24 Urgent Environmental Issues that will Shape Debate in 2024

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The year 2024 is expected to be a critical one for the environment, as the world continues to face unprecedented challenges and opportunities to address climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and other pressing issues. Here are 24 environmental topics that will likely shape the global agenda, media narrative and public discourse in 2024.

1. Fossil fuels and renewable energy

Fossil fuel combustion is the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, leading to global warming, climate change, and their related effects. In order to keep the global temperature increase below 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial times, as stipulated in the Paris Agreement, there is an urgent need for the world to swiftly move away from fossil fuels and embrace clean, renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal power. However, this shift is hindered by numerous obstacles, including political and economic factors, gaps in infrastructure and technology, and social and environmental consequences. It’s expected that this subject will remain in the news throughout 2024.

2. Deforestation and forest restoration

Forests are home to more than 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, and provide vital ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, water regulation, soil conservation, and livelihood support. However, forests are under threat from human activities, such as logging, agriculture, mining, and urbanization, which result in deforestation and forest degradation. It is estimated that we loose around 10 million hectares of forests every year according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Brazil, Indonesia and Tanzania continues to experience the biggest forests net lose. To reverse this trend, the world needs to implement effective policies and practices to protect and restore forests, and to promote sustainable forest management and use. This issue will need to be alive in media narration for us to have a chance of saving the planet.

3. Water security, sanitation, and hygiene

If the world was to have another world war, the saying goes, it will be because of water. In the last few years as an example, we have already seen diplomatic tensions in Africa over the Nile. Water is essential for life, health, food, energy, and development. However, water is also a scarce and threatened resource, as the world faces increasing water demand, water scarcity, water pollution, and water-related disasters, such as floods and droughts. Climate change exacerbates these challenges, as it affects the availability and quality of water, and the frequency and intensity of water-related disasters. To ensure water security, sanitation, and hygiene for all, the world needs to implement integrated water resources management, improve water infrastructure and services, protect and restore water ecosystems, and promote water cooperation and diplomacy.

People getting water by the riverside. Photo by Pexels / Peter Chilumba

4. Biodiversity loss and wildlife trafficking

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth, and the foundation of ecosystem services and human well-being. However, biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, due to human activities, such as habitat loss and fragmentation, over-exploitation, invasive species, pollution, and climate change. The loss of biodiversity has negative impacts on food security, health, livelihoods, and resilience. Wildlife trafficking is the illegal trade of wild animals and plants, and one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss. It poses a threat to wildlife conservation, human health, and security, and fuels corruption and organized crime. To prevent biodiversity loss and wildlife trafficking, the world needs to implement and enforce the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and to adopt and implement the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, which will set the global vision and targets for biodiversity conservation and restoration for the next decade.

5. Environmental pollution

Environmental pollution is the contamination of the natural environment by human activities, such as the emission of harmful substances and the generation of waste. This affects the quality and availability of air, water, soil, and other natural resources, and has negative impacts on human health, biodiversity, climate, and the economy. To reduce and prevent environmental pollution, the world needs to adopt and implement the principles of prevention, precaution, polluter pays, and environmental justice, and to promote the use of clean and efficient technologies, the reduction and recycling of waste, the adoption of a circular economy and the restoration of polluted sites.

6. Sustainable agriculture, food systems, and nutrition

Agriculture, food systems, and nutrition are interrelated and interdependent, and have significant impacts and dependencies on the environment. Agriculture and food systems are the main sources of food and income for the majority of the world’s population, and the main users of land, water, and other natural resources. However, they are also the main drivers of environmental degradation, such as deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions. Nutrition is the outcome of the consumption and utilization of food, and affects the health and well-being of people. However, nutrition is also affected by the availability, accessibility, affordability, and quality of food, and by the environmental, social, and economic conditions that influence food choices and behaviors. To achieve sustainable agriculture, food systems, and nutrition, the world needs to implement and promote the practices and principles of agroecology, organic farming, permaculture, and food sovereignty, and to ensure the right to food and the right to health for all.

