The conversation around sustainability changed in 2015. Proponents of climate action shifted focus to the financial, health, and social costs of not doing anything, and people are listening. As communities around the world continue to experience devastating natural disasters, and scientific research links droughts in California and Syria to climate change, the momentum to do something is growing. In the first part of 2015, nations took a hard look at their greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in order to submit commitments on how much they would reduce.
Before December's COP21 conference in Paris, 184 countries covering around 95 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions submitted their Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions (INDCs). The conference also resulted in the first ever universal climate change agreement that commits all countries in the world to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A lot happened in 2015, which made it difficult to choose this year's movers and shakers, but without further adieu, here is our 2015 list of the Top 10 Movers and Shakers in Sustainability (in no particular order):
1. Anote Tong, President of Kiribati. As the president of a tiny island nation in the Central Pacific, Anote Tong has his hands full. Small island nations, such as Kiribati, are among the first to feel the effects of climate change as sea levels rise and threaten to displace inhabitants. Tong already accepted that a proportion of the island's 102,000 inhabitants will need to relocate, a realization that prompted the purchase of land in nearby Fiji. However, he has not accepted defeat as he is exploring methods to protect his people and continues to push for developed countries, that have historically emitted the most GHGs, to aggressively reduce emissions and prevent worst case scenarios.
2. Pope Francis. In a move that surprised Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Pope Francis spoke out on climate change in 2015. This pope not only supports climate action, but has gone out of his way to publicly ask for countries and individuals around the world to accept climate change is happening and do something about it. Through his encyclical on the environment and subsequent speaking engagements in 2015, Pope Francis has mobilized the world's one billion Catholics to think about climate change. Getting the world's religions on board for climate action may just be the tipping point we need.
3. France. From imposing strict food waste measures, to successfully hosting COP21, France has taken charge in sustainability this year. The recent food waste law bans supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food; instead they must donate it to charities or for animal feed. France also connected Europe's largest solar PV plant to the grid, currently generating 300 megawatts of solar energy, and passed the French Energy Transition for Green Growth Act, which will quadruple the country's carbon tax by 2020, among other things.
4. Chai Jing. In March this Chinese journalist self-financed and released a documentary that drew national and international attention to the chronic air pollution in China. The documentary, titled Under the Dome, received more than 10o million views in 48 hours. After three weeks, the documentary was blocked by the government. Chai, a well-known newscaster, was prompted to make the documentary after her daughter was diagnosed with a benign tumor in the womb. The health effects of air pollution are real and deserve action to reduce emissions, especially from burning coal in China.
5. Food Waste Fighters. A lot of attention was paid to the negative environmental and social impacts of food waste in 2015, and by different people. France took on new food waste measures and in the U.S., the Obama administration set a food waste reduction goal of 50% by 2030. The French supermarket Intermarché began selling imperfect produce at a reduced price and the Imperfect Produce startup in California is doing something similar. Food bloggers got creative with recipes to reduce kitchen waste, the talk show host Jon Oliver did a segment on the issue, and Michael Pollan was one of the writers that published a how-to guide for Food Policy for 21st Century. The attention was well-deserved too as 40% of food is wasted in the U.S.
6. We Mean Business. The We Mean Business coalition provided a platform for private sector companies to commit to addressing climate change, as countries did leading up to the COP21 conference. Companies were encouraged to commit to at least some of the following commitments: adopt science-based reduction goals, put a price on carbon, go 100% renewable, adopt responsible corporate engagement in climate policy, report climate information in mainstream reports, remove all commodity-driven deforestation from supply chains by 2020, and reduce short-lived climate pollution. About 540 companies and investors have submitted commitments.
7. CEDIA. Working with the Peruvian government and Rainforest Trust, the Peruvian organization Center for the Development of an Indigenous Amazon (Centro para el Desarrollo del Indígena Amazónico or CEDIA) helped establish the 3.3-million-acre Sierra del Divisor National Park in Peru. The park, which is larger than Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined, was declared a national park in November 2015 and secures the final link to the 67-million-acre Andes-Amazon Conservation Corridor.
8. Jerry Brown, Governor of California. Jerry Brown has facilitated smart environmental and energy policy in California since his first run as governor in the 1970s. And in 2015 Jerry pushed the envelope at home, and even took his influence international. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring 50% of energy in California to be from renewable sources by 2030 and took an active role to promote climate action at COP21. This article sums it up perfectly: "Brown's rambling, wise-cracking, statistic-spewing, jargon-inventing, stage-dominating presence was there to tell Paris one important thing: If we can do it, so can you."
9. South Korea. South Korea launched the second-largest carbon cap and trade system in the world in January 2015. The system is second only to the European Union and was the first national-level system in Asia. The cap and trade system in Korea covers two-thirds of the country's emissions and is key to meeting their INDC of a 37% reduction in GHGs by 2030. As countries around the world continue to adopt cap and trade systems, best practices to effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions mature.
10. Eric T. Schneiderman, NY Attorney General. In November, Schneiderman launched an investigation into whether Exxon Mobil sought to undermine scientific studies on climate change and whether they informed investors about the risks to profits from climate change. The investigation includes a subpoena for financial records, emails, and other documents. Schneiderman also launched an investigation into whether Peabody Energy, the biggest coal producer in the U.S., adequately informed their investors. These are some of the first investigations in the U.S. related to climate change and specifically in regards to disclosing financial risk to investors.
Our list of 2015 Top Movers and Shakers in Sustainability is clearly not exhaustive of all the contributions made by actors around the globe. We would love to hear about other work that deserves to make the list. Thank you to everyone out there doing what you can to make the world more sustainable!