Top 7 Most Polluting Industries in 2023

The Eco Experts

The energy industry is the most polluting industry in the world

This is closely followed by the transport industry

Air pollution contributed close to 8.7 million deaths globally

The past decade has seen much of the world wake up to climate change – with some governments actually trying to do something about it now. We’ve seen an ever-growing use of renewable energy – especially solar panels – climate strikes beyond belief, and the lowest use of coal in some countries since records began.

But there are still a number of major industries that are continuing to damage the environment. Read on to find out which ones are polluting the world the most, and what we can do about it.



Annual GHG emissions (billions of tonnes)








Manufacturing & Construction






Food Retail








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Methodology: How have we worked this out?

There are five main types of pollution troubling our planet: air, water, soil, light, and noise. Whilst all of these are undeniably harmful to us, air pollution, water pollution, and soil pollution pose the biggest threat.

Pollution Key stats

In 2021, air pollution contributed close to 8.7 million deaths globally. When it comes to water pollution, 14 billion pounds of plastics are dumped into the ocean each year, with polluted bodies of water contributing to 1.5 million children’s deaths. As for soil pollution? About 400 million tonnes of hazardous waste are generated globally every year, which seep into our soil.

That’s why this article focuses on how industries are contributing to these three types of pollution.

We’ve also decided to order the industries based on how much they contribute to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

1. Energy (electricity and heating)

Responsible for: 15.83 billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year

Energy Industry Pollution Key Stats

We’re getting through a lot more fuel as the global population level rises – especially for things like electricity and heating.

A key reason why the energy industry is causing so much harm is because we rely on it for almost everything – from small things like charging our phones to big things like heating buildings.

The industry also relies heavily on fossil fuels in most countries. And when they’re burned, they release huge amounts of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) into the atmosphere.

This reliance on fossil fuels means that energy use in buildings – for things like electricity and heating – contributed to 17.5% of global GHG emissions, according to Our World In Data. For context, 85% of UK homes currently use natural gas for heating – though this should change now that the government has proposed a gas boiler ban. This new legislation should encourage more UK households to switch to greener alternatives, such as heat pumps or infrared heating panels.

You can see just how many carbon emissions each type of fossil fuel emits each year in the graph below:

Data from Our World in Data

Not only are fossil fuels leading to more air pollution, but the ocean is also feeling the impact. Oil spills are damaging sea life and poisoning fish and birds. Over 700 metric tonnes of oil were spilled in 2021 alone. Although this is a shocking amount, it is one of the lowest figures since records began in 1970.

And despite 60% of UK residents wanting to go greener, oil continues to flourish in modern energy markets.

What can you do to help?

  • Install renewable energy on your property, if possible
  • Look into renewable energy tariffs
  • Petition or campaign against big conglomerates using fossil fuel

2. Transport

Responsible for: 8.43 billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year

Transport Industry Pollution Key Stats

Overall, transport emissions account for around one-fifth of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which can be broken down into four categories: road, aviation, shipping, and rail.

The world has become a smaller place, which is mostly down to the affordability and availability of flights – the number of flights has increased by 40% since 2010. But does this make the aeroplane the bad guy here?

Surprisingly, no!

Despite being much more carbon intensive than road travel, aviation only accounts for 11.6% of passenger transportation emissions. Road transport, on the other hand, contributes to 74.5% of all CO2 emissions in the transport industry.

This makes sense, given the sheer amount of people that own a car nowadays. In the UK alone, over 76% of households have a car. With that in mind, a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Check out how different methods of transport compare in the graph below.

What can we do to help?

  • Take public transport instead of driving whenever possible
  • Take up cycling to get from place to place
  • Limit your international travel

If want to learn more about how the government is planning to reduce aeroplane emissions, go to our page: What Is ‘Jet Zero' And Is It Just A Pipe Dream. Or, for tips on making your next holiday greener, check our guide to green travel.

3. Manufacturing and construction

Responsible for: 6.3 billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year

Manufacutring and Construction Industry Pollution Key Stats

If you live in a city, sometimes it's easy to forget that construction work isn't part of natural life. This industry contributes to almost all types of pollution – air, water, soil, light, and we’re all familiar with the ruckus of noise pollution it creates – and it’s happening almost everywhere around the world.

But the most damaging aspect of the manufacturing and construction industry? Its excessive consumption of raw materials.

According to the UK Green Building Council around 400 million tonnes of materials are used by the UK construction industry each year – with roughly 100 million tonnes becoming waste.

