate Solutions have proposed bold yet simple plans for reversing our current course. The ideas vary, but the message is consistent: We already have many of the tools needed to address climate change. Some of the concepts are broad ones that governments and businesses must implement, but many other ideas involve changes that anyone can make— eating less   meat , for example, or rethinking your modes of transport .

"We have the technology today to rapidly move to a clean energy system," write the authors of Designing Climate Solutions . "And the price of that future, without counting environmental benefits, is about the same as that of a carbon-intensive future."

Sarah Gibbens contributed reporting to this article.

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November 26, 2007

10 Solutions for Climate Change

Ten possibilities for staving off catastrophic climate change

By David Biello

ways of solving environmental problems

Mark Garlick Getty Images

The enormity of global warming can be daunting and dispiriting. What can one person, or even one nation, do on their own to slow and reverse climate change ? But just as ecologist Stephen Pacala and physicist Robert Socolow, both at Princeton University, came up with 15 so-called " wedges " for nations to utilize toward this goal—each of which is challenging but feasible and, in some combination, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safer levels —there are personal lifestyle changes that you can make too that, in some combination, can help reduce your carbon impact. Not all are right for everybody. Some you may already be doing or absolutely abhor. But implementing just a few of them could make a difference.

Forego Fossil Fuels —The first challenge is eliminating the burning of coal , oil and, eventually, natural gas. This is perhaps the most daunting challenge as denizens of richer nations literally eat, wear, work, play and even sleep on the products made from such fossilized sunshine. And citizens of developing nations want and arguably deserve the same comforts, which are largely thanks to the energy stored in such fuels.

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Oil is the lubricant of the global economy, hidden inside such ubiquitous items as plastic and corn, and fundamental to the transportation of both consumers and goods. Coal is the substrate, supplying roughly half of the electricity used in the U.S. and nearly that much worldwide—a percentage that is likely to grow, according to the International Energy Agency. There are no perfect solutions for reducing dependence on fossil fuels (for example, carbon neutral biofuels can drive up the price of food and lead to forest destruction, and while nuclear power does not emit greenhouse gases, it does produce radioactive waste), but every bit counts.

So try to employ alternatives when possible—plant-derived plastics, biodiesel, wind power—and to invest in the change, be it by divesting from oil stocks or investing in companies practicing carbon capture and storage.

Infrastructure Upgrade —Buildings worldwide contribute around one third of all greenhouse gas emissions (43 percent in the U.S. alone), even though investing in thicker insulation and other cost-effective, temperature-regulating steps can save money in the long run. Electric grids are at capacity or overloaded, but power demands continue to rise. And bad roads can lower the fuel economy of even the most efficient vehicle. Investing in new infrastructure, or radically upgrading existing highways and transmission lines, would help cut greenhouse gas emissions and drive economic growth in developing countries.

Of course, it takes a lot of cement, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, to construct new buildings and roads. The U.S. alone contributed 50.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2005 from cement production, which requires heating limestone and other ingredients to 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit). Mining copper and other elements needed for electrical wiring and transmission also causes globe-warming pollution.

But energy-efficient buildings and improved cement-making processes (such as using alternative fuels to fire up the kiln) could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world and prevent them in the developing world.

Move Closer to Work —Transportation is the second leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. (burning a single gallon of gasoline produces 20 pounds of CO 2 ). But it doesn't have to be that way.

One way to dramatically curtail transportation fuel needs is to move closer to work, use mass transit, or switch to walking, cycling or some other mode of transport that does not require anything other than human energy. There is also the option of working from home and telecommuting several days a week.

Cutting down on long-distance travel would also help, most notably airplane flights, which are one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions and a source that arguably releases such emissions in the worst possible spot (higher in the atmosphere). Flights are also one of the few sources of globe-warming pollution for which there isn't already a viable alternative: jets rely on kerosene, because it packs the most energy per pound, allowing them to travel far and fast, yet it takes roughly 10 gallons of oil to make one gallon of JetA fuel. Restricting flying to only critical, long-distance trips—in many parts of the world, trains can replace planes for short- to medium-distance trips—would help curb airplane emissions.

Consume Less —The easiest way to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions is simply to buy less stuff. Whether by forgoing an automobile or employing a reusable grocery sack, cutting back on consumption results in fewer fossil fuels being burned to extract, produce and ship products around the globe.

Think green when making purchases. For instance, if you are in the market for a new car, buy one that will last the longest and have the least impact on the environment. Thus, a used vehicle with a hybrid engine offers superior fuel efficiency over the long haul while saving the environmental impact of new car manufacture.

Paradoxically, when purchasing essentials, such as groceries, buying in bulk can reduce the amount of packaging—plastic wrapping, cardboard boxes and other unnecessary materials. Sometimes buying more means consuming less.

Be Efficient —A potentially simpler and even bigger impact can be made by doing more with less. Citizens of many developed countries are profligate wasters of energy, whether by speeding in a gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicle or leaving the lights on when not in a room.

Good driving—and good car maintenance, such as making sure tires are properly inflated—can limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from a vehicle and, perhaps more importantly, lower the frequency of payment at the pump.

Similarly, employing more efficient refrigerators, air conditioners and other appliances, such as those rated highly under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program, can cut electric bills while something as simple as weatherproofing the windows of a home can reduce heating and cooling bills. Such efforts can also be usefully employed at work, whether that means installing more efficient turbines at the power plant or turning the lights off when you leave the office .

Eat Smart, Go Vegetarian? —Corn grown in the U.S. requires barrels of oil for the fertilizer to grow it and the diesel fuel to harvest and transport it. Some grocery stores stock organic produce that do not require such fertilizers, but it is often shipped from halfway across the globe. And meat, whether beef, chicken or pork, requires pounds of feed to produce a pound of protein.

Choosing food items that balance nutrition, taste and ecological impact is no easy task. Foodstuffs often bear some nutritional information, but there is little to reveal how far a head of lettuce, for example, has traveled.

University of Chicago researchers estimate that each meat-eating American produces 1.5 tons more greenhouse gases through their food choice than do their vegetarian peers. It would also take far less land to grow the crops necessary to feed humans than livestock, allowing more room for planting trees.

Stop Cutting Down Trees —Every year, 33 million acres of forests are cut down . Timber harvesting in the tropics alone contributes 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. That represents 20 percent of human-made greenhouse gas emissions and a source that could be avoided relatively easily.

Improved agricultural practices along with paper recycling and forest management—balancing the amount of wood taken out with the amount of new trees growing—could quickly eliminate this significant chunk of emissions.

And when purchasing wood products, such as furniture or flooring, buy used goods or, failing that, wood certified to have been sustainably harvested. The Amazon and other forests are not just the lungs of the earth, they may also be humanity's best short-term hope for limiting climate change.

Unplug —Believe it or not, U.S. citizens spend more money on electricity to power devices when off than when on. Televisions, stereo equipment, computers, battery chargers and a host of other gadgets and appliances consume more energy when seemingly switched off, so unplug them instead.

Purchasing energy-efficient gadgets can also save both energy and money—and thus prevent more greenhouse gas emissions. To take but one example, efficient battery chargers could save more than one billion kilowatt-hours of electricity—$100 million at today's electricity prices—and thus prevent the release of more than one million metric tons of greenhouse gases.

Swapping old incandescent lightbulbs for more efficient replacements, such as compact fluorescents (warning: these lightbulbs contain mercury and must be properly disposed of at the end of their long life), would save billions of kilowatt-hours. In fact, according to the EPA, replacing just one incandescent lightbulb in every American home would save enough energy to provide electricity to three million American homes.

One Child —There are at least 6.6 billion people living today, a number that is predicted by the United Nations to grow to at least nine billion by mid-century. The U.N. Environmental Program estimates that it requires 54 acres to sustain an average human being today—food, clothing and other resources extracted from the planet. Continuing such population growth seems unsustainable.

Falling birth rates in some developed and developing countries (a significant portion of which are due to government-imposed limits on the number of children a couple can have) have begun to reduce or reverse the population explosion. It remains unclear how many people the planet can comfortably sustain, but it is clear that per capita energy consumption must go down if climate change is to be controlled.

Ultimately, a one child per couple rule is not sustainable either and there is no perfect number for human population. But it is clear that more humans means more greenhouse gas emissions.

Future Fuels —Replacing fossil fuels may prove the great challenge of the 21st century. Many contenders exist, ranging from ethanol derived from crops to hydrogen electrolyzed out of water, but all of them have some drawbacks, too, and none are immediately available at the scale needed.

Biofuels can have a host of negative impacts, from driving up food prices to sucking up more energy than they produce. Hydrogen must be created, requiring either reforming natural gas or electricity to crack water molecules. Biodiesel hybrid electric vehicles (that can plug into the grid overnight) may offer the best transportation solution in the short term, given the energy density of diesel and the carbon neutral ramifications of fuel from plants as well as the emissions of electric engines. A recent study found that the present amount of electricity generation in the U.S. could provide enough energy for the country's entire fleet of automobiles to switch to plug-in hybrids , reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

But plug-in hybrids would still rely on electricity, now predominantly generated by burning dirty coal. Massive investment in low-emission energy generation, whether solar-thermal power or nuclear fission , would be required to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And even more speculative energy sources—hyperefficient photovoltaic cells, solar energy stations in orbit or even fusion—may ultimately be required.

The solutions above offer the outline of a plan to personally avoid contributing to global warming. But should such individual and national efforts fail, there is another, potentially desperate solution:

Experiment Earth —Climate change represents humanity's first planetwide experiment. But, if all else fails, it may not be the last. So-called geoengineering , radical interventions to either block sunlight or reduce greenhouse gases, is a potential last resort for addressing the challenge of climate change.

Among the ideas: releasing sulfate particles in the air to mimic the cooling effects of a massive volcanic eruption; placing millions of small mirrors or lenses in space to deflect sunlight; covering portions of the planet with reflective films to bounce sunlight back into space; fertilizing the oceans with iron or other nutrients to enable plankton to absorb more carbon; and increasing cloud cover or the reflectivity of clouds that already form.

All may have unintended consequences, making the solution worse than the original problem. But it is clear that at least some form of geoengineering will likely be required: capturing carbon dioxide before it is released and storing it in some fashion, either deep beneath the earth, at the bottom of the ocean or in carbonate minerals. Such carbon capture and storage is critical to any serious effort to combat climate change.

Additional reporting by Larry Greenemeier and Nikhil Swaminathan .

What Are the Solutions to Climate Change?

Some solutions are big and will require billions in investment. Some are small and free. All are achievable.

A woman holds a lantern that is connected by a wire to a small solar panel held by a man to her left.

Bundei Hidreka (left), a member of the Orissa Tribal Women's Barefoot Solar Engineers Association, holds up a solar lantern in Tinginaput, India.

Abbie Trayler-Smith/DFID, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

A headshot of Jeff Turrentine

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Thinking about climate change can be overwhelming. We’ve been aware of its causes for decades now, and all around us, we bear witness to its devastating effects on our communities and ecosystems.

But the good news is that we now know exactly what it will take to win the fight against climate change, and we’re making measurable, meaningful progress. Game-changing developments in clean energy, electric vehicle technology, and energy efficiency are emerging every single day. And countries—including Canada , China , India , and the United States —are coordinating and cooperating at levels never seen before in order to tackle the most pressing issue of our time.

The bottom line: If the causes and effects of our climate crisis are clearer than ever, so are the solutions.

Ending our reliance on fossil fuels

Greater energy efficiency, renewable energy, sustainable transportation, sustainable buildings, better forestry management and sustainable agriculture, conservation-based solutions, industrial solutions, technological solutions, our choices.

The single-most important thing that we can do to combat climate change is to drastically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels . The burning of coal, oil, and natural gas in our buildings, industrial processes, and transportation is responsible for the vast majority of emissions that are warming the planet —more than 75 percent, according to the United Nations. In addition to altering the climate , dirty energy also comes with unacceptable ecological and human health impacts.

We must replace coal, oil, and gas with renewable and efficient energy sources. Thankfully, with each passing year, clean energy is making gains as technology improves and production costs go down. But according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C , in order to meet the goal of reducing global carbon emissions by at least 45 percent below 2010 levels before 2030—which scientists tell us we must do if we’re to avoid the worst, deadliest impacts of climate change—we must act faster.

There are promising signs. Wind and solar continue to account for ever-larger shares of electricity generation. In 2021, wind and solar generated a record 10 percent of electricity worldwide. And modeling by NRDC has found that wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear could account for as much as 80 percent of U.S. electricity by the end of this decade . (We can also fully realize our clean energy potential if we invest in repairing our aging grid infrastructure and installing new transmission lines.) While this transformation is taking place, automakers—as well as governments—are preparing for a future when the majority of vehicles on the road will produce zero emissions.

A man stands on a green lawn in front of a white house, spraying water from a hose onto a metal panel on the grass in front of him.

Technicians from Solaris Energy carry out the first-annual servicing and cleaning on a heat pump that was installed into a house originally built in the 1930s, in Folkestone, United Kingdom.

Andrew Aitchison / In pictures via Getty Images

Energy efficiency has been referred to as “the first fuel”; after all, the more energy efficient our systems are, the less actual fuel we have to consume, whether rooftop solar energy or gas power. Considered this way, efficiency is our largest energy resource. As the technology harnessing it has advanced over the past 40 years, efficiency has contributed more to the United States’s energy needs than oil, coal, gas, or nuclear power.

What’s more, energy efficiency strategies can be applied across multiple sectors: in our power plants, electrical grids, factories, vehicles, buildings, home appliances, and more. Some of these climate-friendly strategies can be enormously complex, such as helping utility companies adopt performance-based regulation systems , in which they no longer make more money simply by selling more energy but rather by improving the services they provide. Other strategies are extraordinarily simple. For example, weatherproofing buildings, installing cool roofs , replacing boilers and air conditioners with super-efficient heat pumps , and yes, switching out light bulbs from incandescent to LED can all make a big dent in our energy consumption.

Transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy is the key to winning the fight against climate change. Here are the most common sources of renewable energy —and one source of decidedly nonrenewable energy that often gets included (falsely) in the list.

A worker in a hard hat stands in front of a building with rooftop solar panels.

Engineer Steve Marchi and his team perform a final review of rooftop solar panels as part of the solar expansion project at the Wayne National Forest Welcome Center, in Ohio.

Alex Snyder/Wayne National Forest

Solar energy

Solar energy is produced when light from the sun is absorbed by photovoltaic cells and turned directly into electricity. The solar panels that you may have seen on rooftops or at ground level are made up of many of these cells working together. By 2030, at least one in seven U.S. homes is projected to have rooftop solar panels, which emit no greenhouse gases or other pollutants, and which generate electricity year-round (in hot or cold weather) so long as the sun is shining. Solar energy currently accounts for just under 3 percent of the electricity generated in the United States—enough to power 18 million homes —but is growing at a faster rate than any other source. By 2035, it could account for as much as 40 percent of electricity generation. From 2020 through 2026, solar will account for more than half of new electricity generation worldwide.

What to do when the sun doesn’t shine, you might ask. Alongside the boom in solar has been a surge in companion battery storage: More than 93 percent of U.S. battery capacity added in 2021 was paired with solar power plants. Battery storage is key to the clean energy revolution—and adapting to a warming world. Not only are batteries important at night when the sun isn’t out, but on hot days when homes draw a lot of electricity to power air conditioners, battery storage can help manage the energy demand and control the threat of power failures.

Three wind turbines stand in rough seas with a wave cresting in front of them.

Turbines on Block Island Wind Farm, located 3.8 miles from Block Island, Rhode Island, in the Atlantic Ocean

Dennis Schroeder/NREL, 40481

Wind energy

Unlike solar panels, which convert the sun’s energy directly into electricity, wind turbines produce electricity more conventionally: wind turns the blades of a turbine, which spin a generator. Currently, wind accounts for just above 9 percent of U.S. electricity generation, but it, like solar, is growing fast as more states and utilities come to recognize its ability to produce 100 percent clean energy at a remarkably low cost. Unsurprisingly, states with plenty of wide-open space—including Kansas , Oklahoma , and Texas —have huge capacity when it comes to wind power, but many analysts believe that some of the greatest potential for wind energy exists just off our coasts. Offshore wind even tends to ramp up in the evenings when home electricity use jumps, and it can produce energy during the rainy and cloudy times when solar energy is less available. Smart planning and protective measures , meanwhile, can ensure we harness the massive promise of offshore wind while limiting or eliminating potential impacts on wildlife.

Steam rises off blue water in front of a power plant with four stacks

Svartsengi geothermal power plant in Iceland

Daniel Snaer Ragnarsson/iStock

Geothermal and hydroelectric energy

Along with sunlight and wind, water—under certain conditions—can also be a source of renewable energy. For instance, geothermal energy works by drilling deep underground and pumping extremely hot water up to the earth’s surface, where it is then converted to steam that, once pressurized, spins a generator to create electricity. Hydroelectric energy uses gravity to “pull” water downward through a pipe at high speeds and pressures; the force of this moving water is used to spin a generator’s rotor.