7. Transboundary environmental issues and regional initiatives

Transboundary environmental issues are those that cross or affect more than one country, region, or continent, and require cooperation and coordination among the concerned parties. Some of the most prominent transboundary environmental issues include shared rivers, lakes, and aquifers, transboundary air pollution, transboundary waste management, transboundary protected areas, and transboundary environmental impact assessment. Regional initiatives are those that aim to address common or specific environmental challenges and opportunities within a certain geographic area, and to foster regional integration and cooperation. For example, the East Africa community will continue to debate on how to jointly deal with the challenge of plastic pollution and the smuggling of single use plastic carrier bags from countries in the region that have not yet banned this. We hope that this is something that the regional media will keep a tab on.

8. Indigenous peoples and local communities

Indigenous peoples and local communities are the custodians of many of the world’s most diverse and valuable ecosystems, and possess rich and unique cultures, languages, and knowledge systems. They play a vital role in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and in the adaptation and mitigation of climate change. However, they also face many threats and challenges, such as land grabbing, human rights violations, discrimination, and marginalization. To recognize and support the contributions and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, the world needs to respect and implement the The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which was adopted by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007, and to ensure their full and effective participation and consultation in environmental decision-making and governance. This can not be more overemphasized for the communities of the Ogiek people who have been displaced from the Mau Forest in Kenya to pave way for carbon credits trading.

9. Circular economy and green recovery

The circular economy is a concept that aims to reduce waste and pollution and keep products and materials in perpetual use. It is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. The circular economy offers a way to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, and to create value and opportunities for society, businesses, and the environment. The green recovery is a strategy that aims to rebuild the economy by investing in green sectors and jobs, promoting green innovation and digitization, and enhancing social and environmental justice and resilience. These concepts will continue to be discussed widely in 2024.

Plastics is one area where circular economy continue to be demanded. Photo by: Clean Up Kenya

10. Environmental and social justice

Environmental and social justice are the principles and practices that ensure the fair and equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, and the recognition and protection of the rights and interests of all people, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized groups. These are closely linked, as environmental degradation and pollution often disproportionately affect the poor, the minorities, the indigenous, the women, and the children, and exacerbate existing inequalities and conflicts. To achieve environmental and social justice, the world needs to adopt and implement the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), and to support the work and safety of environmental human rights defenders.

11. Environmental laws and regulations

Environmental laws and regulations are the rules and standards that govern the interactions between humans and the environment, and aim to prevent, reduce, or remedy the environmental harm caused by human activities. These Environmental laws and regulations can be enacted and enforced at various levels. To ensure the effectiveness and legitimacy of environmental laws and regulations, the world needs to respect and implement the principles of environmental rule of law, which include legality, accountability, transparency, participation, and access to justice.

12. Environmental education and awareness

Environmental education and awareness are the processes and outcomes of learning and communicating about the environment and its issues and solutions. This can enhance the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors of individuals and groups, and empower them to take informed and responsible actions for the environment. Environmental education and awareness can also foster a sense of connection and appreciation for the environment, and inspire a culture of environmental stewardship and responsibility. To promote environmental education and awareness, the world needs to integrate environmental literacy and education for sustainable development into formal and informal curricula, and to use various media and platforms to reach and engage diverse audiences.

13. Environmental financing and investment

Environmental financing and investment are the sources and mechanisms that provide and allocate the financial resources for environmental projects and programs. These can come from various public and private actors, such as governments, international organizations, development banks, foundations, corporations, and individuals, and can use various instruments and modalities, such as grants, loans, bonds, taxes, subsidies, markets, and partnerships. Environmental financing and investment can help to mobilize and leverage the funds and incentives needed to address the environmental challenges and opportunities, and to support the implementation and achievement of the environmental goals and commitments. As witnessed throughout 2023, this issue will continue to be debated at the highest levels of global environmental decision making with issues of responsibility and Loss and Damage financing taking center stage.

