The top 7 most polluting industries in 2024

The Eco Experts
  • The energy industry is the most polluting industry in the world
  • The transport industry is the second most-polluting industry in the world
  • Ambient air pollution contributes 4.2 million deaths worldwide annually, according to government data

The past decade has seen much of the world wake up to the effects of climate change c – and some governments have started to do something about it.

In that time we’ve seen an ever-growing use of renewable energy – especially solar panels – popular action such as protests and climate strikes, and the lowest use of coal in some countries since records began. 

But there are still several major industries continuing to damage the environment, as seen in the table below. These include energy – which is currently the most polluting industry in the world, generating 15.83 billion tonnes of GHGs emissions annually, transport (8.43 billion tonnes annually) and manufacturing & construction (6.3 billion tonnes annually). While moves are being made to reduce damage, there’s more that can be done.



Annual GHG emissions (billions of tonnes)


Energy (fossil fuels)






Manufacturing & Construction






Food Retail








Source: Our World in Data

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There are five key areas of pollution impacting the environment and pulling the future of our planet into question: air, water, soil, light and noise. While all of these areas are undeniably harmful to us, air, water and soil pollution post the biggest immediate threat.

As of 2023, air pollution now contributes to 8.3 million deaths globally. When it comes to water pollution, at least 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year, with plastic making up 80% of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. What’s more, water pollution is currently contributing to more than 1 million deaths globally every year. As for soil pollution, approximately 400 million tonnes of hazardous waste are generated globally every year, which then seeps into our soil.  

In this article,we’ll be focusing on how the most polluting industries are currently contributing to these three areas. 

To help navigate this piece, we’ve formatted the order of industries based on how much they contribute to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

1. Energy: Electricity, gas and burning of fossil fuels

Responsible for 37.5 billion tonnes of GHG emissions annually

Most polluting industries 2024

We’re getting through a lot more fuel year on year, as the global population gets bigger – especially when it comes to electricity and heating. 

The reason energy is one of the most polluting industries and causes more harm than any other is because we rely on it for almost everything. We use energy to charge our phones, heat our homes, cook food, light our offices and much more.  

The industry also relies heavily on fossil fuels; when fossil fuels are burned, they release huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2e) into the atmosphere. In fact, the burning of fossil fuels accounts for about 34 billion tonnes of GHG emissions each year. 

With this continued use of fossil fuels, it means that buildings regularly using 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 80% of gas boilers will be reduced by 2035, as announced by the government. 

This new legislation should help encourage more UK households to switch to greener alternatives, such as heating panels or infrared heating panels

For a more detailed look into just how many carbon emissions each type of fossil fuel emits each year, take a look at the graph below.

Data from Our World in Data

Not only are fossil fuels leading to increased levels of air pollution, but the ocean is also feeling the impact. Oil spills across the world are damaging our waters, as well as sea life and poisoning fish and birds that reside in the ocean. Last year, one large spill (>700 tonnes) from tankers and nine medium spills (7-700 tonnes) were recorded. Although this remains to be a shocking amount of oil entering our oceans, it is now 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?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that small changes will help create a big difference. 

Start by looking to install renewable energy onto your property, if possible. Solar panels are the most common form of renewable energy most houses will use. The cost of solar panels will depend on how many rooms you have in your home, but find out how much they’ll cost for you here

Once you’ve researched renewable energy, the next step is looking into renewable energy tariffs. 

Green energy or ‘renewable tariffs’ are generated from sources, such as wind and solar, or when providers pay to offset carbon emissions, according to Money Saving Expert

The way it works is if you choose renewable energy, for example, your energy supplier will buy enough renewable electricity from the network to match your use, so the net effect of you using a 100% renewable supplier is as if all your energy was renewable. 

Renewable gas works a little differently. Like with renewable electricity, your gas won’t be all green, but your supplier will put the amount you use back into the network as renewable gas.

It’s important to review the tariffs available, as not all are the same. Also, ask for recommendations from neighbours or family members, as you might find a hidden gem. 

Aside from what you can do on a smaller scale, you can also petition or campaign against big conglomerates who actively use fossil fuels. Countries around the world are always looking for alternative fuels to help improve the environmental impact our everyday actions have. Why not join in and do as much as you can to help encourage companies to find alternatives?