Humans have been harnessing heat energy from below the earth’s surface for eons—just think of the hot springs that provided warmth for the people of ancient Rome. Today’s geothermal plants are considered clean and renewable so long as the water and steam they bring up to the surface is redeposited underground after use. Proper siting of geothermal projects is also important, as recent science has linked some innovative approaches to geothermal to an increased risk of earthquakes.

Hydroelectric plants, when small-scale and carefully managed, represent a safe and renewable source of energy. Larger plants known as mega-dams, however, are highly problematic . Their massive footprint can disrupt the rivers on which people and wildlife depend .

Biomass energy

With very few exceptions, generating electricity through the burning of organic material like wood (sourced largely from pine and hardwood forests in the United States), agricultural products, or animal waste—collectively referred to as biomass —does little to reduce carbon emissions, and in fact, does far more environmental harm than good. Unfortunately, despite numerous studies that have revealed the true toll of this form of bioenergy , some countries continue to buy the biomass industry’s false narrative and subsidize these projects. Attitudes are changing but, given the recent wood pellet boom, there is a lot more work to be done.

A bus drives down a city street with high rise buildings in the background

A new electric bus on King Street in Honolulu, on June 16, 2021

Marco Garcia for NRDC

Transportation is a top source of greenhouse gases (GHG), so eliminating pollution from the billions of vehicles driving across the planet is essential to achieving net-zero global emissions by 2050, a goal laid out in the 2015 Paris climate agreement .

In 2021, electric vehicles (EVs) accounted for less than 8 percent of vehicle sales globally; by 2035 , however, it’s estimated that they’ll account for more than half of all new sales. Governments around the world aren’t just anticipating an all-electric future; they’re bringing it into fruition by setting goals and binding requirements to phase out the sale of gas-powered internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. That year, 2035, is expected to mark a turning point in the adoption of EVs and in the fight against climate change as countries around the world—as well as numerous automakers—have announced goals to phase out gas-powered cars and light trucks. This shift will also benefit our grid: EVs are like a “ battery on wheels ” and have the potential to supply electricity back to the network when demand peaks, helping to prevent blackouts.

It’s also critical that we consider all of the different ways we get around and build sustainability into each of them. By increasing access to public transportation—such as buses, ride-sharing services, subways, and streetcars—as well as embracing congestion pricing , we can cut down on car trips and keep millions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year. And by encouraging zero-emission forms of transportation, such as walking and biking, we can reduce emissions even more. Boosting these alternate forms of transportation will require more than just talk. They require funding , planning, and the building out of supportive infrastructure by leaders across the local, state, and national levels.

To address the full set of impacts of the transportation sector, we need holistic and community-led solutions around things like land-use policies and the way we move consumer goods. Communities closest to ports , truck corridors, rail yards, and warehouses are exposed to toxic diesel emissions and face a high risk of developing acute and chronic public health diseases. Like all climate solutions, long-lasting change in the transportation sector requires building the power of historically marginalized communities.

A worker stands at a window in a room with plastic sheeting hanging from the ceiling and covering furniture

An Association for Energy Affordability (AEA) worker installs a new energy-efficient window at an apartment in the South Bronx, New York City.

Natalie Keyssar for NRDC

The energy used in our buildings—to keep the lights on and appliances running; to warm them and cool them; to cook and to heat water—makes them the single-largest source of carbon pollution in most cities across the United States. Making buildings more energy efficient, by upgrading windows and adding insulation to attics and walls, for example, will bring these numbers down. That’s why it’s all the more important that we raise public awareness of cost- and carbon-saving changes that individuals can make in their homes and workplaces, and make it easier for people to purchase and install energy-efficient technology, such as heat pumps (which can both heat and cool spaces) and certified appliances through programs like Energy Star in the United States or EnerGuide in Canada.

Beyond the measures that can be taken by individuals, we need to see a dedication from private businesses and governments to further building decarbonization , which simply means making buildings more efficient and replacing fossil fuel–burning systems and appliances with clean-powered ones. Policy tools can help get us there, including city and state mandates that all newly constructed homes, offices, and other buildings be outfitted with efficient all-electric systems for heating, cooling, and hot water; requirements that municipalities and states meet the latest and most stringent energy conservation standards when adopting or updating their building codes would also be impactful. Indeed, many places around the world are implementing building performance standards , which require existing buildings to reduce their energy use or carbon emissions over time. Most important, if these changes are going to reach the scale needed, we must invest in the affordable housing sector so that efficient and decarbonized homes are accessible to homeowners and renters of all incomes .

A young man stands on a rocky shore holding a rope attached to a red canoe on the water in front of him

Nicolas Mainville joins a canoe trip with youth from the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi on a river in Waswanipi Quebec, Canada, which is part of the boreal forest.

Nicolas Mainville/Greenpeace

Some of our strongest allies in the fight against climate change are the trees, plants, and soil that store massive amounts of carbon at ground level or underground. Without the aid of these carbon sinks , life on earth would be impossible, as atmospheric temperatures would rise to levels more like those found on Venus.

But whenever we clearcut forests for timber or rip out wetlands for development, we release that climate-warming carbon into the air. Similarly, the widespread overuse of nitrogen-based fertilizers (a fossil fuel product) on cropland and generations of industrial-scale livestock farming practices have led to the release of unprecedented amounts of nitrous oxide and methane, powerful greenhouse gases, into our atmosphere.

We can’t plant new trees fast enough to replace the ones we clearcut in carbon-storing forests like the Canadian boreal or the Amazon rainforest —nor can rows of spindly young pines serve the same function as old-growth trees. We need a combination of responsible forestry policies, international pressure, and changes in consumer behavior to put an end to deforestation practices that not only accelerate climate change but also destroy wildlife habitat and threaten the health and culture of Indigenous communities that live sustainably in these verdant spaces. At the same time, we need to treat our managed landscapes with as much care as we treat wild ones. For instance, adopting practices associated with organic and regenerative agriculture —cover crops, pesticide use reduction, rotational grazing, and compost instead of synthetic fertilizers—will help nurture the soil, yield healthier foods, and pay a climate dividend too.

Many small fish swim in clear waters near a large tree with roots extending below the water's surface

A school of fish swimming through a mangrove forest in the Caribbean Sea, off Belize

Intact ecosystems suck up and store vast amounts of carbon: Coastal ecosystems like wetlands and mangroves accumulate and store carbon in their roots; our forests soak up about a third of annual fossil fuel emissions; and freshwater wetlands hold between 20 and 30 percent of all the carbon found in the world’s soil. It’s clear we’re not going to be able to address climate change if we don’t preserve nature.

This is one reason why, along with preserving biodiversity, climate experts are calling on global leaders to fully protect and restore at least 30 percent of land, inland waters, and oceans by 2030 , a strategy endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To help us reach that goal, we must limit industrial impacts on our public lands and waters, continue to protect natural landscapes, support the creation of marine protected areas, uphold bedrock environmental laws, and follow the lead of Indigenous Peoples, many of whom have been faithfully and sustainably stewarding lands and waters for millennia .

Gray and black smoke rise out of stacks on an industrial facility, with homes visible in the background.

Emissions rise from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, a steel mill in the Braddock and North Braddock communities near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Getty Images

Heavy industry—the factories and facilities that produce our goods—is responsible for a quarter of GHG emissions in the United States and 40 percent globally, according to the EPA. Most industrial emissions come from making a small set of carbon-intensive products: basic chemicals, iron and steel, cement, aluminum, glass, and paper. (Industrial plants are also often major sources of air and water pollutants that directly affect human health.)

Complicating matters is the fact that many industrial plants will stay in operation for decades, so emissions goals for 2050 are really just one investment cycle away. Given these long horizons for building and retrofitting industrial sites, starting investments and plans now is critical. What would successfully decarbonized industrial processes look like? They should sharply reduce heavy industry’s climate emissions , as well as local pollution. They should be scalable and widely available in the next decade, especially so that less developed nations can adopt these cleaner processes and grow without increasing emissions. And they should bolster manufacturing in a way that creates good jobs.

Technology alone won’t save us from climate change (especially not some of these risky geoengineering proposals ). But at the same time, we won’t be able to solve the climate crisis without researching and developing things like longer-lasting EV batteries , nonpolluting hydrogen-based solutions , and reliable, safe, and equitable methods for capturing and sequestering carbon . Because, while these tools hold promise, we have to make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. For instance, we can take actions to reduce local harms from mining lithium (a critical component of electric vehicle batteries), improve recycling opportunities for solar cells, and not use carbon capture as an excuse to pollute. To accelerate research and development, funding is the critical third leg of the stool: Governments must make investing in clean energy technologies a priority and spur innovation through grants, subsidies, tax incentives, and other rewards.

A group of protesters hold signs in front of a large banner reading "Charmin: Stop Flushing Our Forests"

A protester rings a bell in front of P&G’s headquarters in Cincinnati; the company’s toilet paper brand, Charmin, uses wood pulp from virgin trees in Canada's boreal forest.

Finally, it should go without saying that we, as individuals, are key to solving the climate crisis—not just by continuing to lobby our legislators and speak up in our communities but also by taking climate actions in our daily lives . By switching off fossil fuels in our homes and being more mindful of the climate footprint of the food we eat, our shopping habits, how we get around, our use of plastics and fossil fuels, and what businesses we choose to support (or not to support), we can move the needle.

But it’s when we act collectively that real change happens—and we can do even more than cut down on carbon pollution. Communities banding together have fought back fracking , pipelines , and oil drilling in people’s backyards . These local wins aren’t just good news for our global climate but they also protect the right to clean air and clean water for everyone. After all, climate change may be a global crisis but climate action starts in your own hometown .

We have a responsibility to consider the implications of our choices—and to make sure that these choices are actually helping to reduce the burdens of climate change, not merely shifting them somewhere else. It’s important to remember that the impacts of climate change —which intersect with and intensify so many other environmental, economic, and social issues—fall disproportionately on certain communities, namely low-income communities and communities of color. That’s why our leaders have a responsibility to prioritize the needs of these communities when crafting climate policies. If those on the frontlines aren’t a part of conversations around climate solutions, or do not feel the benefits of things like cleaner air and better job opportunities, then we are not addressing the roots of the climate crisis.

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What You Can Do About Pollution Prevention

P2 resources for concerned citizens, technical assistance where you live.

Find EPA regional contact information, and state and local P2 technical assistance resources.

Pollution prevention is not just the responsibility of businesses and government agencies. Citizens can help solve environmental problems by reducing pollution at the source, before it is created. 

We can all apply pollution prevention in our daily lives. Whether in the home and garden, at the supermarket or on the road, we can make pollution prevention choices every day in order to protect the environment, save money and conserve natural resources. 

The resources below can help you be more aware of the many ways to prevent pollution:

Home: Use reusable shopping bags; Install a programmable thermostat. State or Tribal Program or University: Apply for EPA Pollution Prevention grant. Industry: Switch to low-carbon energy supply and materials; Reduce or eliminate use of hazardous chemicals. School or Business: Reduce or eliminate use of single use cups, plates and utensils in cafeteria; Look for products with Safer Choice label; Establish sustainable purchasing program. Commute: Carpool, walk, bike, or take transit; Keep car tires inflated.

  • Easy steps you can take for water conservation .
  • Play your part in conserving water resources .
  • How to save energy in your home .
  • Learn about Greener Living : our actions impact the environment. Each thing we do can help or hurt our planet in many ways. EPA has tools to help you learn and understand the issues and reduce your environmental footprint.
  • Learn more about P2 at home and at work from the P2 Week web site.

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  • A full list of Regional Contacts is available on the Contact Us page .
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10 Environmental Problems and Solutions

If you’re searching for answers to the 10 biggest environmental problems and solutions, you might be concerned with the state of the planet today. If you’re worried, I want you to know that although the world faces major environmental problems, there are solutions. The solutions aren’t simple, and there are no magic bullets, but they exist.

There are also a lot of voices and opinions about environmental issues. So along with basic information about environmental problems and solutions, I also offer different perspectives and further reading so you can form your own opinions. Because there are many possible environmental solutions, and not even the “experts” have all the answers. So I encourage you to keep an open mind to every option. Let’s look for progress, not perfection.

I’ll write more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals below but wanted to mention these goals up-front. If you’re reading this article because you’re concerned about the environment (or maybe you’re feeling stressed or anxious about climate change) learn about the Global Goals first. The Global Goals offer a solid framework for solving environmental problems. Now, on to the 10 biggest environmental problems we face today.

10 environmental problems

These are the 10 biggest environmental problems in no particular order. Climate change is a hot topic right now so I include it first. It’s also first on the list simply because so many of the problems related to climate change are also connected to other environmental problems. Environmental problems like oil spills, deforestation, and poverty need to be solved in and of themselves. But solving these problems indirectly helps solve the problem of climate change.

There are also environmental problems like fluorinated gases that have a large impact on the climate, but not directly on our health or wealth. These problems are extra tricky because they’re expensive to solve and they get little media coverage. That’s why international laws and cooperation are especially important for solving the hardest problems.

Climate change

Climate change is a long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates.” – NASA

Climate change happens when greenhouse gases are released and trapped in the atmosphere, causing the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect creates a layer around the earth’s atmosphere that traps heat from the sun, making our atmosphere warmer, similar to a greenhouse.

The following greenhouse gases contribute to climate change.

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) – Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere when fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas are burned. Carbon dioxide is also released when trees and other plants are burned or cut down and through manufacturing cement. Carbon dioxide made up 81% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions from the United States in 2018 according to the Environmental Protection Agency .
  • Methane (CH4) – Methane is released from fossil fuels (natural gas in particular), agriculture (cow farts and manure), and landfills. Methane made up 10% of greenhouse gases in the US in 2018.
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O) – Nitrous oxide is emitted from agriculture, fossil fuels, industry, and waste-water treatment. Nitrous oxide made up 7% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018.
  • Fluorinated gases – Fluorinated gases are hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride. They are man-made gases commonly used in refrigerants used for cooling air conditioners and refrigerators. These gases have a high Global Warming Potential and makeup 3% of greenhouse gases emitted in the United States according to the EPA.

Resource: Drilled Podcast: The origins of climate denial

Poverty is indirectly linked to environmental problems. When you solve issues related to poverty you also solve environmental problems such as deforestation[cm_simple_footnote id=1], population growth, gender inequality, and climate change.

The world has been making steady progress toward ending extreme poverty for years according to the UN. The COVID-19 crisis has reversed some of the progress. But before the virus, life was better for many people around the world than ever before in history. Now, we need to deal with the crisis and get back to making progress.

Related: Population growth explained with IKEA boxes

Gender inequality

Although gender inequality is also not a direct environmental problem, solving problems like inadequate access to birth control, health services, and education has a positive impact on the economy and environment.

Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health. Gender inequality is indirectly linked to environmental problems.” – Drawdown.org

Related: Melinda Gates: Why equality can’t wait

Fluorinated gases used in refrigerants

Fluorinated gases, like the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in refrigerators and air conditioners, are considered major contributors to climate change according to Drawdown.org. The most commonly used refrigerants have a high Global Warming Potential. The Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol offers a timeline for phasing out refrigerants with high Global Warming Potential, but it’s essential for companies and governments to maintain their commitments.

To minimize your personal impact, make sure to properly recycle refrigerators and air conditioning units. If you’re not sure how to recycle an appliance contact your local waste management company.

Fluorinated gases have a potent greenhouse effect and are widely used as refrigerants. Managing leaks and disposal of these chemicals can avoid emissions in buildings and landfills.” – Drawdown

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sank in the Gulf of Mexico, making it one of the most environmentally damaging oil spills in history. The spill covered over 43,300 square miles. It killed and harmed dolphins, sea turtles, fish, and a variety of organisms ( source ).

The environmental problems associated with oil have many layers. Not only does an oil spill kill wildlife and fishing industries, but oil is also a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change. Although oil is a necessary source of energy in every developed and developing country today, it comes with dire environmental problems.

Wasted natural resources

267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste went to landfills instead of being recycled, upcycled, composted, or used for something else in 2017, according to the EPA . That’s a lot of wasted natural resources that originally came from nature, in one form or another. In a circular economy , these natural resources would not be wasted. Instead, they could be upcycled, recycled, or used to regenerate other materials.

Total Municipal Solid Waste Generated by Material, 2017 image from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Plastic pollution

You’ve probably seen images of marine life drowning in plastic pollution. Maybe you’re aware of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is about twice the size of Texas. The people and countries with the highest income generate the most plastic waste. That’s because we can afford to buy more stuff wrapped in plastic.