What's more shocking is that the industry is responsible for 50% of all natural resource extraction worldwide. It accounts for one-sixth of global freshwater consumption, one-quarter of wood consumption, and one-quarter of global waste.

Not only is this adding to the already dangerous levels of air pollution, but it’s also pushing precious ecosystems, and the wildlife that inhabits them, to the brink of extinction.

What can we do to help?

  • Campaign against unnecessary construction – especially in protected wildlife areas
  • Help your local area out by preserving wildlife and planting trees
  • Get involved in ‘rewilding’ projects around built-up areas

4. Agriculture

Responsible for: 5.79 billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year

Agriculture Industry Pollution Key Stats

The IPCC's Special Report on Climate Change and Land estimated that agriculture is directly responsible for up to 8.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, with a further 14.5% coming from land-use change (mainly from deforestation that is used to clear land for food production).

And as the human population continues to grow, these emissions will only increase.

Here’s a breakdown of the different ways agriculture generates GHG emissions.

Data from Academic 

*Enteric fermentation is a digestive process. Carbohydrates are broken down by microorganisms into simple molecules for absorption into the bloodstream.

Our mass consumption of meat and dairy products is also exacerbating agriculture’s impact on the planet. Currently, humans are outnumbered by farm animals 3:1.

But eating meat and dairy products is just a natural part of life, right? Well, sort of. A few centuries ago we had to hunt our food, which meant that meat was a rarity – now, however, we have it for most meals. This means we’re having to farm more livestock than the planet is able to cope with.

An Oxford University study, published in the journal Climatic Change, suggested that meat-eaters are responsible for almost twice as many dietary GHG emissions as vegetarians – and about two and a half times as many as vegans.

Land burning for agricultural purposes is also increasing global emissions – not to mention it’s removing thousands of trees that absorb CO2.

The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest grabbed people’s attention around the globe in early 2022. In the first 29 days of April, deforestation in the region totalled 1,012.5 square km (390 square miles) – nearly doubling the area of forest removed in that month last year.

As the global population continues to grow, we have to ask ourselves: can our world cope with our ever-growing food consumption? The short answer is, no.

What can you do to help?

  • Go vegan or vegetarian. There’s a reason veganism is at an all-time high – if every American went vegan, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions would decrease by 28%
  • If you want to eat meat, make sure it’s locally sourced
  • Support charities and organisations in their fight against Amazon fires

5. Food retail

Responsible for: 3.1 billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year

Food Retail Industry Pollution Key Stats

The food retail sector overlaps quite heavily with agriculture but we’re not focusing on the production of food in this section. Instead, we want to outline the emissions that food retailers are pumping out in the distribution line.

Overall, the food supply chain – including retail, packaging, and transport – generates 3.1 billion tonnes of GHG emissions each year. How exactly does it manage this? It comes down to two main factors: high energy consumption and plastic pollution.

According to the EPA, the average grocery store emits 1,383 metric tonnes of CO2e per year from energy consumption alone – along with another 1,556 metric tonnes of CO2e from leaked refrigerants. Refrigeration is the most energy-intensive part of a supermarket, accounting for 50-60% of the electricity consumption – most of which will be produced by fossil fuels.

Transporting food to supermarkets also generates a lot of emissions, depending on where it's shipped from – also known as food miles. Want to learn more? Head to our page on What Are ‘Food Miles’ And How Can You Reduce Them?

As for packaging emissions, there has been research that suggests that 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste a year come from UK food retailers alone – enough waste to cover the whole of Greater London to a depth of 2.5cm.

Since plastic is made from oil, food packaging is generating a huge amount of emissions – not to mention once users throw these items away, they’re littering precious ecosystems. And it takes decades – sometimes even centuries – for plastic products to break down.

Take a look at the chart below to see how long common plastic items take to degrade.

The sheer volume of plastic waste around the world is increasing, and doesn't seem to be going away any time soon – but what does this do to our wildlife?

  • Globally 100,000 marine mammals die every year as a result of plastic pollution
  • Roughly 56% of the planet’s whale, dolphin, and porpoise species have consumed plastic
  • After ingesting microplastics, seals (and other animals) may suffer for months or years before they die
  • Sea animals often eat microplastics that contain toxic chemicals, which can increase the chance of disease and affect reproduction

What can we do to help?