2. Transport

Responsible for 7.29 billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year

Transport Industry Pollution Key Stats

Transport accounts for around one-fifth of global CO2e, as noted by Our World in Data. The transport industry can be broken down into four categories: road, aviation, shipping, and rail. 

As the entire transport sector accounts for 21% of total emissions, and road transport accounts for three-quarters of transport emissions, road transport accounts for 15% of total CO2 emissions. 

As for aviation, flights took a plunge during the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns, but have now recovered to pre-2020 levels. 

In fact, according to the IATA, international traffic in 2023 climbed 41.6% versus 2022 and reached 88.6% of 2019 levels. Domestic traffic for 2023 rose 30.4% compared to the prior year. Of course, this doesn’t bode well in reducing air pollution. 

However, 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. 

“Most of this comes from passenger vehicles – cars and buses – which contribute 45.1%,” a 2024 report from Our World in Data says. “The other 29.4% comes from trucks carrying freight.” 

This makes sense, given the amount of vehicles currently on the road. In the UK alone, 78.4% of households now own a car. With that in mind, the average passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year

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

What can we do to help?

The obvious choice to reduce transport emissions is to use alternative modes of transport. Public transport, for example, is designed to help remove cars from the road, as they can carry more people.

Alternatively, cycle whenever you can. Locations across the UK now offer bikes or scooters for rent, making it easier than ever before to reduce journeys you make in the car.

The other course of action is to limit international travel. Consider visiting UK destinations or even driving to different European destinations. Your emissions will definitely be less than travelling by plane.

Research is key to finding a solution. Learn more about how the government is planning to reduce aeroplan emissions, read our ‘What is ‘Jet Zero’ and is it just a pipe dream’ guide. Or, for tips on making your next holiday greener, check out our guide to green travel.

3. Manufacturing and construction

Responsible for 6.22 billion tonnes of GHG emissions every year

Manufacturing and construction industries are one of the causes of high pollution

The construction industry contributes to almost all types of pollution – air, water, soil, light, and we’re all familiar with the noise pollution it creates – and it’s happening almost everywhere around the world.

But the most damaging aspect of the manufacturing and construction industry is its consumption of raw materials.

According to Business Waste, the construction industry in the UK uses around 400 million tonnes of materials every year – with approximately 100 million tonnes becoming waste. What’s more is that the industry is responsible for 50% of all natural resource extraction worldwide.

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?

On a local level, get involved with local groups or neighbourhood initiatives who are helping to preserve wildlife and planting trees. It might not seem like much, but it all adds up.

Similarly, get involved in ‘rewilding’ projects around built-up areas to help combat some of the waste levels.

If you want to go one step further, campaign against unnecessary construction – especially in protected wildlife areas.

4. Agriculture

Responsible for 5.87 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 GHG emissions, with a further 14.5% coming from land-use change. This is mainly due to deforestation that is used to clear land for food production.

As the human population continues to grow, these emissions will only increase. As reported by Our World in Data, the world population today is around 2,000 times bigger than it was 12,000 years ago when the world population was around 4 million. To put this in perspective, this equates to less than half of the current population of London.

Emissions from food production are driven by our consumption of meat and dairy products. Currently, livestock makeup 62% of the world’s mammal biomass, while humans account for 34% and wild mammals just 4%

While eating meat and dairy products are a natural part of life, humans are well on their way to u-turning this figure and humans will eventually outweigh the amount of animals on the planet. Some are well aware of this and the impact they have on the environment. Some consumers are making changes, with 13% saying they are eating more plant-based foods, in addition to meat products, according to YouGov.

It’s important to do your research and determine what’s right for you. Lots of agriculture manufacturers have improved their own processes to help reduce GHG emissions. 

Demand for meat and dairy products puts pressure on the agricultural industry to farm more livestock. However, according to The Vegan Society, a 2022 research project by Ipsos found that 46% of Brits aged 16-75 are considering reducing their intake of animal products in the future. One of the reasons is to help reduce dietary GHG emissions.

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

The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest made headlines in early 2022. By April 2022, deforestation in the region totalled 1,012.5sq km (390 sq miles) – however, the BBC reported in January 2024, the rate of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon fell by nearly 50% in 2023 compared to the previous year.

As the human population continues to increase year on year, we have to ask ourselves: can our world cope with our ever-growing food consumption?

What can you do to help?