Plastic pollution is a major environmental problem. Plastic comes from fossil fuels, which we need to phase out, so using less plastic is important. But ultimately solving the problem of plastic pollution may come down to improving waste management technology and creating a more circular economy for plastics.

Related: The world’s plastic pollution crisis explained

The pathway by which plastic enters the world's oceans from Our World in Data.

Food waste[cm_simple_footnote id=2] is a big environmental problem. Up to 40% of food is wasted from farm to fork to landfill according to the National Resources Defense Council . There’s a lot of media coverage about how diet is related to the environment. But the majority of that coverage has to do with how individuals should eat, not how agriculture and waste management services should improve.

Instead of focusing on how individuals should change their eating habits (which is so darned hard) the answers just might lie in improving technology and holding companies to higher environmental standards. This leads me to deforestation, which is closely related to agriculture.

Deforestation

Deforestation is linked to many environmental problems, and the biggest problem is agriculture according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States .

Agri-businesses should meet their commitments to deforestation-free commodity chains and companies that have not made zero deforestation commitments should do so. Commodity investors should adopt business models that are environmentally and socially responsible. These actions will, in many cases, require a revision of current policies and financial incentives. – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Related: Can planting billions of trees save the planet?

Ocean acidification

Ocean acidification is one of the main problems associated with climate change. It doesn’t get as much attention as other environmental problems, but it can have a major impact on ocean ecosystems.

The ocean absorbs about 30% of the carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) that is released in the atmosphere. As levels of atmospheric CO 2  increase from human activity such as burning fossil fuels (e.g., car emissions) and changing land use (e.g., deforestation), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean also increases.  When CO 2  is absorbed by seawater, a series of chemical reactions occur resulting in the increased concentration of hydrogen ions. This process has far reaching implications for the ocean and the creatures that live there. – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Man on boat and coral below on the ocean floor.

10 environmental solutions

Now that you understand the environmental problems we face today, it’s time to understand the potential environmental solutions. I say potential solutions because the cause and effect from environmental problem to environmental solution is complex. There’s a word for this, it’s called dynamic complexity.

The below environmental solutions have the potential to solve different problems within a complex, dynamic, and interconnected system. But there is no magic bullet for environmental problems. So I encourage anyone interested in environmental solutions to think big-picture. Each solution is simply one piece of a giant puzzle. Again, look for progress rather than perfection.

Related: Climate solutions 101 by Project Drawdown

  • UN Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals offer the best possible framework for dealing with most of the problems listed above. These are the 17 goals that almost all countries have agreed to.

  • Zero hunger
  • Good health and well-being
  • Quality education
  • Gender equality
  • Clean water and sanitation

Affordable and clean energy

  • Decent work and economic growth
  • Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
  • Reduced inequality
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action
  • Life below water
  • Life on Land
  • Peace, justice, and strong institutions
  • Partnerships and Goals

Green innovation

Green innovation may be the most important environmental solution. People around the world are working on new technologies and solutions that could revolutionize the way we look at energy and waste. We haven’t scratched the surface yet on how humanity will solve these problems. But there’s no time to waste, and we need governments and companies to invest in research and development.

One step is to lay the foundation for innovation by drastically increasing government funding for research on clean energy solutions. Right now, the world spends only a few billion dollars a year on researching early-stage ideas for zero-carbon energy. It should be investing two or three times that much.” – Bill Gates

Read: We need clean-energy innovation and lots of it

There are several different forms of clean and renewable energy. Solar, wind, and hydro energy are considered renewable energy sources. Nuclear energy, a non-renewable source of energy that contributes little to climate change, is an example of clean energy.

U.S. primary energy consumption by energy source, 2019 image from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Electrify everything

How to make energy clean and affordable for everyone is not an easy solution to implement. However, the phrase “electrify everything” is a concept that’s fairly easy to understand. Here’s a paragraph that helped me understand how we can truly get clean and affordable energy for everyone on the planet.

“We know, or at least have a pretty good idea, how to get electricity down to zero carbon. There are options: wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, geothermal, and coal or natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). There are plenty of disagreements about exactly what mix of those sources will be needed to get us to a carbon-free grid, and what mix of centralized versus distributed resources, and what mix of supply-side versus demand-side solutions — but there’s broad consensus that pathways to fully clean electricity exist.” – The key to tackling climate change: electrify everything by David Roberts for Vox

Related: The Rewiring America Handbook : A Guide to Winning the Climate Fight.

Carbon taxes

You may have read statements from economists like former Federal Reserve Chairmen Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, Janet Yellen, and Paul Volcker in support of a carbon tax. That’s because pollution and emissions are considered negative externalities.

By correcting a well-known market failure, a carbon tax will send a powerful price signal that harnesses the invisible hand of the marketplace to steer economic actors towards a low-carbon future.” – Statement by economists posted in the Wall Street Journal

Related: Why Put a Price on Carbon? by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby

Conservation of natural resources

Conserving the natural resources we already have is one important environmental solution. The strategies below help individuals and companies conserve resources:

  • Zero waste – Zero-waste is a way for individuals to reduce their own environmental impact by contributing less to landfills by using reusable containers and less plastic.
  • Circular economy – “A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems,” according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
  • Sustainable living – Sustainable living is a general term used to describe lifestyle choices that contribute less to environmental problems.
  • Upcycling – Creating a product of higher value from a product or material that would otherwise be thrown away. The clothes and accessories made by ZeroWasteDaniel.com is an excellent example of upcycling.
  • Dematerialization – Designing products to use less materials while still creating the same value for the customer. This reduces shipping, natural resources, waste and pollution. A good example of dematerialization is TruEarth’s eco-strips laundry detergent.

Carbon capture and sequestration

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil, trees, plants, or underground. CCS is considered one way to mitigate climate change.

The simplest way to capture carbon is through photosynthesis. Trees and plants take atmospheric carbon dioxide and store that carbon in healthy soil and plants using photosynthesis. But there are more high-tech ways to capture and sequester carbon as well. One way is through geoengineering.

Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change. – Oxford Geoengineering Program

There are also companies that will sequester carbon for you.

Sustainable business and investing

Some businesses, like Patagonia, Interface, and IKEA, have built sustainability and resilience into the core of their companies. Others have fought against sustainability by lawyering up, using loopholes, and lying about the damage their businesses create. If we want environmental solutions, we need to support companies with sustainable business models that support progress. If you’re interested in learning more about what businesses and consumers can do, here are a few places to start:

  • Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist
  • Genuine progress indicator
  • Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing
  • Dow Jones Sustainability Index
  • Green bonds

Improved food production

The environmental problems associated with food production get a lot of attention in the media. Some environmentalists and journalists advocate for plant-based diets and veganism as a solution to the problems associated with food. Changing our eating habits may have a small impact on the environment, but there’s a much larger movement underfoot lead by farmers and entrepreneurs. Below is a shortlist of potential environmental solutions to problems associated with food production and water shortages:

  • Regenerative agriculture
  • Lab-grown meat
  • Plant-based meat
  • Verticle farms
  • Precision agriculture
  • Anaerobic digestion
  • Water desalination

Sustainable homes

Our homes use a lot of energy to run our dishwashers, washer and dryers, and HVAC systems. And let’s not forget about all the energy we use charging our computers and watching TV. It adds up. But instead of turning off our devices, it’s possible to build more efficient homes that waste less energy and use cleaner energy sources. Although we have a long way toward making most homes sustainable, here are a few environmental solutions related to homes.

  • Net Zero homes
  • Home electrification
  • Living Buildings
  • LEED-certified buildings
  • Energy star appliances

Read: The ultimate guide to solar homes

Home with solar panels on the roof.

Environmental frameworks and certifications

As mentioned earlier, the UN Sustainable Development Goals offer a framework for solving most environmental problems. If you’re interested in learning more about the environmental movement, here are a few places to start.

  • Future Fit Business – Free tools to help businesses and investors make better decisions.
  • The Natural Step (TNS)

If you’re interested in buying better products, consider looking for products with these certifications.

  • B Corporation
  • Cradle to Cradle certified
  • Design for the environment
  • EWG verified

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Wow this a great work. I have learned a lot. At least I can solve some environmental problems and encourage sustainable environmental conservation.

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Three Environmental Issues and Ways to Combat Them

For years now, humans have mistreated and contaminated the very environment that sustains them. But the broad concern for the environment can be so overwhelming that people don’t know what to do or where to start making a difference.

  • By Erich Lawson
  • Nov 25, 2019

For years now, humans have mistreated and contaminated the very environment that sustains them. But the broad concern for the environment can be so overwhelming that people don’t know what to do or where to start making a difference.

The list of issues surrounding our environment go on, but there are three major ones that affect the majority of them overall: global warming and climate change; water pollution and ocean acidification; and loss of biodiversity. These three issues need immediate attention and proactive action on our part to ensure conservation of the only habitable planet which we call our home. And, focusing attention on these three major topics will have a ripple effect on a number of smaller environmental issues like inefficient recycling systems and food waste.

Let’s look at three major environmental issues and some solutions which can help combat them:

Global Warming and Climate Change Human activities have made global warming and climate change a global threat. The rising levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases have caused an increase in average global temperatures, extreme weather events, rising sea levels and other negative changes. These changes are directly and indirectly affecting all life forms. Pollution of air, land and water through excessive deforestation, industrialization and overfilling landfills which emits CO2 and adds to greenhouse gas emissions are all topmost causes of these environmental issues. Here are some effective solutions to these problems:

  • Invest in and encourage production of sustainable technology
  • Commercial and residential buildings should aim to achieve zero-emission or zero-waste
  • Improve waste compaction in landfills with smart technology like stationary compactors which helps free up space for other constructive uses. It comes in varying capacities and configurations for handling different volumes of trash
  • Increase forest cover, restore sea grasses and boost use of agricultural cover crops to reduce the amount of CO2 in atmosphere.

Water Pollution and Ocean Acidification Rapid urban development, improper sewage disposal by industries, oil spills, disposal of chemical and radioactive wastes, and plastic pollution are some of the major causes of water pollution. Today, water scarcity and polluted water are posing a big threat to the human existence across many nations of the world.

Ocean waters absorb around 30 percent of the carbon dioxide that is released in the atmosphere. Ocean acidification occurs when the CO2 absorbed by the seawater undergoes a series of chemical reactions which leads to increased concentration of hydrogen ions, thus making the seawater more acidic. This decreases the carbonate ions in the seawater which makes it difficult for clams, deep sea corals, oysters etc. to build and maintain their shells and other calcium carbonate structures. These changes in the ocean water chemistry can affect the behavior of other organisms also. This puts the entire ocean food web at risk. Listed below are some measures which can help prevent water pollution and ocean acidification :

  • Practice more effective measures to contain spills
  • Curtail storm water runoff and plant trees near water bodies to reduce soil erosion
  • Expand the network which monitors the measuring of acidity levels to provide researchers and shellfish farmers with long-term and real-time pH data
  • Incorporate ocean acidification threats into the coastal zone management plans of states
  • Increase marine protection measures

Loss of Biodiversity Biodiversity helps maintain the balance of the ecosystem and provides biological resources which are crucial for our existence. Habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, secondary extinction and introduced species are a few ways in which humans are wreaking havoc on the biodiversity of this planet. Loss of biodiversity can be countered in a number of ways:

  • Government should create and implement stricter policies and laws related to conservation of biodiversity
  • Stop habitat destruction and encourage its restoration
  • Practice sustainable living
  • Reduce invasive species
  • Research innovative ways to preserve biodiversity and educate the populace about it

Awareness and adaption are two key steps towards conserving this boon called environment. Each one of us can and should do their bit to curb the effects of these environmental issues and ensure that our future generations have a healthy planet to live.

About the Author

Erich Lawson is very passionate about the environment and is an advocate of effective recycling. He writes on a wide array of topics to inform readers on how modern recycling equipment can be used by industries to reduce monthly wastage bills and increase recycling revenue. You can learn more about environment saving techniques by visiting his blog on Compactor Management Company.

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Clearing the air: How we can fix the CO2 problem and make our lives better

Silhouette of father and child holding hands in front of collage backdrop showing oil and coal fading to windmills, plants, blue sky

Illustration by Andy Keena

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series on how ASU tackles complex problems to help transform entire systems for the better. Read more about the role of the university in changing the world .

Carbon is a planetary paradox.

As the foundation for DNA, carbon is essential for all life on Earth. Yet, as part of the compound carbon dioxide, too much of it has built up in our air, threatening life on Earth as well.

Today, carbon-based fuels power our very way of life. They support the global economy, transport networks and energy infrastructures. Addressing our carbon problem is, in a word, complex.

Fortunately, it’s also a problem we can solve together.

At Arizona State University, researchers explore many ways to reduce atmospheric carbon. And by working alongside industry, government, nonprofits and communities, they’re seeking solutions that are good not just for the planet but also human well-being.

Experts from fields across ASU share how we can start to bring these systems into harmony and build a healthier world for ourselves and our children.

Why is carbon dioxide a problem?

Our planet has an elegant system to recycle carbon. After making its way through plants, animals, soil, rock and ocean, it goes into the atmosphere — mainly as carbon dioxide — where it begins its journey again.

But if Earth is so great at recycling carbon, how did we end up with too much in the atmosphere?

Around 200 years ago, a key disturbance unbalanced this cycle. People found they could extract oil and coal — two forms of carbon called fossil fuels — and burn them for energy.

In short time, our way of life came to depend on carbon-based fuel. Many of today’s amenities, like long-distance travel, buying food grown far away and lighting our homes, rely on this fuel.

But these innovations have a hidden cost. As we burn fossil fuels, we release carbon back into the air, bypassing a natural process that would have taken thousands of years.

From pre-industrial times to 2021, humans have added an extra 1.69 trillion metric tons to the atmosphere, and scientists estimate we added around 37 billion metric tons in 2022 alone.

CO2 naturally traps heat, so all that extra CO2 increases Earth’s average temperature. This has noticeably affected our climate and weather patterns. These changes increase flood and fire risk, threaten crops and food security, endanger vulnerable species, expose us to new diseases, and force people to leave their homelands.

Whether your top concern is making dinner for your family, protecting your health or paying your electric bill, that extra carbon dioxide affects you.

Efforts to decrease carbon dioxide in the air, called decarbonization, currently focus on two main areas: emitting less carbon dioxide, and removing it from the air. But these tasks aren’t simple — they involve many tightly connected systems, and success in one area depends on success in others.

How can we reduce carbon emissions?

One way to address the carbon dioxide problem is to just stop emitting carbon dioxide.

But even in a future without carbon pollution, we will still need fuel and electricity. This leaves us needing to replace many carbon-powered systems with sustainable alternatives. That’s where new energy technology comes in.

“There are solutions for every industry, but they’re going to be different,” says Nicholas Rolston , an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering .

Electricity generation is one area with great potential for transformation. From 2005–2020, the move away from coal power and toward renewables reduced the U.S. electricity sector’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40%, according to  Environmental Protection Agency inventory .

Solar energy technology has been a major contributor to these efforts. ASU has been a hub for solar research, testing and wide-scale use for the past seven decades .

Rooftop view of a parking lot with solar shading panels.

“In principle, we could generate enough electricity for the whole country if we just put solar panels in a 100-by-100 kilometer area in the middle of the desert. But then the challenge is how to distribute that. And if it's a cloudy day, then there's no energy for the whole country. So it becomes beneficial to have distributed solar energy,” Rolston says.

His lab is working on making household solar energy panels more affordable, easier to install and simpler to build.

Student opportunities

Undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in getting involved with energy or semiconductor research can learn more about opportunities by emailing Rolston at [email protected] .

“We’re trying to develop the processes that allow us to print solar panels like newspaper on this roll of plastic sheets,” he says. “Imagine having a solar panel that’s like carpet where you can just unroll it on a rooftop. It would change the economics of how we manufacture and install solar technology.”

Another area where green energy technology can make a big difference is in transportation. Electric cars have little emissions, though the electric grids that charge them might. This makes sustainable electricity even more important.

Alternative fuel can also reduce emissions from planes, cargo ships and other parts of the heavy transportation industry. Hydrogen fuel, which produces only water when consumed in a fuel cell, and biofuel, which uses renewable biomass like algae to create low-carbon fuel, are two promising options.

Read more: Empowering algae to shape the future of bioenergy

Finally, industry accounts for over 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions , making this sector another major area of opportunity.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently chose ASU to lead a new DOE Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institute that will reduce carbon emissions from industry.

The institute, called Electrified Processes for Industry Without Carbon (EPIXC), will create ways to use electricity for process heating such as pasteurizing milk or melting down steel. It will also provide education and workforce development to support the new technology, with a focus on underserved communities.

How does carbon capture work?

Imagine a burst pipe has flooded your basement. Turning off the water supply and repairing the pipe solve one part of the problem. But you still have a six-inch pool of water to deal with afterward.