14. Climate change adaptation and resilience

Climate change adaptation and resilience are the strategies and actions that aim to reduce the vulnerability and increase the capacity of human and natural systems to cope with the adverse effects of climate change and its variability. These can include various measures and interventions, such as risk assessment and management, early warning and response, disaster preparedness and recovery, infrastructure and technology development, ecosystem and livelihood diversification, and social protection and insurance. Climate change adaptation and resilience can help to minimize the losses and damages, and to maximize the opportunities and benefits, of climate change and its impacts.

15. Environmental ethics and values

Environmental ethics and values are the moral and philosophical foundations and orientations that guide and influence the human-environment relationship and interaction. These can shape and reflect the attitudes and behaviors of individuals and groups towards the environment and its issues and solutions, and can inform and justify the norms and rules that govern the human-environment relationship and interaction. Environmental ethics and values can also foster a sense of connection and appreciation for the environment, and inspire a culture of environmental stewardship and responsibility. To cultivate and promote environmental ethics and values, the world needs to engage and dialogue with various traditions and perspectives, such as religious, cultural, indigenous, and feminist, and to integrate and apply them into environmental education and governance. Hope this become part of a lively public discourse in 2024.

16. The 29th Climate Change Summit or COP29

The 29th Conference of the Parties (COP29) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be held in Azerbaijan, in November 2024, and will be a crucial moment to review and enhance the National Determined Contributions and the implementation of what was decided in Dubai at COP28. Questions will continue to be raised of whether progress is being made and fossil fuels will become a key talking point again with the Paris Agreement to tackle the problem of climate change by keeping the global temperature rise well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.

17. Global Plastic Treaty

The negotiations for a Global Plastics Treaty are currently underway and this will be one of the hottest environmental topics of 2024. This treaty is an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. The process began in February 2022, at the resumed fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), when a historic resolution was adopted. The second meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2) took place in Paris, and INC 3 took place in Nairobi. The aim is to complete negotiations by the end of 2024 and create a global, legally binding plastics treaty. The Secretariat has created a revised draft of the plastic pollution treaty, referred to as the “revised zero draft,” that will serve as the basis of the negotiations in Ottawa, Canada come April 2024. The treaty is expected to give governments the power to hold polluters to account and would be a major step towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production, use, and disposal. It’s gaining momentum and is seen as a huge step towards a plastic-free future.

18. Environmental research and innovation

Environmental research and innovation are the generation and application of new knowledge and solutions for the environment and its issues and opportunities. These environmental topics can involve various disciplines and fields, such as natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, and humanities, and can use various methods and tools, such as observation, experimentation, modeling, and simulation. Environmental research and innovation can help to advance the understanding and management of the environment and its systems, and to develop and improve the technologies and practices that can prevent, reduce, or remedy the environmental problems, and enhance the environmental benefits and opportunities.

19. Green technologies or sustainable technologies

In 2024 you will hear a lot about green technology, also known as sustainable technology, which refers to the use of technology and science to create products and services that are environmentally friendly. These are designed to protect the environment, repair existing damage, and reduce human impacts on the natural environment. Green technology encompasses a wide area of scientific research, including energy, atmospheric science, agriculture, material science, and hydrology. It can refer to clean energy production, the use of alternative fuels, and technologies that are less harmful to the environment than fossil fuels. You will hear a lot about solar panels, wind turbines, energy efficient appliances, and bio-fuels, and electric cars, among others. You will also hear about de-carbonizing the different industries and how technology is advancing in that area.

Electric cars is one of the green technologies that will be talked about throughout 2024. Image by Marilyn Murphy from Pixabay

20. Marine and coastal resources governance

Marine and coastal resources and governance are the management and conservation of the ocean and its resources, and the regulation and cooperation of the activities and interests that affect the ocean and its resources. The ocean covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, and provides various ecosystem services and benefits, such as food, energy, transport, tourism, and climate regulation. However, the ocean also faces various threats and challenges, such as over-fishing, pollution, acidification, warming, and sea level rise. To ensure the sustainable use and protection of the ocean and its resources, the world needs to implement and enforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other relevant agreements.

