2020 was without a doubt a profoundly difficult year. Lives were lost, families were separated by border closures, tens of millions of lives were irreversibly changed and on top of it, the climate suffered. The Trump administration continued its assault on environmental protections, rolling back more than 100 environmental rules, while global stimulus spending devoted more money to fossil fuels than renewable energy and the dip in emissions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic was just that- a dip. However, there was some good to come out of 2020- even with the pandemic, momentum to move towards a greener future stayed steady. Here are 5 ways that 2020 wasn’t all bad for climate change.
1. The COVID-19 pandemic
COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it spilled over from animals to humans. The pandemic drew the world’s attention to a threat that we have been long warned about- that our current approaches to agriculture and livestock production are creating conditions that allow wildlife pathogens to jump to humans. Particularly, the “One Health” approach became widely known and discussed. This approach acknowledges the interconnectedness of humans, animal and ecosystem health.
Scientists have since warned us that if we don’t change our agricultural and livestock production systems, more pandemics will continue to emerge, particularly in areas where forests are being converted into farms and ranches.
Progress is slowly being made; in February, China established new restrictions on the wildlife trade, banning wild animals for consumption, which is most likely how COVID-19 made the jump to humans. However, how this is being regulated is unknown.
Additionally, many landmark international meetings on climate change were meant to be held in 2020, but many of these were cancelled or postponed. Despite this, however, many governments and companies have committed to reducing carbon emissions.
2. The Year of Net-Zero Emissions Commitments
In 2020, many governments and organisations pledged to reduce their negative impact on the environment and take action against climate change. Countries including China, South Korea, Japan pledged to become carbon by 2050, while the EU strengthened its previous goal and pledged to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 relative to 1990 levels (it pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 in 2019) and the UK also strengthened its commitment and pledged to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030 relative to 1990 levels.
In the corporate world, Apple, Google and Facebook all pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030. Meanwhile, Microsoft went one step further and pledged to be “carbon negative” by 2030, meaning that it will remove all the carbon it has emitted since its founding in 1975.
In 2018, the IPCC said that the world needs to get to net-zero by 2050 to avoid global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. However, many energy companies with net-zero pledges are still expanding the fossil fuel side of their business, and many tech companies with net-zero are still helping these energy companies find and extract more fossil fuels.
Nevertheless, it is still encouraging that companies are not finally starting to publicly share the emissions tied to their supply chains and the products they produce, called “scope 3 emissions.” This added level of transparency puts more pressure on companies to reduce their carbon footprint.
3. Renewable Energy Continued to Grow
When the pandemic ground the global economy to a halt, fossil fuel companies suffered immensely when oil prices crashed, while the renewable energy sector was far more resilient. Clear skies allowed for solar panels to capture more energy, where in the UK, improved solar power efficiency helped it run on zero coal-fired power plant generation for more than two months for the first time in over 100 years. Meanwhile, in the US, electricity generated by renewables outpaced electricity generated by coal for 40 days straight.
Additionally, a November report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that global renewable energy electricity installation will hit record levels in 2020 compared to the sharp declines in the fossil fuel sectors caused by COVID-19, accounting for 90% of new power capacity worldwide.
Further, renewable energy is getting cheaper. According to a study by clean energy research firm BloombergNEF, solar and onshore wind power are the most affordable new sources of electricity for two-thirds of the world’s population. Falling costs, more efficient technology and increasing government support have allowed for larger renewable power plants, with the average wind farm now double the capacity it was four years ago.
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4. The End of the Climate-Denial Reign of Donald Trump
After four years, more than 100 environmental law rollbacks and a departure from the Paris Agreement, Donald Trump was ousted as US President by Democrat Joe Biden. Trump was very much a climate change denialist, calling it a “hoax” and firing members of staff who criticised his stance on the environment and hiring other climate denialists to top environmental agency positions.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden made the climate one of the central elements of his campaign, proposing a USD $2 trillion climate and infrastructure plan, which includes $400 billion for US-made manufacturing efforts such as clean-energy vehicles, telecommunications equipment, steel and other building materials and health care equipment, as well as another $300 billion in research and development on areas like 5G, artificial intelligence and electric vehicle technology. Biden’s team has also said that the plan would create union jobs in clean energy and through projects such as the construction of electric vehicle charging stations, the weatherisation of buildings, updating electric grids and expanding internet access, among others.
Polls show that climate change is becoming increasingly important to Americans. Ahead of the elections, a national survey showed that 58% of Americans were either “somewhat concerned” or “very concerned” about their communities being affected by climate change.
With the Democrat party now controlling the House, the Senate and the White House, it will likely be easier for Biden to pass parts of his ambitious plan. He has promised to listen to scientific experts and rejoin the Paris Agreement in the first 100 days of his presidency. While he certainly has his work cut out for him and will have to put significant and speedy work into getting the US back on track to achieve its climate ambitions, it is nevertheless a step in the right direction. Climate action requires global cooperation, which is arguably difficult to achieve without US leadership. Hopefully, this transition in leadership will spur some much-needed momentum into international climate negotiations.
5. Institutions Pledged to Divest From Fossil Fuels
Banks, asset managers and other financial institutions were increasingly called to account for their environmental impact in 2020. Fossil fuels companies around the world found it more difficult to get projects financed, as seen when the Trump administration announced it would open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development and not a single major bank said it would finance operations in the biodiverse area. Financial institutions were also pressured to account for their role in driving deforestation, fires and biodiversity loss from Borneo to the Amazon.
In January, BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, announced that it would put sustainability at the heart of its investment decisions and prestigious schools like Oxford and Cambridge joined a growing list of colleges and universities planning to divest their endowments from fossil fuel companies.
It is clear that investments in fossil fuels are not as viable as they once were; Exxon, which hasn’t made any commitments to reduce its emissions, was booted from the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the first time in its 92-year history.
It is clear from 2020 that the world is moving towards a greener future, and it is hoped that 2021 is the year that momentum for action against climate change continues at a faster pace. Governments and companies need to follow suit or risk being left behind and remembered as failing to take action against the climate crisis, which will have unimaginable impacts on the planet.
Featured image by: Flickr