When we want to fix the extra CO2 in our atmosphere, we face a similar scenario.

Decreasing our CO2 emissions through clean energy and lifestyle changes takes care of the overflow problem. But how do we get rid of the CO2 that has already built up?

“We need technology that can take the CO2 out of the air, and that allows us to start erasing historical CO2 emissions,” says Matthew Green , director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions in the Global Futures Laboratory and associate professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy .

Additionally, transforming our energy systems in a way that is fair and beneficial to all will take some time. Carbon capture can help bridge that transition.

Professor  Klaus Lackner , founding director of the center, pioneered the idea of direct air capture to reduce atmospheric CO2. With the help of commercial partner Carbon Collect, Lackner brought his research to life with the company’s creation of the MechanicalTree.

The machine is a metal column with layers of special sorbent material that collects carbon from the air as it passes through. The first operational MechanicalTree is located on the ASU Tempe campus.

A man in a construction hat stands in front of the MechanicalTree.

Read more: First 'MechanicalTree' installed on ASU’s Tempe campus

A new frontier in carbon capture, called marine carbon dioxide removal, takes CO2 out of water from the ocean. The ocean is the world’s biggest carbon sink; it absorbs about 30% of atmospheric CO2.

As people have emitted more CO2 over the past 200 years, the ocean has had more to absorb. CO2 goes through chemical changes when absorbed in seawater, and this makes the water warmer and more acidic. This poses many challenges to life in our oceans and to important ocean currents.

Green’s new project, funded by the Office of Naval Research, will explore two ways to remove CO2 from seawater being processed into fresh water. His team will develop a polymer membrane that lets water pass through while filtering out both salt and carbon dioxide.

Once carbon is captured, it needs to go somewhere. The most common method takes the carbon and buries it in the ground. The idea is that Earth’s natural carbon cycle will gradually process it over time, although the movement of carbon in soil can be unpredictable. Therefore, scientists are also finding ways to turn it into useful, economically viable products.

“We have projects where we feed it to algae, and then the algae can convert the carbon dioxide into things like biofuels or pharmaceuticals. We have two new Department of Energy projects to convert carbon dioxide into methanol as a precursor for fuel production,” Green says.

Read more: Zero waste water

How much does it cost to go green?

One of the top concerns for green energy transition is whether it will harm economic growth or our standard of living.

“There are the people who think it's going to destroy everything, and the people who think it's going to be totally costless,” says Alexander Hill , a clinical associate professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business . “The truth is somewhere in the middle. It is not going to bankrupt the country, but it will raise the price of electricity.”

Additionally, switching to green energy could increase the cost of goods and restrict supply — a similar effect as an oil price increase, Hill explains. The upside: The switch could save a lot of money elsewhere.

Woman in an apron stirs a pot that's cooking on an electric stove.

Hill’s recent project ran the numbers on a hypothetical scenario in which the government requires people to choose electric over nonelectric heating — like natural gas or propane — when replacing the system in their home. He found it would save several billion dollars in environmental damages every year from now through 2050.

Policies like this are being proposed across the U.S., and last year, the state of New York became the first to ban natural gas furnaces and stoves in new buildings.

Overall, Hill sees a conversion to green energy as a positive not only for the environment, but for the economy as well.

Historically, major investments like the war effort during World War II or suburban development in the 1950s brought on periods of economic growth, Hill says. Building out a green energy system over the next decade could create a smaller but similar effect, he argues.

What are the goals of environmental justice?

As we switch to green energy, we risk overlooking the most affected communities. People such as the employees of an oil refinery, a neighborhood near a power plant or families struggling to pay electric bills could be left behind if the energy transition is built over them instead of with them.

The good news is that, as we redesign our energy system, we also have the chance to redesign the policies that ignored these groups in the past.

“Policy is a strong determinant of the equity and justice of decarbonization more so than the technologies,” says Danae Hernandez-Cortes , an assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures . “How can we create safeguards such that the historically disadvantaged communities can benefit from the carbon transition?”

For example, we may want people to buy electric vehicles to decrease their personal CO2 emissions. But if low-income families can’t afford to buy those vehicles, then their communities will still face the same amount of pollution.

A crowd stands at a stop for the Valley Metro Rail, the Phoenix light rail system.

“The literature has found in many contexts in the U.S. that low-income and minority communities are facing the highest amount of pollution,” Hernandez-Cortes says. “I think it’s important to look at decarbonization technology and policy together; otherwise, we are at risk of exacerbating some of the existing disparities.”

Her current project focuses on designing electric transit in Maricopa County that meets people’s needs and reduces their pollution exposure.

Participating in community-based groups that advocate for environmental and green energy policies is one of the most practical and powerful ways to get involved, says Hernandez-Cortes, as well as attending town or city hall meetings.

The main thing to remember is that big changes come from local efforts. The federal government can give incentives to decarbonize, but policies will play out differently from place to place.

“There’s no single policy that we know that will work nationally in every single context. We have to create policies in communities that are relevant for their context,” says Hernandez-Cortes.

Can we change our ways?

Our relationships with technology guide the way we build our cities, organize our society and form our daily routines.

For example, today in Phoenix, it is much easier to get groceries, go to work and visit friends if you use a car than if you use public transit. Society has created an environment that makes us dependent on cars.

“Our choices, our values and our behaviors get translated into carbon emissions through the technological systems that we use to live our lives,” says Clark Miller , a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

Changing our relationships with technology for a greener future means improving both the technology itself as well as how appealing and accessible it is.

People walking on a glass floor with solar panels underneath

With some creativity, there is also plenty of room for adding to the value of this technology. Miller works with the nonprofit Land Art Generator , which holds design competitions to make solar energy into beautiful and useful public structures.

“Historically, we have used decarbonization as our primary and only goal for policies,” he says. “When we’re designing these clean energy projects, we need to evaluate them for their carbon impact, but we also need to evaluate them for their social and economic impact.”

Read more: New book makes a case for climate optimism

To better consider these impacts, Miller holds imaginative exercises with community members. These exercises prompt participants to picture Arizona’s green future and how different strategies might play out.

Last spring, people from electric utilities, city leadership, academia and community advocacy groups gathered to discuss strategies for charging millions of electric vehicles in Phoenix’s future.

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Sometimes, the best solution for an environmental problem is obvious. Other times there may be no immediately apparent solution. More often, there are many possible solutions. In all cases, identifying, comparing, and assessing all possible options is necessary to determine where critical resources should be invested to solve environmental problems. Environmental professionals approach problems with an open mind, clearly identifying the challenge at hand and purposefully evaluating possible solutions. This chapter provides a framework for identifying, evaluating, and implementing potential solutions that can be used to guide any problem solving activity.

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American Society for Quality. Problem Solving Resources. http://asq.org/learn-about-quality/problem-solving/overview/overview.html

Association for Psychological Science. 2012. "To 'think outside the box,' think outside the box." ScienceDaily. 24 January 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/01/120123175800.htm

Papano, L. 2014. Learning to think outside the box. New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/education/edlife/creativity-becomes-an-academic-discipline.html

Skills You Need: Problem Solving. https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/problem-solving.html

Benda, L.E., Poff, L.N., Tague, C., Palmer, M.A., Pizzuto, J., Cooper, S., Stanley, E. and Moglen, G. 2002. How to avoid train wrecks when using science in environmental problem solving. AIBS Bulletin 52(12): 1127-1136.

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Swanson, F.J. 2015. Confluence of arts, humanities, and science at sites of long-term ecological inquiry. Ecosphere 6(8):1-23.

Harte, J. 1988. Consider a Spherical Cow: A Course in Environmental Problem Solving . University Science Books.

Levitt, S.D. and Dubner, S.J. 2014. Think like a Freak. William Morrow Publ. 288 p.

Sloane, P. 2010. How to be a Brilliant Thinker: Exercise your Mind and Find Creative Solutions. Kogan Page Publ. 208 p.

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Unveiling The Secrets: How Scientists Tackle Environmental Problems

ways of solving environmental problems

Table of Contents

Hook: The pressing need to address environmental problems

The world is facing numerous environmental problems that require immediate attention. From climate change to deforestation, these issues have far-reaching consequences for the planet and its inhabitants. The urgency to address these problems has never been greater, as the future of our planet hangs in the balance.

Brief overview of the role of scientists in tackling these issues

Scientists play a crucial role in understanding and solving environmental problems. Their expertise and research are instrumental in identifying the causes and effects of these issues. Through their work, scientists provide valuable insights and data that inform policy decisions and drive positive change.

Thesis statement: This blog post will explore the various ways scientists approach and solve environmental problems.

In this blog post, we will delve into the world of environmental science and explore the diverse approaches scientists take to tackle environmental problems. From research and data collection to collaboration and innovative solutions, scientists are at the forefront of finding sustainable solutions to protect our planet.

Environmental problems are complex and interconnected, requiring a multidisciplinary approach. Scientists from various fields come together to address these challenges, leveraging their expertise to develop innovative solutions. Through their work, scientists not only contribute to the body of knowledge but also influence policy decisions and advocate for environmental protection.

In the following sections, we will explore the different aspects of scientific approaches to environmental problems. We will discuss the importance of understanding the problem, the role of research and data collection, the power of collaboration and interdisciplinary approaches, the impact of innovative solutions and technologies, the influence of policy and advocacy, and the challenges and limitations faced by scientists in their quest to protect the environment.

By the end of this blog post, you will have a deeper understanding of the critical role scientists play in addressing environmental problems. You will also be inspired to support and engage with scientific efforts to protect the environment, as we all have a responsibility to preserve our planet for future generations.

Now, let’s dive into the first section: “Understanding the Problem.”

Understanding the Problem

Environmental problems are pressing issues that require immediate attention. These problems have a significant impact on the planet and its inhabitants. In order to effectively address these issues, scientists play a crucial role in understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of environmental problems.

Defining Environmental Problems and Their Impact

Environmental problems encompass a wide range of issues that affect the natural world. These problems can include climate change, deforestation, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and depletion of natural resources. The impact of these problems is far-reaching and affects not only the environment but also human health and well-being.

Climate change, for example, is causing rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and sea-level rise. This has detrimental effects on ecosystems, agriculture, and human settlements. Deforestation leads to the loss of habitat for countless species and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Pollution, whether it be air, water, or soil pollution, poses serious health risks to both humans and wildlife. Loss of biodiversity disrupts ecosystems and can have cascading effects on the entire planet. Lastly, the depletion of natural resources threatens the sustainability of our way of life.

Complexity and Interconnectedness of Environmental Problems

One of the key challenges in addressing environmental problems is their complexity. These problems are often interconnected and have multiple causes and consequences. For example, climate change is influenced by various factors such as greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and industrial activities. These factors are interconnected and exacerbate the problem.

Similarly, pollution can be caused by various sources, including industrial waste, agricultural runoff, and vehicle emissions. These sources are interconnected and contribute to the overall pollution levels in the environment. Understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of these problems is crucial in developing effective solutions.

Importance of Scientific Research in Finding Solutions

Scientific research plays a vital role in understanding and finding solutions to environmental problems. Scientists conduct rigorous studies to gather data and analyze the causes and impacts of these problems. Through research, scientists can identify patterns, trends, and potential solutions.

Research also helps in assessing the effectiveness of existing policies and interventions. By collecting and analyzing data, scientists can evaluate the outcomes of different approaches and make informed recommendations for future actions. This evidence-based approach is essential in guiding decision-making and policy formulation.

Furthermore, scientific research helps in raising awareness about environmental problems. Through publications, conferences, and public engagement, scientists can communicate their findings to a wider audience. This helps in mobilizing support and creating a sense of urgency among policymakers, businesses, and the general public.

In conclusion, understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of environmental problems is crucial in finding effective solutions. Scientists play a vital role in defining these problems, assessing their impact, and conducting research to develop innovative solutions. Through their work, scientists contribute to the collective effort of protecting the environment and ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come.

Research and Data Collection

Scientific research plays a crucial role in understanding and addressing environmental problems. Through rigorous data collection and analysis, scientists are able to gain valuable insights into the complexities of these issues and develop effective solutions. In this section, we will explore the process of research in environmental studies, the importance of data collection, and the role of technology in monitoring and analyzing data.

Explaining the process of scientific research in environmental studies

Scientific research in environmental studies involves a systematic approach to understanding and solving problems. It begins with identifying a research question or problem statement that needs to be addressed. This could be anything from studying the impact of pollution on marine life to investigating the effects of deforestation on biodiversity.

Once the research question is established, scientists design experiments or observational studies to collect relevant data. This may involve conducting fieldwork, setting up monitoring stations, or analyzing existing datasets. The data collected is then carefully analyzed using statistical methods to draw meaningful conclusions.

Discussing the collection and analysis of data

Data collection is a critical step in scientific research. It provides the foundation for understanding the problem at hand and developing effective solutions. In environmental studies, data can be collected through various methods such as surveys, sampling, remote sensing, and laboratory experiments.

The collected data is then subjected to rigorous analysis. Statistical techniques are used to identify patterns, trends, and relationships within the data. This analysis helps scientists draw conclusions and make informed decisions about the environmental problem being studied.

Highlighting the role of technology in data collection and monitoring

Technology has revolutionized the way scientists collect and monitor data in environmental studies. Advanced tools and instruments have made it possible to gather data more efficiently and accurately. For example, remote sensing technologies such as satellites and drones enable scientists to collect data over large areas and inaccessible terrains.

Furthermore, the development of sensors and monitoring devices has allowed for real-time data collection. These devices can be deployed in various environments, such as oceans, forests, and urban areas, to continuously monitor parameters like temperature, air quality, and water pollution levels.

The use of technology in data analysis has also improved the accuracy and speed of processing large datasets. Powerful computers and sophisticated software enable scientists to analyze complex data and extract meaningful insights more effectively.

In conclusion, research and data collection are fundamental to understanding and addressing environmental problems. Scientists employ a systematic approach to gather and analyze data, which helps them gain insights into the complexities of these issues. The role of technology in data collection and monitoring cannot be overstated, as it has revolutionized the way scientists study the environment. By leveraging innovative technologies and interdisciplinary approaches, scientists can continue to make significant strides in solving environmental problems and protecting our planet.

Collaboration and Interdisciplinary Approaches

Collaboration among scientists from different fields and the adoption of interdisciplinary approaches play a crucial role in solving environmental problems. By combining their expertise and perspectives, scientists can develop innovative solutions that address the complexity and interconnectedness of these issues. This section will explore the importance of collaboration and interdisciplinary approaches in tackling environmental problems, providing examples of successful collaborations and their impact.

Importance of Collaboration

Collaboration among scientists from various disciplines is essential because environmental problems are multifaceted and require a comprehensive understanding. By working together, scientists can pool their knowledge and skills to develop holistic solutions. For example, a collaboration between ecologists, chemists, and engineers can lead to the development of sustainable technologies that mitigate pollution and protect ecosystems.

Collaboration also fosters creativity and innovation. When scientists from different fields come together, they bring unique perspectives and approaches to problem-solving. This diversity of thought can lead to breakthroughs and novel solutions that may not have been possible through individual efforts alone.

Benefits of Interdisciplinary Approaches

Interdisciplinary approaches involve integrating knowledge and methods from multiple disciplines to address complex environmental problems. These approaches recognize that environmental issues cannot be solved by a single discipline alone. By combining insights from various fields such as biology, chemistry, economics, and sociology, scientists can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the problem and develop effective solutions.

Interdisciplinary approaches also promote a more holistic and sustainable approach to problem-solving. For example, when addressing climate change, scientists need to consider not only the scientific aspects but also the social, economic, and political dimensions. By incorporating diverse perspectives, interdisciplinary teams can develop solutions that are not only scientifically sound but also socially and economically feasible.

Examples of Successful Collaborations

There have been numerous successful collaborations that have made a significant impact on addressing environmental problems. One notable example is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together scientists from various disciplines to assess the scientific basis of climate change. The IPCC’s reports have played a crucial role in shaping global climate policies and raising awareness about the urgency of climate action.

Another example is the collaboration between marine biologists and engineers to develop innovative solutions for coral reef restoration. By combining their expertise, these scientists have successfully implemented techniques such as 3D printing of artificial reefs and coral transplantation, contributing to the conservation of these vital ecosystems.

Furthermore, collaborations between social scientists and conservation biologists have led to the development of community-based conservation initiatives. By involving local communities in conservation efforts, these projects have achieved both environmental and social benefits, ensuring the long-term sustainability of conservation practices.

In conclusion, collaboration among scientists from different fields and the adoption of interdisciplinary approaches are essential in solving environmental problems. By working together, scientists can leverage their diverse expertise and perspectives to develop innovative and holistic solutions. Successful collaborations have demonstrated the power of interdisciplinary approaches in addressing complex environmental issues. As we continue to face environmental challenges, it is crucial to foster collaboration and interdisciplinary research to protect our planet for future generations.

