As global consumption continues to evolve and our thirst for the latest device, fashion trend, or product continues unabated, our use of natural resources has grown. Industries utilize natural resources, from trees to fossil fuels, to do everything from stocking our supermarket shelves to fueling our vehicles through satisfying our sense of style. When converting raw or natural resources to finished goods, there are many side effects on the environment.
Increased demand for goods and services around the world, in line with changing trends and growing populations, also raises various initiatives that can have consequences on ecosystems. Although growth and advancements are of great importance to civilizations, we need to assess the adverse effects of human activity on nature and the environment.
This article will explore what environmental impact entails, highlight major environmental impacts, and raise the importance of environmental impact assessments.
In simple terms, we can understand impact as the effect or result of an action or activity on something else. Regarding the environment, environmental impact or environmental impacts refer to changes in the natural environment. These come about due to activities, products, services, and projects that can directly affect ecosystems, biodiversity, and the environment at large.
Another definition of environmental impact is the effect of human activity on the environment. This definition points to how human activity, such as producing goods and services, can negatively impact the natural and built environment. In turn, these create an environmental imbalance that affects biodiversity and natural ecosystems3. Although impacts can be beneficial or adverse, exploring environmental impact often has negative impacts on environmental health as the primary concern.
As the world embraces increased demand and production, it often costs the global natural order. Industries use renewable resources such as forestry and non-renewable ones like fossil fuels. Through the various stages, from extraction through production and distribution, there’s the potential to affect the environment.
The use of resources and their environmental impact can contribute to an imbalance in ecosystems in various ways. On the one hand, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from activities like energy use and landfill dumping significantly contribute to climate change.
These gases trap heat in the atmosphere and have effects beyond a given area. For example, an excess of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere comes from activities like the burning of fossil fuels, the accumulation of solid waste, and a result of chemical reactions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, carbon dioxide accounted for about 79% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in 2020.
Other greenhouse gases also exist as their emissions affect the natural order and accelerate climate change. Methane makes its way into the environment through poor waste management, which leads to its release in landfill sites. Another form of air pollution is nitrous oxide emissions that come from industrial activities and land use. The environmental impact of energy use, transportation, waste disposal, and other activities affect our world.
Not only do emissions and forms of pollution affect the environment, but human health is also at stake. Environmental impact's definition, exploration, and scope go beyond just emissions. Changes to the soil, air, and water lead to loss of biodiversity and damage to ecosystems.
Biodiversity loss, for instance, has drivers like climate change, pollution, and overexploitation of species. To further understand what environmental impact entails, let’s examine some major impacts present in the world. These impacts also play a more significant role in affecting sustainable development.
One of the major impacts in our energy-dependent world comes from energy use and production. By burning resources like coal and oil to supply energy, pollution levels increase, and sustainable development is affected.
Apart from energy-related environmental challenges, other human activities have specific environmental impacts. Some factors include improper resource use, poor waste management, and spilling of chemicals into water bodies. All of these accumulate to affect the environment and the various ecosystems.
The air is one aspect that exhibits the impacts of human activities. Human activities affect the environment by contributing to air pollution. In other words, this entails the emission of harmful substances into the atmosphere.
This environmental impact typically comes from industries and the emissions from manufacturing. From carbon to methane and other gases, manufacturing methods cause various environmental changes. Also, power plants and vehicles release toxic gases like nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.
Toxic gases go on to affect safety within ecosystems. Within communities, they raise public health concerns. The environmental impacts of these pollutants spread wide, a notable effect being acid rain.
Related: Air pollution facts and statistics.
Environmental impacts can also come in the form of changes to water systems and cycles. Water is a valuable resource that every living thing requires for survival. At the same time, using this resource to support agriculture and manufacturing methods affects its availability.
Pollution of water sources takes place in many forms. Agricultural waste and chemicals have impacts on surface and groundwater supplies. In many cases, industrial wastewater makes its way into seas and rivers. These affect aquatic animals and wildlife that rely on such supplies. The pollutants also render certain water supplies unfit for human use and consumption.
Related: Water pollution facts and statistics.
Land pollution is another concern when examining environmental effects or changes from human activities. Toxic contaminants pollute the soil and create a host of environmental challenges.