As previously mentioned, you could become vegan or vegetarian. If every American went vegan, agriculture GHG emissions would reduce by 28%. The positive news is the amount of vegan and vegetarian products available on the market has grown substantially in the past decade, so it’s easier than ever before to reduce your meat consumption.

If you want to continue with consuming meat, consider sourcing it locally so the travel time is limited. By doing this, carbon emissions will be reduced overall – all while supporting a local business.

On the deforestation front, consider supporting charities and organisations in their fight against Amazon fires and save them for future generations.

5. Food retail

Responsible for: 3.1 billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year

Food retail also generates high levels of pollution

The food retail sector overlaps quite heavily with agriculture, but we’re focusing on the supply and distribution chain here.

Overall, the food supply chain – spanning across retail, packaging and transport – equates to 30% of the world’s GHG emissions, as reported by the European Union. There seems to be an ongoing conversation about this figure. For example, a 2021 study by Monica Crippa, a researcher at Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, and colleagues called ‘Nature Food’ estimates that 34% of GHG emissions come from the food supply chain.

How exactly does it manage this?

Ultimately, it comes down to two main factors: high energy consumption and plastic pollution.

According to Brightmark, a company of sustainability professionals with an aim to make the planet greener, the average grocery store emits 1,900 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, purely from the electricity and natural gas needed to run stores and continue the supply chain. More specifically, this number equates to 360 cars.

Furthermore, refrigeration is the most energy-intensive part of a supermarket, accounting for 50-60% of a store’s electricity consumption – most of which will be produced by fossil fuels.

The good news is many supermarkets and smaller retail businesses, like the independent convenience sector, have been making strides towards installing energy-efficient refrigeration. Many businesses have installed doors on them or repurpose the heat created by these chillers to heat their stores.

Transporting food to supermarkets and smaller retail businesses also generate a lot of emissions, depending on where it’s shipped from – also known as food miles. If you want to learn more, head to our blog post where we dive into how we – as a collective – can reduce our food miles. Click here for more.

As for packing emissions, research by Greenpeace UK and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), UK supermarkets produce 896,853 tonnes of plastic waste every year. For context, this is enough waste to cover Greater London to a depth of more than 2.5cm.

Since plastic is made from oil, food packaging is generating a huge amount of emissions – not to mention once these products are thrown away, they’re littering precious ecosystems. It’s also worth noting it takes decades – sometimes even centuries – for plastic products to break down.

As you’ll see from the chart below, fishling lines take the longest to decompose, taking up to 600 years to fully do so. Looking at supermarket items, plastic bottles and disposable diapers can take 450 years to decompose, while aliminium cans – like baked beans – take up to 200. Plastic bags and even cigarette butts can take 5 to 20 years.

While the UK government is doing what they can to encourage people to use plastic alternatives, like inputting a plastic bag charge, plastic usage remains high. With usage showing little sign in reduction, what does this do to our wildlife? 

  • Globally, 100,000 marine mammals die every year as a result of plastic pollution, with 81 out of 123 marine mammal species known to have eaten or been entangled in plastic
  • Approximately two-thirds (66%) of the planet’s whale, dolphin and tortoise species have consumed plastic
  • After ingesting microplastics, seals (and other animals) may suffer for months and years before they die
  • Sea animals often eat microplastics that contain toxic chemicals, which can increase the chance of disease and affect reproduction

But this could be all about to change. From October 2023, businesses were banned from selling certain single-use plastic items in England.

Experts say currently, around 4.25 billion pieces of plastic cutlery and 1.1 billion single-use plates are used each year. Shockingly, only 10% are recycled. The ban now includes single-use plastic plates, bowls, trays containers, cutlery and balloon sticks.

These banned products are an extension of the 2020 banning of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. Single-use also refers to those that are also biodegradable, compostable and recycled plastic.  

What can we do to help?

The simplest move is transition to reusable shopping bags. Many have already done this, but often we leave them at home, meaning we have to buy plastic bags at the supermarket – which defeats the purpose. Instead, make a mental note to pack your bags in the car now so they’re there for when you need them.

And try to remember to put them back into the car or by the door once you’ve unpacked your shopping.

You can also petition for supermarkets to further their efforts – or talk to smaller businesses about their sustainability efforts, too. People voicing change a few years ago has led to some supermarkets to change. Co-op, the UK’s sixth-biggest grocer, for example, has cut its plastic packaging by 44% in the past 10 years.