Innovative Solutions and Technologies

In today’s rapidly changing world, environmental problems have become more pressing than ever before. Scientists are at the forefront of finding solutions to these issues, using innovative approaches and cutting-edge technologies. In this section, we will explore the role of innovation in addressing environmental problems and discuss some of the groundbreaking solutions that scientists have developed.

Role of Innovation

Innovation plays a crucial role in addressing environmental problems. It involves thinking outside the box and coming up with new ideas and approaches to tackle complex issues. Scientists are constantly pushing the boundaries of knowledge and developing innovative solutions to protect the environment.

One example of innovation in environmental science is the development of clean energy technologies . As the world grapples with the challenges of climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scientists have been working tirelessly to find alternative sources of energy. Renewable energy technologies such as solar power, wind power, and geothermal energy have emerged as viable alternatives to fossil fuels. These innovations not only help reduce carbon emissions but also contribute to the creation of a sustainable and greener future.

Cutting-Edge Technologies

Advancements in technology have revolutionized the way scientists approach environmental problems. Cutting-edge technologies enable researchers to collect and analyze data more efficiently, monitor environmental changes in real-time, and develop innovative solutions.

One such technology is remote sensing , which allows scientists to gather data about the Earth’s surface and atmosphere using satellites and other airborne sensors. This data provides valuable insights into various environmental parameters such as land cover, vegetation health, and air quality. Remote sensing has proven to be a powerful tool in monitoring deforestation, tracking the movement of pollutants, and assessing the impact of climate change.

Another groundbreaking technology is nanotechnology , which involves manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular scale. Nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionize various industries, including environmental science. Scientists are exploring the use of nanomaterials for water purification, air filtration, and soil remediation. These nanomaterials have unique properties that make them highly effective in removing pollutants and contaminants from the environment.

Examples of Innovative Solutions

Scientists have developed numerous innovative solutions to address environmental problems. One notable example is the development of biodegradable plastics . Traditional plastics pose a significant threat to the environment due to their long decomposition time. However, scientists have successfully created biodegradable plastics that break down naturally, reducing their impact on ecosystems.

Another innovative solution is the use of drones for environmental monitoring. Drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and sensors can collect data from remote and inaccessible areas, providing valuable information about biodiversity, habitat loss, and illegal activities such as poaching and deforestation. This technology allows scientists to monitor and protect fragile ecosystems more effectively.

Furthermore, scientists have been exploring the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in addressing environmental problems. AI algorithms can analyze vast amounts of data and identify patterns and trends that humans may overlook. This technology has been used to predict and mitigate the impact of natural disasters, optimize energy consumption, and develop more efficient waste management systems.

In conclusion, innovation and cutting-edge technologies are essential in addressing environmental problems. Scientists are constantly pushing the boundaries of knowledge and developing innovative solutions to protect the environment. From clean energy technologies to nanomaterials and AI, these advancements have the potential to create a sustainable and greener future. It is crucial to support and engage with scientific efforts to ensure the successful implementation of these innovative solutions.

Policy and Advocacy

Policy and advocacy play a crucial role in addressing environmental problems. Scientists have a unique position to influence policy decisions and advocate for effective solutions. In this section, we will explore the role of scientists in policy-making and the importance of advocacy for environmental issues.

Exploring the role of scientists in influencing policy decisions

Scientists have the expertise and knowledge to provide evidence-based recommendations for policy decisions. They conduct research, analyze data, and identify the most effective strategies to address environmental problems. By presenting their findings to policymakers, scientists can influence the development of policies that prioritize environmental protection.

Scientists act as advisors to government agencies, non-profit organizations, and international bodies, providing valuable insights into the potential consequences of different policy choices. Their expertise helps policymakers understand the scientific implications of their decisions and make informed choices that align with environmental goals.

Discussing the importance of advocacy for environmental issues

Advocacy is a powerful tool for raising awareness and mobilizing support for environmental issues. Scientists can use their expertise to advocate for policies that promote sustainability, conservation, and the protection of natural resources. By engaging with the public, policymakers, and other stakeholders, scientists can drive positive change and create a more sustainable future.

Advocacy efforts can take various forms, including public speaking, writing articles and op-eds, participating in public debates, and collaborating with environmental organizations. Scientists can use these platforms to communicate the urgency of environmental problems, highlight the potential consequences of inaction, and propose evidence-based solutions.

Providing examples of scientists who have made a significant impact through policy and advocacy work

Several scientists have made significant contributions to environmental policy and advocacy. One notable example is Dr. Jane Goodall, a renowned primatologist and conservationist. Through her research on chimpanzees, Dr. Goodall has become a prominent advocate for wildlife conservation and environmental education. Her work has influenced international policies and inspired countless individuals to take action for the protection of endangered species and their habitats.

Another example is Dr. James Hansen, a climate scientist who has been at the forefront of raising awareness about climate change. Dr. Hansen’s research on the impact of greenhouse gas emissions has been instrumental in shaping climate policies and international agreements. His advocacy efforts have helped mobilize global action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

These examples demonstrate the significant impact scientists can have on policy decisions and public opinion. By leveraging their expertise and engaging in advocacy, scientists can drive positive change and contribute to the protection of the environment.

In conclusion, policy and advocacy are essential components of addressing environmental problems. Scientists have a unique role in influencing policy decisions through their expertise and research findings. By engaging in advocacy efforts, scientists can raise awareness, mobilize support, and drive positive change. The examples of Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. James Hansen highlight the significant impact scientists can have on policy and public opinion. It is crucial for scientists to continue their advocacy work and collaborate with policymakers and stakeholders to create a sustainable future.

Challenges and Limitations

Environmental problems are complex and multifaceted, requiring scientists to navigate numerous challenges and limitations in their quest to find solutions. In this section, we will explore some of the key challenges faced by scientists and the limitations of scientific research in addressing these complex issues.

Challenges Scientists Face

Limited Funding : One of the major challenges scientists face is the availability of funding for their research. Environmental studies often require significant resources, including equipment, fieldwork, and data analysis. Securing funding can be highly competitive, and limited financial support can hinder the progress of scientific research.

Political Interference : Environmental issues are often intertwined with political agendas, making it challenging for scientists to conduct unbiased research. Political interference can influence the direction of research, limit access to data, or even suppress findings that may be inconvenient for certain stakeholders. This interference undermines the integrity of scientific research and hampers efforts to find effective solutions.

Lack of Public Awareness : Despite the growing awareness of environmental problems, there is still a lack of public understanding and support for scientific research. This can make it difficult for scientists to garner public support and funding for their work. Educating the public about the importance of scientific research and its role in addressing environmental problems is crucial for overcoming this challenge.

Data Limitations : Environmental issues are often complex and require extensive data collection and analysis. However, there are limitations in the availability and quality of data, especially in developing countries or remote areas. Insufficient data can hinder scientists’ ability to accurately assess the extent of environmental problems and develop effective solutions.

Limitations of Scientific Research

Complexity of Environmental Problems : Environmental problems are inherently complex, involving numerous interconnected factors. Scientific research often focuses on specific aspects of these problems, which can limit the understanding of their full complexity. Addressing environmental problems requires a holistic approach that considers the interplay of various factors, which can be challenging to achieve through scientific research alone.

Time Constraints : Scientific research is a time-consuming process that requires careful planning, data collection, analysis, and peer review. The urgency of addressing environmental problems often clashes with the time-consuming nature of scientific research. This time constraint can hinder scientists’ ability to provide timely solutions to pressing environmental issues.

Ethical Considerations : Scientific research must adhere to ethical guidelines to ensure the well-being of humans, animals, and the environment. This can sometimes limit the scope of research or impose restrictions on certain methodologies. Balancing ethical considerations with the need for comprehensive research can be a challenge for scientists.

Uncertainty and Complexity of Outcomes : Environmental problems are often characterized by uncertainty and complexity, making it challenging to predict the outcomes of scientific interventions accurately. The long-term effects of certain solutions may be difficult to determine, and unintended consequences can arise. Scientists must navigate this uncertainty and complexity to develop effective and sustainable solutions.

Overcoming Challenges through Collaboration and Continued Research

Despite the challenges and limitations, scientists are continually striving to overcome these obstacles and find innovative solutions to environmental problems. Collaboration among scientists from different fields and interdisciplinary approaches play a crucial role in addressing these challenges. By pooling their expertise and resources, scientists can tackle complex problems more effectively.

Furthermore, continued research and technological advancements are essential for overcoming the limitations of scientific research. Investing in research and development, improving data collection methods, and embracing emerging technologies can enhance scientists’ ability to address environmental problems.

In conclusion, scientists face various challenges, including limited funding, political interference, and a lack of public awareness. Additionally, scientific research has its limitations, such as the complexity of environmental problems and time constraints. However, through collaboration, continued research, and technological advancements, scientists can overcome these challenges and contribute to finding sustainable solutions for our planet. It is crucial for society to support and engage with scientific efforts to protect the environment and ensure a sustainable future.

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15 Biggest Environmental Problems of 2024

15 Biggest Environmental Problems of 2024

While the climate crisis has many factors that play a role in the exacerbation of the environment, some warrant more attention than others. Here are some of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime, from deforestation and biodiversity loss to food waste and fast fashion.

1. Global Warming From Fossil Fuels

2023 was the hottest year on record , with global average temperatures at 1.46C above pre-industrial levels and 0.13C higher than the eleven-month average for 2016, currently the warmest calendar year on record. The year was marked by six record-breaking months and two record-breaking seasons.

What’s more, carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have never been so high . After being consistently around 280 parts per million (ppm) for almost 6,000 years of human civilisation, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are now well above 420 ppm, more than double what they were before the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Rick Spinrad, the steady annual increase is a “direct result of human activity,” mainly from the burning of fossil fuels for transportation and electricity generation but also from cement manufacturing, deforestation , and  agriculture .

This is undoubtedly one of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime: as greenhouse gas emissions blanket the Earth, they trap the sun’s heat, leading to global warming.

Monthly mean carbon dioxide CO2 measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. Image: Global Monitoring Laboratory

Increased emissions of greenhouse gases have led to a rapid and steady increase in global temperatures, which in turn is  causing catastrophic events all over the world – from Australia and the US experiencing some of the most devastating bushfire seasons ever recorded, locusts swarming across parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, decimating crops, and a heatwave in Antarctica that saw temperatures rise above 20C for the first time. S cientists are constantly warning that the planet has crossed a series of tipping points that could have catastrophic consequences, such as  advancing permafrost melt in Arctic regions, the Greenland ice sheet melting at an unprecedented rate, accelerating sixth mass extinction , and increasing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest , just to name a few.

The climate crisis is causing tropical storms and other weather events such as hurricanes, heatwaves and flooding to be more intense and frequent than seen before. However, even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted immediately, global temperatures would continue to rise in the coming years. That is why it is absolutely imperative that we start now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, invest in renewable energy sources, and phase our fossil fuels as fast as possible.

You might also like: The Tipping Points of Climate Change: How Will Our World Change?

2. Poor Governance

According to economists like Nicholas Stern, the climate crisis is a result of multiple market failures .

Economists and environmentalists have urged policymakers for years to increase the price of activities that emit greenhouse gases (one of our biggest environmental problems), the lack of which constitutes the largest market failure, for example through carbon taxes, which will stimulate innovations in low-carbon technologies.

To cut emissions quickly and effectively enough, governments must not only massively increase funding for green innovation to bring down the costs of low-carbon energy sources, but they also need to adopt a range of other policies that address each of the other market failures. 

A national carbon tax is currently implemented in 27 countries around the world , including various countries in the EU, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Ukraine and Argentina. However, according to the 2019 OECD Tax Energy Use report, current tax structures are not adequately aligned with the pollution profile of energy sources. For example, the OECD suggests that carbon taxes are not harsh enough on coal production, although it has proved to be effective for the electricity industry. A carbon tax has been effectively implemented in Sweden ; the carbon tax is U$127 per tonne and has reduced emissions by 25% since 1995, while its economy has expanded 75% in the same time period. 

Further, organisations such as the United Nations are not fit to deal with the climate crisis: it was assembled to prevent another world war and is not fit for purpose. Anyway, members of the UN are not mandated to comply with any suggestions or recommendations made by the organisation. For example, the Paris Agreement , a historic deal within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), says that countries need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly so that global temperature rise is below 2C by 2100, and ideally under 1.5C. But signing on to it is voluntary, and there are no real repercussions for non-compliance. Further, the issue of equity remains a contentious issue whereby developing countries are allowed to emit more in order to develop to the point where they can develop technologies to emit less, and it allows some countries, such as China, to exploit this. 

3. Food Waste

A third of the food intended for human consumption – around 1.3 billion tons – is wasted or lost. This is enough to feed 3 billion people. Food waste and loss account for approximately one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions annually ; if it was a country, food waste would be the third-largest emitter  of greenhouse gases, behind China and the US. 

Food production accounts for around one-quarter – 26% – of global greenhouse gas emissions. Our World in Data

Food waste and loss occurs at different stages in developing and developed countries; in developing countries, 40% of food waste occurs at the post-harvest and processing levels, while in developed countries, 40% of food waste occurs at the retail and consumer levels. 

At the retail level, a shocking amount of food is wasted because of aesthetic reasons; in fact, in the US, more than 50% of all produce thrown away in the US is done so because it is deemed to be “too ugly” to be sold to consumers- this amounts to about 60 million tons of fruits and vegetables. This leads to food insecurity , another one of the biggest environmental problems on the list. 

You might also like: How Does Food Waste Affect the Environment?

4. Biodiversity Loss

The past 50 years have seen a rapid growth of human consumption, population, global trade and urbanisation, resulting in humanity using more of the Earth’s resources than it can replenish naturally. 

A 2020 WWF report found that the population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians have experienced a decline of an average of 68% between 1970 and 2016. The report attributes this biodiversity loss to a variety of factors, but mainly land-use change, particularly the conversion of habitats, like forests, grasslands and mangroves, into agricultural systems. Animals such as pangolins, sharks and seahorses are significantly affected by the illegal wildlife trade, and pangolins are critically endangered because of it. 

More broadly, a recent analysis has found that the sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating. More than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and are likely to be lost within 20 years; the same number were lost over the whole of the last century. The scientists say that without the human destruction of nature, this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years. 

In Antarctica, climate change-triggered melting of sea ice is taking a heavy toll on emperor penguins and could wipe out entire populations by as early as 2100 , according to 2023 research.

You might also like: The Remarkable Benefits of Biodiversity

5. Plastic Pollution

In 1950, the world produced more than 2 million tons of plastic per year . By 2015, this annual production swelled to 419 million tons and exacerbating plastic waste in the environment. 

plastic packaging waste; plastic pollution; beverage single-use plastic bottles in landfill. Photo: PxHere

A report by science journal, Nature, determined that currently, roughly 14 million tons of plastic make their way into the oceans every year, harming wildlife habitats and the animals that live in them. The research found that if no action is taken, the plastic crisis will grow to 29 million metric tons per year by 2040. If we include microplastics into this, the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean could reach 600 million tons by 2040.

Shockingly, National Geographic found that 91% of all plastic that has ever been made is not recycled, representing not only one of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime, but another massive market failure. Considering that plastic takes 400 years to decompose, it will be many generations until it ceases to exist. There’s no telling what the irreversible effects of plastic pollution will have on the environment in the long run. 

You might also like: 8 Shocking Plastic Pollution Statistics to Know About

6. Deforestation

Every hour, forests the size of 300 football fields are cut down. By the year 2030, the planet might have only 10% of its forests; if deforestation isn’t stopped, they could all be gone in less than 100 years. 

The three countries experiencing the highest levels of deforestation are Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia. The Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest – spanning 6.9 million square kilometres (2.72 million square miles) and covering around 40% of the South American continent – is also one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems and is home to about three million species of plants and animals . Despite efforts to protect forest land, legal deforestation is still rampant, and about one-third of global tropical deforestation occurs in Brazil’s Amazon forest, amounting to 1.5 million hectares each year . 

deforestation

Agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, another one of the biggest environmental problems appearing on this list. Land is cleared to raise livestock or to plant other crops that are sold, such as sugar cane and palm oil . Besides for carbon sequestration, forests help to prevent soil erosion, because the tree roots bind the soil and prevent it from washing away, which also prevents landslides. 

You might also like: 10 Deforestation Facts You Should Know About

7. Air Pollution 

One of the biggest environmental problems today is outdoor air pollution .

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that an estimated 4.2 to 7 million people die from air pollution worldwide every year and that nine out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. In Africa, 258,000 people died as a result of outdoor air pollution in 2017, up from 164,000 in 1990, according to UNICEF . Causes of air pollution mostly comes from industrial sources and motor vehicles, as well as emissions from burning biomass and poor air quality due to dust storms. 