For instance, dumping trash in improper places can accelerate the release of chemicals in certain areas. The wide use and disposal of plastics also lead to microplastics slowly breaking down in the soil.
As these activities affect the land, it leads to a loss of fertile land for agriculture. Other activities like mining and construction also cause depletion of resources and aggravate pollution.
Related: Land pollution facts and statistics
As we require more goods and services, land use, gas emission rate, resource use, and waste increase. Many of these activities lead to changes in biological communities globally.
One of the leading causes of biodiversity loss is land use, typically for large-scale food manufacturing. In such cases, the objectives revolve around satisfying human needs.
Unfortunately, these come at a cost to the survival of some species. Studies reveal that land use change drives about 30% of biodiversity decline worldwide4. Other factors like exportation and climate change affect wildlife survival.
Related: Biodiversity facts and statistics.
As knowledge of the human impact on the environment continues to grow, industries are exploring alternatives to traditional methods. This growing awareness has also raised the need for particular projects and action plans to be measured. As they’re measured, it points to areas that need changes for a reduction in the adverse effects of activities.
Various sustainability assessment techniques have emerged over the years. Resource and environmental protection agencies use certain indicators to track and enforce changes. Today, one of the critical measurement techniques is footprint evaluation. The three common footprint indicators are carbon footprint, ecological footprint, and water footprint.
A carbon footprint is a form of assessment that evaluates the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from a person, business, project, product, or process. Since these toxic gases are the primary drivers of global warming and climate change, measuring them is essential.
Apart from carbon, other gases like fluorinated gases and nitrous oxide exist. However, to simplify the assessment process, the carbon footprint standard converts other greenhouse gases into carbon equivalents and correlates a measure of their global warming potential.
This evaluation entails a life cycle assessment for products to unearth how they emit gases. For individuals, this examines areas such as waste generation, home energy usage, and transportation.
On the one hand, the carbon footprint exists within the context of greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, ecological footprint as a sustainability assessment method offers a holistic metrics approach. It compares and explores human demands on nature and measures the effect of human behavior on our ecosystem.
In essence, ecological footprint measures the quantity of natural or biologically productive area it takes to support a population1. Since it measures the demands of global resources, we widely use this metric to measure humanity’s impact on the environment. Calculating a population’s ecological footprint helps determine if consumption is environmentally responsible.
A water footprint is an environmental indicator that measures the amount of water usage based on consumption by people. As a measurement technique, it measures the volume of direct and indirect freshwater used to produce products and services that individuals, businesses, and communities consume.
In conjunction with other forms of sustainability measurements, understanding your footprint helps in being knowledgeable about our demands.
As part of the decision-making stage of a project, many experts now conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA). It’s a decision support tool that allows decision-makers to assess the likely impacts of development projects. This goes on to inform the decision on whether to authorize or progress a project or not.
In 2018, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report assessed legislation related to EIAs2, finding that some countries had strengthened their approaches while others had weakened. Notably, the report highlighted the need to improve the data available to measure environmental impacts appropriately.
Apart from determining the potential environmental effects, an EIA also examines the social and health effects of a proposed project or development. An environmental assessment aims to inform the authorities of the possible consequences of their decisions. As a result, it holds people accountable. Although the practice varies from country to country, EIA essentially follows these stages:
Human activities affect the environment in various ways. From the activities of large industries to seemingly minute actions within homes, we have an impact in one way or another. By understanding the concept of environmental impact and ways to access it, we can curb actions that elicit negative effects.
Besides the pressing need to address climate change, environmental impact extends to cover biodiversity loss and impacts on food production and human health. As measured, we can also measure our progress in mitigating our impact on the environment.
Wiedmann T, Barrett J. A Review of the Ecological Footprint Indicator—Perceptions and Methods. Sustainability. 2010; 2(6):1645-1693. https://doi.org/10.3390/su2061645
Assessing Environmental Impacts: A Global Review of Legislation (pdf), UNEP, 2018
Leonard Ortolano & Anne Shepherd (1995), Environmental Impact Assessment: Challenges and Opportunities, Impact Assessment, 13:1, 3-30, DOI: 10.1080/07349165.1995.9726076
The Royal Society. (n.d.). How do humans affect biodiversity?
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.