Earth’s natural systems sustain all life. Biodiverse terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems also enhance human livelihoods and well-being. While it is nearly impossible to put a price tag on a healthy planet, economists calculate that the value of the services provided each year by well-functioning terrestrial ecosystems is at least equivalent to the annual global gross domestic product (GDP). Thriving ecosystems produce oxygen, purify water, protect from storms, provide food, and regulate the climate.
Yet, humanity has an extensive history of using Earth’s life-sustaining natural resources unsustainably. The aggregate human demands on resources have exceeded the planet’s regenerative capacity since the 1970s. Over 80% of the global population lives in countries that use more resources than what their ecosystems can renew—a discrepancy known as an “ecological deficit”.
Human activities are driving large scale changes through land use; the hunting and harvesting of organisms; pollution; overfishing; deforestation, and invasive species. The sustained overuse of natural resources has caused unprecedented levels of environmental destruction, including the loss of vital ecosystems and biodiversity.
With the global population projected to increase substantially by the end of the century, humanity’s impact on the environment is likely to increase. If patterns of energy use, transportation, agriculture, and other land use do not change, ecosystem degradation and climate change threaten human prospects. Limiting the impacts of climate change requires a global shift toward renewable energy sources, sustainable land use practices, and responsible consumption patterns. Underlying this shift is the need to stabilize human populations by ensuring that family planning information and services are available to all who desire them.
The burning of oil, coal, and natural gas has facilitated economic development across the world. Close to three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions are from fossil fuels. While consumption patterns vary greatly around the world and produce emissions at the per capita level, a small fraction of the world’s fossil fuel companies drive most greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
People are now using close to 75% of Earth’s ice-free land area directly and are indirectly affecting the rest of the globe through pollution and climate change.
Tallied together, global agriculture systems, land use, and forestry contribute close to 20% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
The growing human population has dramatically altered Earth’s ecosystems, transforming forests, grasslands, and other wilderness areas into farms, pasture, timberland, mines, and settlements. People are now using close to 75% of Earth’s ice-free land area directly and are indirectly affecting the rest of the globe through pollution and climate change.
According to the World Meteorological Organization, more than 5 billion people will lack stable access to fresh water by 2050. This means an additional 1.4 billion more people will be water insecure in 2050 compared to 2018.
Flood-related disasters have increased by 134% since 2000.
Currently, over 25% of the world’s cities report water shortages.
Trees and other plants take in CO2 and release oxygen during photosynthesis, making them key actors for planetary health and climate regulation. Yet human changes to landscapes, especially deforestation, have released carbon back into the atmosphere for centuries. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the world lost around 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of forest each year between 2015 and 2020, an area equivalent to the size of South Korea.
Current farming methods can degrade soil more than 100 times faster than new soil is formed. Over plowing and overgrazing turn fertile land into wasteland, which in turn increases both food insecurity and climate vulnerability.
Over 500 million people already living in areas that have recently experienced desertification.
Expanding industrial agriculture—large-scale farms and livestock operations—disproportionately contributes to soil degradation, unsustainable water use, biodiversity loss, and waste production.
In fact, raising livestock for meat, milk, and eggs generates substantial greenhouse gas emissions and is among the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution. As the world’s population continues to grow, so too will the demand for resource-intensive foods like animal products. The demand for ruminant meat (beef, lamb, and goat) is projected to increase 88% between 2010 and 2050. Such consumption patterns pose challenges to curbing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and preventing the conversion of remaining forests to farmland.
The demand for ruminant meat (beef, lamb, and goat) is projected to increase 88% between 2010 and 2050.
Although farmers around the world have increased the amount of food they produce from a given parcel of land in the past few decades, researchers maintain that the global agricultural sector must reduce emissions by two-thirds or more by 2050 against 2010 levels in order to avoid dangerous climate change.
Even as world food production has grown, so have the number of hungry—nearly reaching 690 million in 2019. Creating a sustainable food future for the additional 2 billion people projected to be added to the planet by 2050 depend on the development of new and sustainable food systems that facilitate equitable production and consumption, reduce degradation, prevent biodiversity loss, and build climate resilience.
Some of the most effective interventions to reduce future food demand and thus agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions will be those that facilitate slower population growth. This is especially true for the regions in which population is expected to occur the fastest. Slowing population involves increasing educational opportunities for girls, expanding access to quality reproductive health services, and reducing infant and child mortality rates through improved health services.
Human Impacts on the Environment Info Brief
Download this info brief for more information on the ways in which human activities intersect with the world’s most pressing environmental challenges, with a focus on climate change.
Human Impacts Slide Deck
This PowerPoint slide deck offers a detailed look into some of humanity’s most environmentally destructive practices and showcases several possibilities for macro-level solutions to global environmental pressures and climate change.
Browse literature on the connections between global population growth, industrialization, and mounting environmental pressures made worse by climate change. This resource also includes solution-oriented sources outlining potential paths toward a global transition to renewable energy, sustainable land use practices, and responsible consumption patterns.