According to a 2023 study, air pollution in South Asia – one of the most polluted areas in the world – cuts life expectancy by about 5 years . The study blames a series of factors, including a lack of adequate infrastructure and funding for the high levels of pollution in some countries. Most countries in Asia and Africa, which together contribute about 92.7% of life years lost globally due to air pollution, lack key air quality standards needed to develop adequate policies. Moreover, just 6.8% and 3.7% of governments in the two continents, respectively, provide their citizens with fully open-air quality data.

In Europe, a recent report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) showed that more than half a million people living in the European Union died from health issues directly linked to toxic pollutants exposure in 2021.

More on the topic: Less Than 1% of Global Land Area Has Safe Air Pollution Levels: Study

8. Melting Ice Caps and Sea Level Rise

The climate crisis is warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. Today, sea levels are rising more than twice as quickly as they did for most of the 20th century as a result of increasing temperatures on Earth. Seas are now rising an average of 3.2 mm per year globally and they will continue to grow up to about 0.7 metres by the end of this century. In the Arctic, the Greenland Ice Sheet poses the greatest risk for sea levels because melting land ice is the main cause of rising sea levels.

Representing arguably the biggest of the environmental problems, this is made all the more concerning considering that last year’s summer triggered the loss of 60 billion tons of ice from Greenland, enough to raise global sea levels by 2.2mm in just two months . According to satellite data, the Greenland ice sheet lost a record amount of ice in 2019: an average of a million tons per minute throughout the year, one of the biggest environmental problems that has cascading effects. If the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level would rise by six metres .

Meanwhile, the Antarctic continent contributes about 1 millimetre per year to sea level rise, which is one-third of the annual global increase. According to 2023 data, the continent has lost approximately 7.5 trillion tons of ice since 1997 . Additionally, the last fully intact ice shelf in Canada in the Arctic recently collapsed, having lost about 80 square kilometres – or 40% – of its area over a two-day period in late July, according to the Canadian Ice Service .  

Over 100,000 images taken from space allowed scientists to create a comprehensive record of the state of Antarctica’s ice shelves. Credit: 66 North/Unsplash

Sea level rise will have a devastating impact on those living in coastal regions: according to research and advocacy group Climate Central, sea level rise this century could flood coastal areas that are now home to 340 million to 480 million people , forcing them to migrate to safer areas and contributing to overpopulation and strain of resources in the areas they migrate to. Bangkok (Thailand), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Manila (Philippines), and Dubai (United Arab Emirates) are among the cities most at risk of sea level rise and flooding.

You might also like: Two-Thirds of World’s Glaciers Set to Disappear by 2100 Under Current Global Warming Scenario

9. Ocean Acidification

Global temperature rise has not only affected the surface, but it is the main cause of ocean acidification . Our oceans absorb about 30% of carbon dioxide that is released into the Earth’s atmosphere. As higher concentrations of carbon emissions are released thanks to human activities such as burning fossil fuels as well as effects of global climate change such as increased rates of wildfires, so do the amount of carbon dioxide that is absorbed back into the sea. 

The smallest change in the pH scale can have a significant impact on the acidity of the ocean. Ocean acidification has devastating impacts on marine ecosystems and species, its food webs, and provoke irreversible changes in habitat quality . Once pH levels reach too low, marine organisms such as oysters, their shells and skeleton could even start to dissolve. 

However, one of the biggest environmental problems from ocean acidification is coral bleaching and subsequent coral reef loss . This is a phenomenon that occurs when rising ocean temperatures disrupt the symbiotic relationship between the reefs and algae that lives within it, driving away the algae and causing coral reefs to lose their natural vibrant colours. Some scientists have estimated coral reefs are at risk of being completely wiped by 2050. Higher acidity in the ocean would obstruct coral reef systems’ ability to rebuild their exoskeletons and recover from these coral bleaching events. 

Some studies have also found that ocean acidification can be linked as one of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. The accumulating bacteria and microorganisms derived from plastic garbage dumped in the ocean to damage marine ecosystems and contribute towards coral bleaching.

10. Agriculture 

Studies have shown that the global food system is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, of which 30% comes from livestock and fisheries. Crop production releases greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide through the use of fertilisers . 

60% of the world’s agricultural area is dedicated to cattle ranching , although it only makes up 24% of global meat consumption. 

Agriculture not only covers a vast amount of land, but it also consumes a vast amount of freshwater, another one of the biggest environmental problems on this list. While arable lands and grazing pastures cover one-third of Earth’s land surfaces , they consume three-quarters of the world’s limited freshwater resources.

Scientists and environmentalists have continuously warned that we need to rethink our current food system; switching to a more plant-based diet would dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the conventional agriculture industry. 

You might also like: The Future of Farming: Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It?

11. Food and Water Insecurity

Rising temperatures and unsustainable farming practices have resulted in increasing water and food insecurity.

Globally, more than 68 billion tonnes of top-soil is eroded every year at a rate 100 times faster than it can naturally be replenished. Laden with biocides and fertiliser, the soil ends up in waterways where it contaminates drinking water and protected areas downstream. 

Furthermore, exposed and lifeless soil is more vulnerable to wind and water erosion due to lack of root and mycelium systems that hold it together. A key contributor to soil erosion is over-tilling: although it increases productivity in the short-term by mixing in surface nutrients (e.g. fertiliser), tilling is physically destructive to the soil’s structure and in the long-term leads to soil compaction, loss of fertility and surface crust formation that worsens topsoil erosion.

With the global population expected to reach 9 billion people by mid-century, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) projects that global food demand may increase by 70% by 2050 . Around the world, more than 820 million people do not get enough to eat. 

The UN secretary-general António Guterres says, “Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food security emergency that could have long term impacts on hundreds of millions of adults and children.” He urged for countries to rethink their food systems and encouraged more sustainable farming practices. 

In terms of water security, only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater , and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use. As a result, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. 

You might also like: Global Food Security: Why It Matters in 2023

12. Fast Fashion and Textile Waste

The global demand for fashion and clothing has risen at an unprecedented rate that the fashion industry now accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, becoming one of the biggest environmental problems of our time. Fashion alone produces more greenhouse gas emissions than both the aviation and shipping sectors combined , and nearly 20% of global wastewater, or around 93 billion cubic metres from textile dyeing, according to the UN Environment Programme.

What’s more, the world at least generated an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste every year and that number is expected to soar up to 134 million tonnes a year by 2030. Discarded clothing and textile waste, most of which is non-biodegradable, ends up in landfills, while microplastics from clothing materials such as polyester, nylon, polyamide, acrylic and other synthetic materials, is leeched into soil and nearby water sources. Monumental amounts of clothing textile are also dumped in less developed countries as seen with Chile’s Atacama , the driest desert in the world, where at least 39,000 tonnes of textile waste from other nations are left there to rot.

fast fashion waste

This rapidly growing issue is only exacerbated by the ever-expanding fast fashion business model, in which companies relies on cheap and speedy production of low quality clothing to meet the latest and newest trends. While the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action sees signatory fashion and textile companies to commit to achieving net zero emission by 2050, a majority of businesses around the world have yet to address their roles in climate change.

While these are some of the biggest environmental problems plaguing our planet, there are many more that have not been mentioned, including overfishing, urban sprawl, toxic superfund sites and land use changes. While there are many facets that need to be considered in formulating a response to the crisis, they must be coordinated, practical and far-reaching enough to make enough of a difference. 

You might also like: Fast Fashion and Its Environmental Impact

13. Overfishing

Over three billion people around the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein. About 12% of the world relies upon fisheries in some form or another, with 90% of these being small-scale fishermen – think a small crew in a boat, not a ship, using small nets or even rods and reels and lures not too different from the kind you probably use . Of the 18.9 million fishermen in the world, 90% of them fall under the latter category.

Most people consume approximately twice as much food as they did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people on earth as there were at the close of the 1960s. This is one driver of the 30% of commercially fished waters being classified as being ‘overfished’. This means that the stock of available fishing waters is being depleted faster than it can be replaced.

Overfishing comes with detrimental effects on the environment, including increased algae in the water, destruction of fishing communities, ocean littering as well as extremely high rates of biodiversity loss.

As part of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14) , the UN and FAO are working towards maintaining the proportion of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels. This, however, requires much stricter regulations of the world’s oceans than the ones already in place. In July 2022, the WTO banned fishing subsidies to reduce global overfishing in a historic deal. Indeed, subsidies for fuel, fishing gear, and building new vessels, only incentivise overfishing and represent thus a huge problem. 

You might also like: 7 Solutions to Overfishing We Need Right Now

14. Cobalt Mining

Cobalt is quickly becoming the defining example of the mineral conundrum at the heart of the renewable energy transition . As a key component of battery materials that power electric vehicles (EVs), cobalt is facing a sustained surge in demand as decarbonisation efforts progress. The  world’s largest cobalt supplier is the Democratic Republic of Congo  (DRC), where it is estimated that up to a fifth of the production is produced through artisanal miners.

Cobalt mining , however, is associated with  dangerous workers’ exploitation and other serious environmental and social issues. The environmental costs of cobalt mining activities are also substantial. Southern regions of the DRC are not only home to cobalt and copper, but also large amounts of uranium. In mining regions, scientists have made note of high radioactivity levels. In addition, mineral mining, similar to other industrial mining efforts, often produces pollution that leaches into neighbouring rivers and water sources. Dust from pulverised rock is known to cause breathing problems for local communities as well.

15. Soil Degradation

Organic matter is a crucial component of soil as it allows it to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Plants absorb CO2 from the air naturally and effectively through photosynthesis and part of this carbon is stored in the soil as  soil organic carbon (SOC). Healthy soil has a minimum of 3-6% organic matter. However, almost everywhere in the world, the content is much lower than that.

According to the United Nations, about 40% of the planet’s soil is degraded . Soil degradation refers to the loss of organic matter, changes in its structural condition and/or decline in soil fertility and it is often the result of human activities, such as traditional farming practices including the use of toxic chemicals and pollutants. If business as usual continued through 2050, experts project additional degradation of an area almost the size of South America. But there is more to it. If we do not change our reckless practices and step up to preserve soil health, food security for billions of people around the world will be irreversibly compromised, with an estimated 40% less food  expected to be produced in 20 years’ time despite the world’s population projected to reach 9.3 billion people.

Featured image by Earth.Org Photographer Roy Mangersnes

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National Academies Press: OpenBook

Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions (1997)

Chapter: 5 summary, conclusions, and recommendations, 5 summary, conclusions, and recommendations.

Pressures on the environment will continue to increase. Global population increase, rising incomes, and agricultural and industrial expansion will inevitably produce unanticipated and potentially deleterious ecological, economic, and human health consequences. Environmental research has proven its value in helping to respond to and prevent many environmental problems, and it continues to be a wise and necessary investment.

The charge to this committee was to provide an overview of significant emerging environmental issues; identify and prioritize research themes and projects that are most relevant to understanding and resolving these issues; and consider the role of EPA's research program in addressing these issues, in the context of research being conducted or sponsored by other organizations. After careful deliberation, the committee decided not to simply present a limited list of "emerging" issues with specific research projects to address them. Such an exercise would provide a mere snapshot in time, based on the insights of one particular collection of individuals. Instead—and hopefully more valuably—this report provides an overview of important environmental issues and presents a framework for organizing environmental research. The report also describes major research themes and programs of relevance to EPA; suggests criteria that can be used to identify and prioritize among important research areas; recommends actions EPA should take to build its scientific capacity; and provides illustrations of the kinds of research projects that EPA should consider.

CONCLUSIONS

As a key environmental agency, EPA needs to support and maintain a strong research program. An evolving understanding of the complexity, magnitude,

and inter-relatedness of environmental problems leads us to conclude that a new balance of research programs may be helpful. This report describes a framework for conducting research in a way that will help alleviate the problems of the moment while providing a basis for solving tomorrow's problems.

In the past, pressing environmental issues have been addressed primarily through focused research efforts directed toward solving particular problems. Although this approach to environmental research can be effective, has often been necessary, and will surely continue, it also has limitations. In order to address the abundance of established, emerging, and as-yet-unknown environmental issues, an expanded understanding of the scientific principles underlying environmental systems is needed. Achieving this understanding will require innovative, interdisciplinary approaches.

To develop the knowledge needed to address current and emerging environmental issues, EPA should undertake both problem-driven research and core research . Problem-driven research is targeted at understanding and solving identified environmental problems, while core research aims to provide broader, more generic information that will help improve understanding of many problems now and in the future. Core research includes three components: (1) understanding the processes that drive and connect environmental systems; (2) development of innovative tools and methods for understanding and managing environmental problems; and (3) long-term collection and dissemination of accurate environmental data.

Research activities within problem-driven and core research programs may often overlap. Fundamental discoveries can be made during the search for a solution to a narrowly defined problem; likewise, as illustrated earlier in this report, breakthroughs in problem-solving often occur as a result of core research efforts. Both kinds of investigations are needed, and feedback between them will greatly enhance the overall environmental research endeavor (see Figure 5-1 ).

Because EPA's task of protecting the environment and human health is so vast and difficult, and because resources to undertake the necessary research are very limited, choices will have to be made among many worthwhile projects. The approaches for making these choices will be different in the core and problem-driven portions of the research program. The former should seek better understanding of fundamental phenomena and generate broadly relevant research tools and information. The latter will be more responsive to regulatory activities and other immediate needs and should be guided by the paradigm of risk reduction. Because there are so many specific issues of importance to the public, the Congress, and EPA's own program and regional offices, there is a temptation to include many problems for attention. It is important to resist this trend: it will inevitably lead either to the dilution of efforts to solve the most pressing problems or to the reduction of funding available for critical core research needs.

ways of solving environmental problems

FIGURE 5-1 A framework for environmental research at EPA.

Interactions among the natural environment, plants, animals, and the evergrowing human population are highly complex and inherently unpredictable. Although this report provides a broad overview of current and emerging environmental issues, it is important to note that this is merely a snapshot in time. Identification of issues requiring attention is a dynamic, continuous process.

With its limited budget, staff, and mandate, it is not possible or reasonable for EPA to act alone in understanding and addressing all environmental problems. Many other federal agencies, state agencies, other organizations (including utilities), universities, and private companies have played and will continue to play important roles in environmental research. Cooperation with others will be particularly needed in the area of environmental monitoring, a complex and costly undertaking, and in the investigation of global-scale issues.

Another factor to consider in determining EPA's research role on a particular environmental issue is whether the private sector has any incentive to study or develop better solutions, or whether the primary research must originate from the public sector to serve the public good. Examples of areas of "public good" that might deserve EPA attention include municipal wastewater and drinking water treatment, nonpoint-source pollution control, restoration of degraded ecosystems, and large-scale regional and global air pollution problems.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To enhance the productivity and effectiveness of EPA's research efforts, the committee makes recommendations in three areas: a general approach to research, core research themes, and problem-driven research themes.

Approach to Research

EPA should establish a balance between problem-driven and core research. Although there is currently an emphasis on problem-driven research projects in EPA, the core component of EPA's research program should be developed to be approximately equal in magnitude.

EPA should develop an internal mechanism for continually identifying emerging issues and then applying a risk assessment evaluation to these issues to determine the highest priorities and areas of greatest uncertainty. One important method for identifying emerging issues is to review and synthesize new findings from the core research program. EPA research personnel should be fully engaged in the issue identification and research planning process.

EPA should cooperate closely with agencies, organizations, municipalities, universities, and industries involved in environmental research. In addition to providing research support, mechanisms for cooperation might include participation of EPA management in interagency coordination efforts, participation of staff in scientific meetings and conferences, and incentives and rewards for individuals who seek out and work with their counterparts in other organizations. Collaboration should be maintained in research endeavors, environmental monitoring, data archiving, and environmental policy formulation and evaluation. EPA should continue to act as a coordinator in bringing various environmental researchers together to exchange information and ideas, possibly in the form of interdisciplinary workshops on particular environmental topics. This would also help in ''scanning the horizon" to identify new environmental trends and emerging problems. Through these meetings, EPA can discuss the relative risks as well as solutions and policies and can determine which areas require more research.

EPA should compile, publish, and disseminate an annual summary of all research being conducted or funded by the agency in order to facilitate both better cooperation with others and better internal planning. The report should be organized into broad strategic categories, with sub-categories describing program areas. Publications and other output should be listed and made available upon request.

Core Research Themes

The core component of EPA's research program should include three basic objectives:

Acquisition of systematic understanding about underlying environmental processes (such as those displayed in Table 2.2 );

Development of broadly applicable research tools, including better techniques for measuring physical, chemical, biological, social, and economic variables of interest; more accurate models of complex systems and their interactions; and new methods for analyzing, displaying, and using environmental information for science-based decision making;

Design, implementation, and maintenance of appropriate environmental monitoring programs, with evaluation, analysis, synthesis and dissemination of the data and results to improve understanding of the status of and changes in environmental resources over time and to confirm that environmental policies are having the desired effect.