If you want to make a complete overhaul to your environmental impact, shop at a sustainable food store. Ideally, it should be local to you so you’re not solving one issue but then create another. This is so you can stock up on loose products, however, many independent convenience stores – that are on most corners – have started to invest in zero waste areas.

If you’re interested in knowing more about how popular foods impact the environment, check out our blog post: 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 GHG per year as the entire economies of France, Germany and the UK combined, according to consultancy firm, McKinsey & Company.

How can clothes be so environmentally destructive? Well, it boils down to five reasons: 

  1. Cheap materials: Fast fashion often uses cheaper materials and toxic dyes to create 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 locals: To keep manufacturing costs down, fast fashion brands tend to make their clothes in factories countries which often run on coal and gas – increasing emissions. 
  3. Water consumption: It’s estimated that the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic metres of water per year. Even natural fabrics can be an issue 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 the equivalent to the annual GHG 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 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. 

Find out more about the impact fashion is having on our environment through our trusty blog: What is the carbon footprint of fast fashion?

What can we do to help?

Invest in secondhand clothing. Sites like Vinted and Depop have grown exponentially in recent years, as shoppers look to cull their wardrobes. It’s also a great way to make a little extra money to expand your monthly budget or even pay for a trip somewhere.

Aside from Vinted and Depop, don’t underestimate vintage or charity shops. Most will stock almost brand-new high street fashion at a fraction of the price. It’s even possible to find clothes that have been brought back into fruition from previous years, so you can rest assured that you’ll continue to follow style trends.

If you have a fancy event coming up – or even day to day activities – consider renting your clothes. The likes of Hurr have grown in popularity recently as it allows the consumer to rent designer products for a fraction of the costs – bags and other clothes are also available. Other sites include Hire Street, By Rotation and even Selfridges Rental.

Finally, consider repairing any torn clothes before throwing them away. Some holes can be easily fixed using a needle and thread – or by taking it to a locally-owned business, meaning your loved clothing can experience more.

7. Technology

Responsible for: 1.02 billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year

Technology Industry Pollution Key Stats

Our advancements in tech have helped revolutionise renewable energy and other green appliances. But the fact is our technology, including phones, transport, work and entertainment, all require a lot of energy.

Today, there are around 15.1 billion internet-connected devices worldwide, which is set to double to more than 29 billion in 2030. As this figure continues to grow, it’s estimated that the IT industry will be responsible for 7-20% of all electricity demand, and emit 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions.

Research by the Technical University of Munich also found that many digital tech companies are significantly underreporting GHG emissions, so they could be having a larger impact on the planet than we currently realise.

Digital currencies, such as Bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrencies, are also increasing global emissions rapidly. Cryptocurrency emits 129 million tonnes of CO2 per year, which is more than Qatar’s carbon footprint, and uses more electricity than Egypt, a country of 112 million people.

However, it’s worth remembering the good technology industry is doing to help the environment. It has allowed energy companies to utilise renewable energy sources, help create eco-friendly products and streamline manufacturing processes to help reduce GHG emissions. As we move forward, tech experts are busy discovering ways to travel without emitting CO2, sustainable lifestyle options and more energy-saving devices.

What can we do to help?

Look into new ways to recycle your old tech. Many phone companies, for example, allow you to sell your old device back to them and they’ll recycle it for you. O2, for example, offers this service.

Outside of this, companies like CEX, Mazuma Mobile, Envirofone and Mozillion all offer an opportunity to buy your phone and sell it on.

You can find the best place to recycle your electricals by visiting Recycle Your Electricals.

Buy your tech from sustainable companies, like Microsoft, who have net-zero emissions. When you’ve got your new tech up and running, consider using an eco-friendly search engine, like Ecosia, too.

What does the future hold?

There’s a lot of hard work that needs to be done across all seven of the categories we’ve discussed, both from a business and consumer perspective. But it can be done. The key is making small changes that will lead to a bigger impact.

In the past few years, the transport industry, for example, 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 reducing their meat and dairy consumption, and food retailers are trialling refill stations in a bid to ditch plastic.

We’re a while off yet seeing the impact these changes will have, but our emissions are reducing year on year – 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.
Reviewed by:
Tamara Birch, senior writer, The Eco Experts
Tamara has written about environmental topics for more than four years. This includes advising small business owners on cost-effective ways, like solar panels and energy-efficient products to help them become more sustainable. 
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