Tempting as it may be to call 2020 a dumpster fire (and many, many have), there’s really no need to resort to cliche in a year when the world literally burned. There were so many storms, we ran out of names for them (“shitstorm” comes to mind). Temperatures hit record highs, Arctic ice near-record lows. And the pandemic — rooted in humans’ destructive relationship with nature — ended the lives of more than 1.7 million people. Add police killings, racial upheaval, an economic meltdown and the interminable U.S. election, and a dumpster fire seems an inadequate, almost quaint metaphor.
The planet didn’t chalk up a lot of wins in 2020. Even the car-free streets and smog-free skies in cities like Los Angeles and New Delhi during lockdown represented but a blip in the global march toward temperature hikes of more than 2 degrees Celsius.
But peer over your mask and squint through the smoke, and you can make out faint outlines of progress. Despite the havoc of COVID-19, there were some meaningful steps to ameliorate the Earth’s dire predicament. Here are six actual good things that happened for the environment in 2020.
Coal was canceled and solar was crowned king.
Although time seemed to stand still in 2020, the global movement toward cleaner energy managed to keep up some momentum. After both the United States and Europe reached a milestone of generating more electricity from renewable resources than from coal, the dirtiest fuel continued to lose its luster.
Some 16 European countries are now looking to phase out coal. And in December, China, which has become the world’s top importer of coal, said it would stop importing it from Australia, the world’s top exporter. For Australia — which has been desperately slow to respond to the climate crisis — it could be the push it needs to finally begin embracing renewables. The country has several big clean energy projects in the works.
As the world rebounds from the pandemic, it will be increasingly powered by renewables, which are now cheaper than coal and often gas-fired plants. Renewables will fulfill 80% of new energy demand over the next decade, according to the International Energy Agency, and solar will lead that growth.
“I see solar becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of IEA. “Based on today’s policy settings, it is on track to set new records for deployment every year after 2022.”
Some nations plotted a greener future.
There was a lot of hope that 2020 would be a big year for the climate. Instead, we got COVID-19 and a lot of environmental progress ground to a halt.
Thankfully, some governments have made important commitments to beat a greener path forward when we emerge from the pandemic. Actions speak louder than words, but words are better than silence (and in 2020, you take what you can get).
While many of the world’s largest economies have failed to factor the environment into their rebuilding plans or are actively pouring recovery money into fossil fuels rather than carbon alternatives, some countries — including Spain, France and Germany — have garnered attention for their green-tinted recovery plans. Denmark, the European Union’s largest oil producer, announced it would end oil and gas production by 2050.
Two major coal-reliant countries got on the net-zero train this year. Japan pledged in the fall to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. And China’s president, Xi Jinping, said the country — the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide — would “achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.” Meeting these goals will hinge on both countries pivoting swiftly away from coal. They’re just beginning to rein in the financing of new coal projects.
Canada, South Korea and South Africa also revealed 2050 carbon neutrality plans. And the European Union accelerated an intermediate goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 55% below 1990’s levels by 2030 — significantly more aggressive than the original 40% set out in the European Green Deal last year.
In the United States, after four years of moving backward on the environment, President-elect Joe Biden outlined a climate plan to achieve “a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050,” which includes ambitions to hit milestone targets by 2025 — the end of his first term.
All of which puts the Paris Climate Accord goals ‘within striking distance.’
Five years after the historic accord was signed, “the recent wave of net zero targets has put the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C within striking distance,” according to an international consortium of scientists and policy experts tracking government climate action.
Echoing this hope, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in a December speech, “I firmly believe that 2021 can be a new kind of leap year — the year of a quantum leap towards carbon neutrality.”
Biden vowed that America would rejoin the Paris Agreement on his first day in office.
Corporations and banks made some meaningful moves to put the brakes on climate destruction.
Though corporate climate pledges have to be taken with a grain of salt, it’s encouraging to see big names in the private sector take on some measure of responsibility, especially when some governments have lagged on — or actively slowed — pro-climate action. Notable actors in 2020 include Microsoft, which in January unveiled a plan to go carbon-negative by 2030. By 2050, its goal is to “remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.”
BP announced plans to become a carbon-neutral company by 2050, followed shortly by Shell. Both will offset emissions from their operations and work to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from the customers that buy their energy. But neither plans to stop extracting fossil fuels — a big problem given that fossil fuel production needs to decline by about 6% per year over the next decade if we have any hope of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Increasingly, companies are being held to account for their professed commitments to the climate by the people whose money they depend on. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm, has been slowly taking money out of companies that profit off thermal coal and other fossil fuels since its CEO declared in January that climate change is too risky an investment. In May, Chevron’s investors agreed in a historic, if largely symbolic, vote, that the company must disclose any political lobbying that’s inconsistent with its stance in support of the Paris Agreement goals.
Several large banks have ruled out financing drilling projects in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after President Donald Trump opened it for exploration. And earlier this month, New York State announced that it would sell off all fossil fuel holdings in its $226 billion pension fund by 2040.
A few environmentally disastrous projects were averted.
The controversial Pebble Mine was to be North America’s largest gold and copper mine, perched at the headwaters of Alaska’s fish-rich Bristol Bay. Trump revived the project after former President Barack Obama blocked it, but in a sudden reversal last month, his administration withheld a crucial permit. Opponents have been fighting against the project for two decades.
As with many such projects, the mine has a way of coming back to life. But environmentalists have to celebrate the little wins — and 2020 delivered a couple others, too. This summer, courts dealt legal blows to the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, and the proposed Atlantic Coast pipeline was canceled after six years of delays and mounting costs.
Some technological long shots came into focus.
Two of the best things we can do to forestall climate catastrophe are move away from fossil fuels and eat way less meat, since livestock agriculture accounts for more than one-seventh of all greenhouse gas production and is a main driver of deforestation. Some promising moonshot developments in 2020 could help us get there.
A number of countries are making big bets on green hydrogen power, which is made using water and renewable energy and releases oxygen as a byproduct. As a source of energy, green hydrogen has the potential to decarbonize some of the most polluting industries, such as steel, and displace a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide.
In the meantime, chew on this: Singapore just became the first country to approve the sale of lab-grown meat. Lab-grown, or cultured, meat is made from animal cells without any animals being slaughtered — and without all the land and water needed to raise them, or the emissions that result. The Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture are officially thinking about it.
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