Core research projects should be selected based on their relevance to EPA's mission, whether such research is already being sponsored by other agencies, and the quality of the work proposed, as determined by a peer-review process. Cross-cutting, interdisciplinary studies that take advantage of advances in many different fields will be particularly valuable.

As part of its core research efforts, EPA should conduct retrospective evaluations of the effectiveness of environmental policies and decisions. Retrospective evaluations are critical to ensuring that environmental policies are achieving their intended goals without creating unpredicted, undesirable side-effects.

EPA should make a long-term financial and intellectual commitment to core research projects. Progress in core research generally does not come quickly; therefore it is important that the agency provide adequate long-term support to this kind of knowledge development, allowing it to follow its often unpredictable course. Tool development and data collection must be ongoing endeavors in order to be fully effective.

Problem-Driven Research Themes

EPA should maintain a focused, problem-driven research program. The problem-driven and core research areas will be complementary and result in the interaction of ideas and results.

Evaluation of problem-driven research areas should focus on reducing the risks and uncertainties associated with each problem. EPA should retain its emphasis on risk assessment to prioritize among problem-driven research areas. Using criteria such as timing, novelty, scope, severity, and probability satisfies this requirement, as does the more detailed risk assessment framework described in the EPA strategic plan for ORD. Although risk assessment and

TABLE 5-1 Recommended Actions for EPA

management provide a good framework for choosing among issues, the methodology must be refined to achieve more accurate assessments.

EPA should concentrate efforts in areas where the private sector has little incentive to conduct research or develop better solutions to environmental problems.

Problem-driven research should be re-evaluated and re-focused on a regular basis to ensure that the most important problems are being addressed. Unlike core research priorities, which may not change much over time, in the problem-driven area EPA must develop adaptive feedback capabilities to allow it to change directions when new issues arise and old issues are "solved" or judged to pose less risk than expected.

This committee was not asked to, and did not, address issues concerning EPA's research infrastructure, the appropriate balance between internal and external research, mechanisms for peer review, and other research management issues. Recommendations in these areas will be made by the Committee on Research and Peer Review at EPA (see Chapter 1 ). Table 5-1 summarizes recommended

actions that are intended to provide EPA with the knowledge needed to address current and emerging environmental issues.

Good science is essential for sound environmental decision-making. By implementing the recommendations contained in this report, EPA can increase the effectiveness of its research program and thus continue to play an important role in efforts to protect the environment and human health into the next century.

Over the past decades, environmental problems have attracted enormous attention and public concern. Many actions have been taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others to protect human health and ecosystems from particular threats. Despite some successes, many problems remain unsolved and new ones are emerging. Increasing population and related pressures, combined with a realization of the interconnectedness and complexity of environmental systems, present new challenges to policymakers and regulators.

Scientific research has played, and will continue to play, an essential part in solving environmental problems. Decisions based on incorrect or incomplete understanding of environmental systems will not achieve the greatest reduction of risk at the lowest cost.

This volume describes a framework for acquiring the knowledge needed both to solve current recognized problems and to be prepared for the kinds of problems likely to emerge in the future. Many case examples are included to illustrate why some environmental control strategies have succeeded where others have fallen short and how we can do better in the future.

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All about protecting the environment

Ways to solve environmental problems

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the first programs aimed primarily at protecting (saving) the environment began to appear, but by the end of the century it became clear that humanity needs more radical and effective measures. Over the last decades mankind has realized the danger of the current ecological situation in the world and began an active struggle for the protection and restoration of our nature. The measures developed and practiced are usually divided into several categories.

  • Legal – creation and implementation of administrative, state and international laws and legal acts on environmental protection.
  • Economic – minimization or full liquidation of negative technogenic influence on the nature by means of monetary injections, creation of programs and funds which are financed. 3.
  • Technological – invention and implementation of new technologies to reduce harmful impact on the nature in metallurgical, transport and extractive industries. Development and popularization of ecologically clean sources of energy.
  • Organizational – even distribution of the automobile load in order to prevent a critical accumulation of cars in one place. 5;
  • Architectural – designing and building “environmentally friendly” cities and greening human settlements.

In addition to existing projects and programs for the preservation and protection of the environment, scientists are already working on ambitious future projects, including the construction of complete waste recycling plants, construction of thermal power plants on the moon (operating on Helium-3), a worldwide rejection of gasoline engines and the transition to electric cars and the use of cold nuclear fusion – an efficient and environmentally friendly method of producing energy from water.

But beyond these global plans, there is the responsibility of each of us, each inhabitant of the big house called “planet Earth. To preserve it for future generations, do not be lazy to follow a few simple universal rules: throw away batteries in special containers, give up disposable bags (buy a fabric bag, it is cheaper), give unnecessary things to the poor, sort waste and teach these simple recommendations to your children. It is important to realize that there is no shame in being frugal. Instead of throwing away and buying, look for new uses for old things.

Yes, right now the environmental situation on our planet gives us a lot to worry about. However, it is worth recognizing that in the 21st century we have made serious progress in terms of awareness and activism. Despite all the damage we have done to our planet, we still have enough chances to restore it to its former form.

Recent Posts

Global problems.

The environment is gradually deteriorating, resources that seemed to be replenishable are already close to complete depletion; the air we breathe is not as clean as it once was; not only people but also animals are beginning to suffer… So already today we need to think and take, to redouble all our efforts to preserve what we have left.

How imperfect environmentalists can drive action on climate change 

glass planet in a forest with sunshine in a story about being an imperfect environmentalist

Imperfect environmentalists can drive change through even the smallest of actions. Image:  Getty Images/iStockphoto

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ways of solving environmental problems

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Stay up to date:, climate action.

  • Climate anxiety is growing, with a survey showing that 59% of people aged 16-25 are very or extremely worried about the state of the planet.
  • However, there are many effective ways for individuals to inspire change and protect the planet by taking action, no matter how big or small.
  • Here's how being an 'imperfect environmentalist' can drive climate action through changing habits and leveraging the power of consumerism.

This is the year to become an 'imperfect environmentalist’. Climate anxiety is growing and it is a very real issue that many people are facing.

The American Psychology Association (APA) describes climate anxiety , often called eco-anxiety, as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one's future and that of next generations”.

A recent study on climate anxiety surveyed young people aged 16-25 to gauge their feelings about climate change and their governments' responses. Participants were found to be overwhelmingly worried about climate change, with 84% reporting moderate worry, and 59% saying they were very or extremely worried.

Have you read?

Climate anxiety is real. why talking about it matters, how to help gen z turn climate anxiety into action, how to cope with climate anxiety: stanford expert shares techniques that help.

The research also revealed a variety of emotional responses including sadness, anxiety, anger, powerlessness, helplessness and guilt in 50% of respondents, with 45% reporting that these emotions negatively impacted their daily life and functioning.

Three-quarters (75%) of those surveyed find the future frightening, and 83% think that we have failed to take care of the planet. We owe younger generations a future – yet many of us feel too overwhelmed to even know where to start in the face of the immensity of the climate crisis.

Imperfect environmentalism as a catalyst for change

Studies show that easing climate anxiety is done by taking action. Imperfect environmentalists are people who may not identify as full-fledged environmentalists, but are willing to help by living more sustainably “most” of the time. This helps individuals shift their mindset from “I’m only one person” to “I can start the ripple effect for change”.

Imperfect environmentalism is a movement rooted in social science and human behaviour research, that seeks to fight climate change and rising climate anxiety through influencing micro and macro actions and values.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without a healthy ocean - but it's more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action , a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy , including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here .

This means that we want to see grassroots actions and a collective shift in the behaviour of the masses to reduce waste and have better habits, while simultaneously putting pressure on large corporations and legislators to create lasting change.

I have personally spearheaded several global movements that have changed the way we look at our wastefulness via both my environmental non-profit organizations Habits of Waste and Crayon Collection .

There are effective ways for individuals to make the change and protect our planet by creating new systems and by inspiring people to take action, no matter how big or small. This movement offers the guilt-free opportunity for the masses to begin where they can instead of striving for perfection, which tends to paralyse people into inaction.

Being an imperfect environmentalist can drive action on climate change.

We often hear that we need billions of people to help in the reversal of climate change instead of a small handful of people doing it perfectly and imperfect environmentalism is the catalyst to bring about this uprising.

Yale researchers highlight the benefit of social support systems for our mental well-being, especially as it relates to climate worry. By lowering the barrier of entry for climate action by embracing imperfection, we make it easier for individuals to join this collective and create positive associations with climate action.

We need a different approach to individual climate action – one that more closely ties personal choices to systemic change and fights anxiety and apathy. By lowering the barrier of entry to environmental action, we can create an incredible collective effort to fight the climate crisis.

How Habits of Waste encouraged consumers to influence change

At Habits of Waste, for example, we created a bridge between everyday individuals and these larger entities such as Amazon, Walmart, Uber Eats, Hollywood Studios and local and state legislators in the US.

Several thousand people sent pre-written emails to these corporations and government entities demanding change to make it easier for millions of users to “do better”. These emails took less than two minutes for individuals to send, giving consumers incredible power to influence change.

There are countless other opportunities like this for activism within Habits of Waste, from requesting sustainable packaging from the biggest online retailers to calling for sustainable swaps in film and television.

It is no longer an “all or nothing” mindset. For example, studies show that the single most important action individuals can take is to eat more plant-based meals. Since many people are unable to adopt a fully vegan diet, it is worth highlighting broadly that an “imperfect” vegan diet still has a great impact.

Researchers from Oxford University and University of Michigan both confirm that if western cultures cut their consumption of animal products by around 40%-50% we create enough of a carbon offset to actually combat climate change.

To make this finding more approachable for the public we deduced that a 40% reduction of animal products results in eight plant-based meals a week. If we each swapped just eight meals a week to plant-based meals, we could reduce a significant amount of methane gas emissions and offer individuals an attainable commitment that averts failure.

This is the basis of Habits of Waste’s #8meals campaign , and inspiration for what imperfect and accessible environmental action looks like in pursuit of a more sustainable lifestyle.

No action is too small when it comes to tackling climate change

Imperfect environmentalism posits the idea that solving the climate crisis will require action across a spectrum of sizes, with no action too small to count.

We create a “snowball effect” for change by using our voices. The normalization of sustainable action will underpin a societal shift towards a deeper value system towards sustainability, where our widely accepted habits and practices become those that protect the planet.

Structural causes of climate change such as global economic dependence on fossil fuels and industrial and manufacturing waste remain a critical focus. One accessible solution for this issue is shifting default settings.

For example, Habits of Waste’s #CutOutCutlery campaign convinced all major food delivery services to globally change their default settings so that single-use plastic cutlery is made available upon request only.

By changing the default to an environmentally friendly option, we can help people take environmental action even if they do not identify as environmentalists. Chinese researchers corroborate the efficacy of this work. In a study on a major food delivery app in China, the green nudge of changing default settings reduced the number of orders including plastic cutlery by 648%.

Many companies can also more easily reach their environment, social and governance goals by choosing eco-friendly default settings in products like Google Maps and Nest, as users will automatically default to a sustainable choice that was made for them.

Individuals hold the power for incredible change with effective action. Think of the community you live in, or your circle of friends.

How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

The Global Risks Report 2023 ranked failure to mitigate climate change as one of the most severe threats in the next two years, while climate- and nature- related risks lead the rankings by severity over the long term.

The World Economic Forum’s Centre for Nature and Climate is a multistakeholder platform that seeks to safeguard our global commons and drive systems transformation. It is accelerating action on climate change towards a net-zero, nature-positive future.

Learn more about our impact:

  • Scaling up green technologies: Through a partnership with the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, and over 65 global businesses, the First Movers Coalition has committed $12 billion in purchase commitments for green technologies to decarbonize the cement and concrete industry.
  • 1 trillion trees: Over 90 global companies have committed to conserve, restore and grow more than 8 billion trees in 65 countries through the 1t.org initiative – which aims to achieve 1 trillion trees by 2030.
  • Sustainable food production: Our Food Action Alliance is engaging 40 partners who are working on 29 flagship initiatives to provide healthy, nutritious, and safe foods in ways that safeguard our planet. In Vietnam, it supported the upskilling of 2.2 million farmers and aims to provide 20 million farmers with the skills to learn and adapt to new agricultural standards.
  • Eliminating plastic pollution: Our Global Plastic Action Partnership is bringing together governments, businesses and civil society to shape a more sustainable world through the eradication of plastic pollution. In Ghana, more than 2,000 waste pickers are making an impact cleaning up beaches, drains and other sites.
  • Protecting the ocean: Our 2030 Water Resources Group has facilitated almost $1 billion to finance water-related programmes , growing into a network of more than 1,000 partners and operating in 14 countries/states.
  • Circular economy: Our SCALE 360 initiative is reducing the environmental impacts of value chains within the fashion, food, plastics and electronics industries, positively impacting over 100,000 people in 60 circular economy interventions globally.

Want to know more about our centre’s impact or get involved? Contact us .

Could your family eat plant-based eight times a week? Could you find a group of people at your school or workplace to cycle or take public transit together?

Can you and a few friends convince your local officials to require restaurants to offer straws with drinks only when requested as Habits of Waste did with Los Angeles, California? Or perhaps even spearhead a ban on plastic straws and cutlery like Habits of Waste did in Malibu, California, which happened to be the first one in history.

Just because action starts small doesn't mean it can’t make a difference. Let’s create a change, together.

To learn more about “imperfect environmentalism” and the work of Habits of Waste, read Sheila Morovati’s book Imperfect Environmentalist , which is released on 16 April, 2024.

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World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Parent–child interaction found to promote pro-environmental behavior through family well-being, nature connectedness

T he deterioration of global ecosystems and environmental problems, such as global climate warming, extreme weather events, and severe pollution threaten the human environment. Implementing pro-environmental behaviors is one of the effective ways to solve environmental problems. How to promote behavioral change and implement more pro-environmental behaviors through family education has become a social research focus.

In order to explore family-based strategies to effectively promote pro-environmental behavior, a research team led by Dr. Liu Pingping from the Institute of Psychology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences conducted an empirical study on children (11–14 years old) and their families (416 pairs of valid data on parents and children).

They revealed a positive impact of parent–child interaction on pro-environmental behavior, and also the potential impact mechanism of family well-being and natural connectedness based on the actor–partner interdependence mediation model.

This study was published in Current Psychology on Jan. 9.

The researchers found that parent–child interaction has a positive impact on intergenerational relationships and family well-being. The higher the level of interaction, the greater the sense of family well-being felt by both parents and children, and the higher the level of connectedness to nature. Happy people are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behavior. Therefore, people's pro-environmental behavior could be influenced by family well-being.

That is, parent–child interaction increases the family well-being and nature connectedness of parents and children, thereby promoting the improvement of their pro-environmental behavior.

In addition, the family is the basic unit of social composition, and parent–child interaction can promote the pro-environmental behavior within family. It is possible to spread pro-environmental behavior among families through the participation of schools, communities, and other departments, and ultimately achieve "universal environmental protection."

"Individuals, families, schools, and communities should organize parent–child activities with environmental protection as the theme, strengthen parent–child interaction, and promote family well-being and pro-environmental behavior," said Dr. Pingping, corresponding author of the study.

This study reveals the direct effect of parent–child environmental interaction on pro-environmental behavior, as well as the indirect relationship between parent–child interaction and pro-environmental behavior through family well-being and nature connectedness.

These results suggest that parent–child interaction is an effective way to promote family well-being and nature connectedness, thereby increasing parents' and children's pro-environmental behavior. The research results not only provide theoretical support at the family level for the construction of ecological civilization, but also provide feasible practical suggestions for the creation of green families.

More information: Mengyan Ding et al, Parent-child environmental interaction promotes pro-environmental behaviors through family well-being: An actor-partner interdependence mediation model, Current Psychology (2024). DOI: 10.1007/s12144-023-05495-z

Provided by Chinese Academy of Sciences

Credit: Current Psychology (2024). DOI: 10.1007/s12144-023-05495-z

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HBR On Leadership podcast series

Do You Understand the Problem You’re Trying to Solve?

To solve tough problems at work, first ask these questions.

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Problem solving skills are invaluable in any job. But all too often, we jump to find solutions to a problem without taking time to really understand the dilemma we face, according to Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg , an expert in innovation and the author of the book, What’s Your Problem?: To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve .

In this episode, you’ll learn how to reframe tough problems by asking questions that reveal all the factors and assumptions that contribute to the situation. You’ll also learn why searching for just one root cause can be misleading.

Key episode topics include: leadership, decision making and problem solving, power and influence, business management.

HBR On Leadership curates the best case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, to help you unlock the best in those around you. New episodes every week.