  • Petition for supermarkets to be more sustainable. People voicing outrage has led to some supermarkets making a change – Co-op, the UK’s sixth-biggest grocer, has cut its plastic packaging by 44% in the last 10 years
  • Make sure to use reusable shopping bags
  • Shop at a sustainable food store (if it’s local to you), where you can take containers to fill up with pasta and other dried foo

Want to find out more about how popular foods impact the environment? Read our page, Are Avocados Bad For The Environment?

6. Fashion 

Responsible for: 2.1 billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year

Fashion Industry Pollution Key Stats

The fashion industry emits about the same amount of greenhouse gases per year as the entire economies of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined, according to consultancy firm McKinsey & Company.

How can clothes be so environmentally destructive? It boils down to five key reasons:

  1. Cheap materials – Fast fashion uses cheap materials and toxic dyes to create its clothes, making it one of the largest polluters of clean water. Polyester is also one of the most popular fabrics in this industry, which is created with fossil fuels and can shed microplastics into the water system when washed
  2. Manufacturing locations – To keep manufacturing costs down, fast fashion brands tend to make their clothes in factories located in Asian countries, which often run on coal and gas
  3. Water consumption – It's estimated that the Fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic metres of water per year. Even natural fabrics can be a problem in the fast fashion industry. For example, to create a single cotton shirt, you’d need roughly 3,000 litres of water. Using this much water can increase the risk of drought, causing extreme stress on local communities
  4. Transportation – Many fast fashion brands operate online, which means we have to take the delivery into account as well. For example, the combined annual emissions of postal services in the US, such as FedEx, UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service are roughly equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 7 million cars. Some estimates show that shipping accounts for 2.5% of the world's total CO2e, which is estimated to rise to as high as 17% by 2050!
  5. Waste – Fast fashion has led to a rise in the high turnover of clothes. Keeping up with fashion trends means that 85% of textiles go to the dump each year. Once people are done with the season’s best clothes, they’re onto the next

Want to learn more? Head to our page: What is the Carbon Footprint of Fast Fashion?

What can we do to help?

  • Buy second-hand clothes from vintage or charity shops
  • Rent clothes – this is particularly good for suits or dresses that you might want for a one-off occasion
  • Fix any torn clothes before resorting to throwing them away

7. Technology

Responsible for: 1.02 billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year

Technology Industry Pollution Key Stats

We saved the most ambiguous for last. On the one hand, technology has revolutionised renewable energy and other green appliances. On the other hand, it has become everything we use all the time – our phones, our transport, work, and entertainment – which requires a lot of energy.

About a decade ago we were told we could save the world by simply turning our TV off stand-by and switching our lights off at home. Ten years later, we now need to do a lot more to make a difference due to the sheer amount of technology we have.

Today, there are around 30 billion internet-connected devices in the world. If this figure continues to grow, it's estimated that the IT industry could use 20% of all electricity produced by 2025, and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions.

Research has also found that many digital tech companies are significantly underreporting greenhouse gas emissions, so they could be having more of an impact on the planet than we realise.

Digital currencies, such as Bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrencies, are also increasing global emissions rapidly. Just how bad is cryptocurrency for the environment? It emits 129 million tonnes of CO2 per year – more than Qatar’s carbon footprint – and uses more electricity than Egypt, a country of 102 million people.

This is because cryptocurrencies require a huge amount of electricity to power the accumulation of wealth that can come from them.

However, it's also worth noting that the technology industry is also doing a lot to help the environment. Experts in the field are discovering ways to travel without emitting CO2, sustainable lifestyle options, and energy-saving devices.

What can we do to help?

  • Buy tech from sustainable companies. Microsoft, for example, has net-zero emissions
  • Use an eco-friendly search engine, such as Ecosia
  • Look into different ways to recycle your tech instead of sending it to landfill

Hope for the future?

So there you have it: the top seven polluting industries. There's a lot of hard work that needs to be done to make sure these industries reduce their emissions – but it can be done.

In the last few years alone, the transport industry has seen a huge uptick in electric vehicles, tech companies are utilising renewable energy, a record number of people are switching to plant-based meals, and food retailers are trialling refill stations in a bid to ditch plastic.

It might feel very doom and gloom right now, but there is hope – we just need to continue pushing for change.

Written by:
Beth has been writing about green tech, the environment, and climate change for over three years now – with her work being featured in publications such as The BBC, Forbes, The Express, Greenpeace, and in multiple academic journals. Whether you're after a new set of solar panels, energy-saving tips, or advice on how to reduce your carbon footprint, she's got you covered.
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