21. The sixth United Nations Environment Assembly

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will host the Sixth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) at its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, from February 26 to March 1, 2024. UNEA, the world’s premier environmental decision-making body, strives to foster a balance between humans and nature, enhancing the lives of the most vulnerable populations worldwide.

The focus of UNEA-6 will be on the role of multilateralism in addressing the threefold planetary crisis of climate change, loss of nature and biodiversity, and pollution and waste. The Assembly, underpinned by robust scientific evidence, political commitment, and societal engagement, offers a platform for global governments, civil society organizations, the scientific community, and the private sector to influence international environmental policy.

As the only environmental forum with universal membership, UNEA serves as a unique stage for bold decisions and innovative ideas to devise a comprehensive plan for collective environmental action. In this process, UNEA-6 will aim to contribute to the realization of the sustainable development goals.

22. Impact of 2024 US elections on the environment

Upon taking office in January 2021, President Joe Biden began to undo the environmental policies put in place by his predecessor, President Donald Trump. This included an immediate re-commitment to the Paris climate agreement. Biden’s environmental strategy has involved substantial investment in green infrastructure and renewable energy, the establishment of safeguards for land and water, and a commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Recently, he initiated the American Climate Corps, a program designed to provide environment workforce training and service opportunities. As the 2024 presidential elections approach, there is a possibility that Donald Trump may return to office, which could significantly influence the United States’ role in global environmental leadership.

23. Environmental crimes and governance

Environmental crimes, which include illegal wildlife trade, smuggling of ozone-depleting substances, illicit trade in hazardous waste, illegal fishing, and illegal logging, among others, pose significant threats to the environment, public health, and economies. At the international level, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been instrumental in raising awareness about environmental crimes and their impacts. The UN General Assembly has recognized environmental crime as part of other transnational organized crimes, marking a significant step forward in global efforts to tackle the issue. However, despite these efforts, environmental crimes remain a major challenge due to factors such as high profitability, low detection rates, and often weak penalties. Therefore, strengthening governance structures and enhancing cooperation at all levels is crucial for effectively combating environmental crimes and achieving sustainable development goals.

24. Comic proposals to serious problems

While the world faces series environmental problems, over the years there have been many comical proposals to these issues. One of this include the idea that if we create a giant mirror, we could somehow reflect sunlight back into space and stop global warming or we could put blankets on Greenland and achieve the same results. Another idea has been to feed garlic to cows to reduce their methane emissions. Some have even suggested that we need to send planes into the stratosphere to pump out particulates that will reflect sunlight back into space, effectively turning the sky white. Another scandalous proposal is from an article on Treehugger which suggests planting artificial trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. These interesting ideas will no doubt continue in 2024 and if Donald Trump wins the US elections expect one of his grand ideas to be nominated for this year’s Nobel Prize!

PS: This article was made possible by having conversations with Bing and Google. The 24 environmental topics are not original ideas and do not constitute legal advice for how you should approach 2024. Happy New Year!

ABOUT CLEAN UP KENYA

Clean Up Kenya was established in 2015 to advocate for and promote sustainable public sanitation in Kenya. Since then we have become the de-facto national public sanitation advocacy brand. We are also experts in community mobilizing for cleanups. We have done numerous cleanups over the years, some of which have been attended by over 1000 volunteers on singular sites. These cleanups are meant to increase visibility on the problem of waste and it is therefore common to see our volunteers in bibs with one message, ‘Clean Up Kenya’. At the core of our work is honest and actual engagement in communities – not PR events. We also run advocacy campaigns holding duty bodies, consumer brands, green-washing NGOs, and other stakeholders to account for unsustainable public sanitation in Kenya and the global South. We receive no funding for our work but collaborate with others on projects.