  • Listen to the original HBR IdeaCast episode: The Secret to Better Problem Solving (2016)
  • Find more episodes of HBR IdeaCast
  • Discover 100 years of Harvard Business Review articles, case studies, podcasts, and more at HBR.org .

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership , case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you.

Problem solving skills are invaluable in any job. But even the most experienced among us can fall into the trap of solving the wrong problem.

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg says that all too often, we jump to find solutions to a problem – without taking time to really understand what we’re facing.

He’s an expert in innovation, and he’s the author of the book, What’s Your Problem?: To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve .

  In this episode, you’ll learn how to reframe tough problems, by asking questions that reveal all the factors and assumptions that contribute to the situation. You’ll also learn why searching for one root cause can be misleading. And you’ll learn how to use experimentation and rapid prototyping as problem-solving tools.

This episode originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in December 2016. Here it is.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael.

Problem solving is popular. People put it on their resumes. Managers believe they excel at it. Companies count it as a key proficiency. We solve customers’ problems.

The problem is we often solve the wrong problems. Albert Einstein and Peter Drucker alike have discussed the difficulty of effective diagnosis. There are great frameworks for getting teams to attack true problems, but they’re often hard to do daily and on the fly. That’s where our guest comes in.

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg is a consultant who helps companies and managers reframe their problems so they can come up with an effective solution faster. He asks the question “Are You Solving The Right Problems?” in the January-February 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review. Thomas, thank you so much for coming on the HBR IdeaCast .

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: Thanks for inviting me.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, I thought maybe we could start by talking about the problem of talking about problem reframing. What is that exactly?

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: Basically, when people face a problem, they tend to jump into solution mode to rapidly, and very often that means that they don’t really understand, necessarily, the problem they’re trying to solve. And so, reframing is really a– at heart, it’s a method that helps you avoid that by taking a second to go in and ask two questions, basically saying, first of all, wait. What is the problem we’re trying to solve? And then crucially asking, is there a different way to think about what the problem actually is?

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, I feel like so often when this comes up in meetings, you know, someone says that, and maybe they throw out the Einstein quote about you spend an hour of problem solving, you spend 55 minutes to find the problem. And then everyone else in the room kind of gets irritated. So, maybe just give us an example of maybe how this would work in practice in a way that would not, sort of, set people’s teeth on edge, like oh, here Sarah goes again, reframing the whole problem instead of just solving it.

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: I mean, you’re bringing up something that’s, I think is crucial, which is to create legitimacy for the method. So, one of the reasons why I put out the article is to give people a tool to say actually, this thing is still important, and we need to do it. But I think the really critical thing in order to make this work in a meeting is actually to learn how to do it fast, because if you have the idea that you need to spend 30 minutes in a meeting delving deeply into the problem, I mean, that’s going to be uphill for most problems. So, the critical thing here is really to try to make it a practice you can implement very, very rapidly.

There’s an example that I would suggest memorizing. This is the example that I use to explain very rapidly what it is. And it’s basically, I call it the slow elevator problem. You imagine that you are the owner of an office building, and that your tenants are complaining that the elevator’s slow.

Now, if you take that problem framing for granted, you’re going to start thinking creatively around how do we make the elevator faster. Do we install a new motor? Do we have to buy a new lift somewhere?

The thing is, though, if you ask people who actually work with facilities management, well, they’re going to have a different solution for you, which is put up a mirror next to the elevator. That’s what happens is, of course, that people go oh, I’m busy. I’m busy. I’m– oh, a mirror. Oh, that’s beautiful.

And then they forget time. What’s interesting about that example is that the idea with a mirror is actually a solution to a different problem than the one you first proposed. And so, the whole idea here is once you get good at using reframing, you can quickly identify other aspects of the problem that might be much better to try to solve than the original one you found. It’s not necessarily that the first one is wrong. It’s just that there might be better problems out there to attack that we can, means we can do things much faster, cheaper, or better.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, in that example, I can understand how A, it’s probably expensive to make the elevator faster, so it’s much cheaper just to put up a mirror. And B, maybe the real problem people are actually feeling, even though they’re not articulating it right, is like, I hate waiting for the elevator. But if you let them sort of fix their hair or check their teeth, they’re suddenly distracted and don’t notice.

But if you have, this is sort of a pedestrian example, but say you have a roommate or a spouse who doesn’t clean up the kitchen. Facing that problem and not having your elegant solution already there to highlight the contrast between the perceived problem and the real problem, how would you take a problem like that and attack it using this method so that you can see what some of the other options might be?

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: Right. So, I mean, let’s say it’s you who have that problem. I would go in and say, first of all, what would you say the problem is? Like, if you were to describe your view of the problem, what would that be?

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I hate cleaning the kitchen, and I want someone else to clean it up.

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: OK. So, my first observation, you know, that somebody else might not necessarily be your spouse. So, already there, there’s an inbuilt assumption in your question around oh, it has to be my husband who does the cleaning. So, it might actually be worth, already there to say, is that really the only problem you have? That you hate cleaning the kitchen, and you want to avoid it? Or might there be something around, as well, getting a better relationship in terms of how you solve problems in general or establishing a better way to handle small problems when dealing with your spouse?

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Or maybe, now that I’m thinking that, maybe the problem is that you just can’t find the stuff in the kitchen when you need to find it.

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: Right, and so that’s an example of a reframing, that actually why is it a problem that the kitchen is not clean? Is it only because you hate the act of cleaning, or does it actually mean that it just takes you a lot longer and gets a lot messier to actually use the kitchen, which is a different problem. The way you describe this problem now, is there anything that’s missing from that description?

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That is a really good question.

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: Other, basically asking other factors that we are not talking about right now, and I say those because people tend to, when given a problem, they tend to delve deeper into the detail. What often is missing is actually an element outside of the initial description of the problem that might be really relevant to what’s going on. Like, why does the kitchen get messy in the first place? Is it something about the way you use it or your cooking habits? Is it because the neighbor’s kids, kind of, use it all the time?

There might, very often, there might be issues that you’re not really thinking about when you first describe the problem that actually has a big effect on it.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I think at this point it would be helpful to maybe get another business example, and I’m wondering if you could tell us the story of the dog adoption problem.

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: Yeah. This is a big problem in the US. If you work in the shelter industry, basically because dogs are so popular, more than 3 million dogs every year enter a shelter, and currently only about half of those actually find a new home and get adopted. And so, this is a problem that has persisted. It’s been, like, a structural problem for decades in this space. In the last three years, where people found new ways to address it.

So a woman called Lori Weise who runs a rescue organization in South LA, and she actually went in and challenged the very idea of what we were trying to do. She said, no, no. The problem we’re trying to solve is not about how to get more people to adopt dogs. It is about keeping the dogs with their first family so they never enter the shelter system in the first place.

In 2013, she started what’s called a Shelter Intervention Program that basically works like this. If a family comes and wants to hand over their dog, these are called owner surrenders. It’s about 30% of all dogs that come into a shelter. All they would do is go up and ask, if you could, would you like to keep your animal? And if they said yes, they would try to fix whatever helped them fix the problem, but that made them turn over this.

And sometimes that might be that they moved into a new building. The landlord required a deposit, and they simply didn’t have the money to put down a deposit. Or the dog might need a $10 rabies shot, but they didn’t know how to get access to a vet.

And so, by instigating that program, just in the first year, she took her, basically the amount of dollars they spent per animal they helped went from something like $85 down to around $60. Just an immediate impact, and her program now is being rolled out, is being supported by the ASPCA, which is one of the big animal welfare stations, and it’s being rolled out to various other places.

And I think what really struck me with that example was this was not dependent on having the internet. This was not, oh, we needed to have everybody mobile before we could come up with this. This, conceivably, we could have done 20 years ago. Only, it only happened when somebody, like in this case Lori, went in and actually rethought what the problem they were trying to solve was in the first place.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, what I also think is so interesting about that example is that when you talk about it, it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would have been thought of through other kinds of problem solving methods. There wasn’t necessarily an After Action Review or a 5 Whys exercise or a Six Sigma type intervention. I don’t want to throw those other methods under the bus, but how can you get such powerful results with such a very simple way of thinking about something?

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: That was something that struck me as well. This, in a way, reframing and the idea of the problem diagnosis is important is something we’ve known for a long, long time. And we’ve actually have built some tools to help out. If you worked with us professionally, you are familiar with, like, Six Sigma, TRIZ, and so on. You mentioned 5 Whys. A root cause analysis is another one that a lot of people are familiar with.

Those are our good tools, and they’re definitely better than nothing. But what I notice when I work with the companies applying those was those tools tend to make you dig deeper into the first understanding of the problem we have. If it’s the elevator example, people start asking, well, is that the cable strength, or is the capacity of the elevator? That they kind of get caught by the details.

That, in a way, is a bad way to work on problems because it really assumes that there’s like a, you can almost hear it, a root cause. That you have to dig down and find the one true problem, and everything else was just symptoms. That’s a bad way to think about problems because problems tend to be multicausal.

There tend to be lots of causes or levers you can potentially press to address a problem. And if you think there’s only one, if that’s the right problem, that’s actually a dangerous way. And so I think that’s why, that this is a method I’ve worked with over the last five years, trying to basically refine how to make people better at this, and the key tends to be this thing about shifting out and saying, is there a totally different way of thinking about the problem versus getting too caught up in the mechanistic details of what happens.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: What about experimentation? Because that’s another method that’s become really popular with the rise of Lean Startup and lots of other innovation methodologies. Why wouldn’t it have worked to, say, experiment with many different types of fixing the dog adoption problem, and then just pick the one that works the best?

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: You could say in the dog space, that’s what’s been going on. I mean, there is, in this industry and a lot of, it’s largely volunteer driven. People have experimented, and they found different ways of trying to cope. And that has definitely made the problem better. So, I wouldn’t say that experimentation is bad, quite the contrary. Rapid prototyping, quickly putting something out into the world and learning from it, that’s a fantastic way to learn more and to move forward.

My point is, though, that I feel we’ve come to rely too much on that. There’s like, if you look at the start up space, the wisdom is now just to put something quickly into the market, and then if it doesn’t work, pivot and just do more stuff. What reframing really is, I think of it as the cognitive counterpoint to prototyping. So, this is really a way of seeing very quickly, like not just working on the solution, but also working on our understanding of the problem and trying to see is there a different way to think about that.

If you only stick with experimentation, again, you tend to sometimes stay too much in the same space trying minute variations of something instead of taking a step back and saying, wait a minute. What is this telling us about what the real issue is?

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, to go back to something that we touched on earlier, when we were talking about the completely hypothetical example of a spouse who does not clean the kitchen–

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: Completely, completely hypothetical.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yes. For the record, my husband is a great kitchen cleaner.

You started asking me some questions that I could see immediately were helping me rethink that problem. Is that kind of the key, just having a checklist of questions to ask yourself? How do you really start to put this into practice?

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: I think there are two steps in that. The first one is just to make yourself better at the method. Yes, you should kind of work with a checklist. In the article, I kind of outlined seven practices that you can use to do this.

But importantly, I would say you have to consider that as, basically, a set of training wheels. I think there’s a big, big danger in getting caught in a checklist. This is something I work with.

My co-author Paddy Miller, it’s one of his insights. That if you start giving people a checklist for things like this, they start following it. And that’s actually a problem, because what you really want them to do is start challenging their thinking.

So the way to handle this is to get some practice using it. Do use the checklist initially, but then try to step away from it and try to see if you can organically make– it’s almost a habit of mind. When you run into a colleague in the hallway and she has a problem and you have five minutes, like, delving in and just starting asking some of those questions and using your intuition to say, wait, how is she talking about this problem? And is there a question or two I can ask her about the problem that can help her rethink it?

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Well, that is also just a very different approach, because I think in that situation, most of us can’t go 30 seconds without jumping in and offering solutions.

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: Very true. The drive toward solutions is very strong. And to be clear, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that if the solutions work. So, many problems are just solved by oh, you know, oh, here’s the way to do that. Great.

But this is really a powerful method for those problems where either it’s something we’ve been banging our heads against tons of times without making progress, or when you need to come up with a really creative solution. When you’re facing a competitor with a much bigger budget, and you know, if you solve the same problem later, you’re not going to win. So, that basic idea of taking that approach to problems can often help you move forward in a different way than just like, oh, I have a solution.

I would say there’s also, there’s some interesting psychological stuff going on, right? Where you may have tried this, but if somebody tries to serve up a solution to a problem I have, I’m often resistant towards them. Kind if like, no, no, no, no, no, no. That solution is not going to work in my world. Whereas if you get them to discuss and analyze what the problem really is, you might actually dig something up.

Let’s go back to the kitchen example. One powerful question is just to say, what’s your own part in creating this problem? It’s very often, like, people, they describe problems as if it’s something that’s inflicted upon them from the external world, and they are innocent bystanders in that.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Right, or crazy customers with unreasonable demands.

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: Exactly, right. I don’t think I’ve ever met an agency or consultancy that didn’t, like, gossip about their customers. Oh, my god, they’re horrible. That, you know, classic thing, why don’t they want to take more risk? Well, risk is bad.

It’s their business that’s on the line, not the consultancy’s, right? So, absolutely, that’s one of the things when you step into a different mindset and kind of, wait. Oh yeah, maybe I actually am part of creating this problem in a sense, as well. That tends to open some new doors for you to move forward, in a way, with stuff that you may have been struggling with for years.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, we’ve surfaced a couple of questions that are useful. I’m curious to know, what are some of the other questions that you find yourself asking in these situations, given that you have made this sort of mental habit that you do? What are the questions that people seem to find really useful?

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: One easy one is just to ask if there are any positive exceptions to the problem. So, was there day where your kitchen was actually spotlessly clean? And then asking, what was different about that day? Like, what happened there that didn’t happen the other days? That can very often point people towards a factor that they hadn’t considered previously.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: We got take-out.

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: S,o that is your solution. Take-out from [INAUDIBLE]. That might have other problems.

Another good question, and this is a little bit more high level. It’s actually more making an observation about labeling how that person thinks about the problem. And what I mean with that is, we have problem categories in our head. So, if I say, let’s say that you describe a problem to me and say, well, we have a really great product and are, it’s much better than our previous product, but people aren’t buying it. I think we need to put more marketing dollars into this.

Now you can go in and say, that’s interesting. This sounds like you’re thinking of this as a communications problem. Is there a different way of thinking about that? Because you can almost tell how, when the second you say communications, there are some ideas about how do you solve a communications problem. Typically with more communication.

And what you might do is go in and suggest, well, have you considered that it might be, say, an incentive problem? Are there incentives on behalf of the purchasing manager at your clients that are obstructing you? Might there be incentive issues with your own sales force that makes them want to sell the old product instead of the new one?

So literally, just identifying what type of problem does this person think about, and is there different potential way of thinking about it? Might it be an emotional problem, a timing problem, an expectations management problem? Thinking about what label of what type of problem that person is kind of thinking as it of.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That’s really interesting, too, because I think so many of us get requests for advice that we’re really not qualified to give. So, maybe the next time that happens, instead of muddying my way through, I will just ask some of those questions that we talked about instead.

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: That sounds like a good idea.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, Thomas, this has really helped me reframe the way I think about a couple of problems in my own life, and I’m just wondering. I know you do this professionally, but is there a problem in your life that thinking this way has helped you solve?

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: I’ve, of course, I’ve been swallowing my own medicine on this, too, and I think I have, well, maybe two different examples, and in one case somebody else did the reframing for me. But in one case, when I was younger, I often kind of struggled a little bit. I mean, this is my teenage years, kind of hanging out with my parents. I thought they were pretty annoying people. That’s not really fair, because they’re quite wonderful, but that’s what life is when you’re a teenager.

And one of the things that struck me, suddenly, and this was kind of the positive exception was, there was actually an evening where we really had a good time, and there wasn’t a conflict. And the core thing was, I wasn’t just seeing them in their old house where I grew up. It was, actually, we were at a restaurant. And it suddenly struck me that so much of the sometimes, kind of, a little bit, you love them but they’re annoying kind of dynamic, is tied to the place, is tied to the setting you are in.

And of course, if– you know, I live abroad now, if I visit my parents and I stay in my old bedroom, you know, my mother comes in and wants to wake me up in the morning. Stuff like that, right? And it just struck me so, so clearly that it’s– when I change this setting, if I go out and have dinner with them at a different place, that the dynamic, just that dynamic disappears.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Well, Thomas, this has been really, really helpful. Thank you for talking with me today.

THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG: Thank you, Sarah.  

HANNAH BATES: That was Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg in conversation with Sarah Green Carmichael on the HBR IdeaCast. He’s an expert in problem solving and innovation, and he’s the author of the book, What’s Your Problem?: To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve .

We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review.

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This episode was produced by Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener.

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