Shaping the Future of Climate Change: the Year’s Top Stories
The past year has been defined by the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, social and political tension in the United States and worldwide, and some of the most disruptive climate-driven disasters to date.
On the flip side, 2020 has showcased our ability to respond to major threats in record time through coordinated action. With a historic vaccination campaign just around the corner, the continued expansion of the clean energy market, and a global shift towards climate-conscious policy, it’s clear: the future of the planet is ours to decide.
Joro’s 2020 Climate Rundown takes a look at some of the year’s top stories – and the ripple effects that could shape the state of the climate for generations.
1. COVID-19 Causes Global Emissions to Plummet
The COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered energy consumption around the world. With international travel halted and much of the global population confined to their homes, daily greenhouse gas emissions in individual countries dropped an average of 27% at the pandemic’s peak.
In total, scientists estimate that global emissions dropped between 4.2 and 7.5% in 2020. Some parts of the world, like Europe and the United States, achieved their lowest levels of emissions in several decades.
Unfortunately, on its own, this short-term slowdown is unlikely to have a lasting effect on climate change. That’s because the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere is the result of past and current emissions.
The Case for Green Recovery
In order for the pandemic-driven shutdown to have a lasting effect on global temperature rise, we need an economic recovery centered around green solutions. New research suggests that a recovery that prioritizes green stimulus and climate policy has the best chance of keeping global climate change within the 1.5ºC disaster limit. In contrast, a recovery fueled by fossil fuel bailouts clears a pathway for disaster-level temperature rise by 2050. The decisions we make in the coming months will shape our climate future.
2. Global Wildfires Reach All-Time High
Wildfires were up 13% in 2020, breaking the global record set just the year before. Hotter, drier weather and other climate-driven factors caused record-breaking wildfires in several countries, sparking mass calls for climate action.
Australia:Research shows conditions driven by climate change caused the country’s worst wildfire season on record.
United States: Five of the six largest wildfires in California state history occurred in 2020. In total, over 14 million acres burned across the nation – more than double the previous ten-year average.
Amazon: Driven by drought and deforestation, Brazil’s Amazon rainforest suffered the worst wildfire season in a decade.
The Arctic: Fueled by thawing peat moss, portions of the Arctic shattered wildfire records set in 2019. This region is experiencing temperature rise at twice the rate of the global average.
Argentina:Runaway controlled burns, intensified by severe droughts, caused devastating, months-long wildfires throughout the country.
3. Climate Action Went Digital
This year, climate activists leveraged technology to mobilize their communities while adhering to widespread social distancing safety measures.
Earth Day 2020: People around celebrated the 50th Annual Earth Day by attending virtual events. Speakers like Bill Nye, Pope Francis, and John Kerry tuned into Earth Day’s official 12-hour live stream to give talks about the state of the climate.
Climate Ambition Summit 2020: With the COP26 climate conference postponed until 2021, several European countries honored the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement by hosting a global online summit.
TED Countdown: In 2020, TED launched Countdown, a global initiative to accelerate solutions for the climate crisis. The official event featured talks from over 50 climate leaders, with over 600 TEDx events held concurrently worldwide.
Digital Climate Strike: Digital participants supported September’s climate strike by installing plug-ins that blocked access to their websites during the protests.
4. Global Progress on Emissions Reduction
From major carbon commitments to innovative plans for clean power, 2020 has been a foundational year in the search for a green path forward.
China: China, far and away the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, announced a plan to go completely carbon-neutral by 2060.
Sweden: The top ranking country in the global Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) for the fourth year in a row, Sweden continues to make impressive progress towards reaching net-zero emissions by 2045.
Denmark: Denmark, the EU’s largest oil producer, recently announced plans to end all offshore oil and gas pumping by 2050, focusing instead on carbon capture and storage technology and offshore wind farms.
Australia:Australia began exporting solar power to Singapore and parts of Indonesia via a 3,700 kilometer underwater cable, helping reduce the countries’ dependence on natural gas imports.
5. Extreme Decline in Global Biodiversity
Populations of birds, mammals, fish, and reptiles are declining at a staggering rate. The 2020 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report, which monitors 21,000 groups of nearly 4,4000 species, found global animal populations have plummeted an average of 68% in the last 50 years. Latin America and the Carribean have been disproportionately impacted, losing an average of 94% and 84% of their native wildlife, respectively.
Changing land use for food production is the biggest driver of habitat loss; about 50% of the world’s habitable land is already used for agriculture purposes. The 2020 report underscores the importance of developing ways to feed the growing human population while preserving precious natural habitats.
6. Mentalities Shift on Climate Change
New research from Yale’s Climate Change Communication program shows a major shift in attitudes towards climate change in the United States. The program sorts citizens into “Six Americas” – with climate mentalities ranging from “alarmed” to “dismissive.”
A recent survey found nearly six in ten Americans now rank as “alarmed” or “concerned” about the state of the climate. This marks a substantial change from prior studies – in 2014 the climate “dismissive” and “alarmed'' claimed similar shares of the population; today, the “alarmed” outnumber the “dismissive” three to one. The dramatic shift suggests that the US population as a whole is becoming more conscious of the urgent need for climate action.
7. The Corporate Race to Net-Zero
In order to stabilize rising temperatures, companies across the world will need to reimagine the way they do business. This year, numerous major corporations responded to rising consumer demands for action with ambitious plans to reduce their climate impact.
Microsoft: Announced plans to go carbon-negative by 2030 – effectively removing the equivalent of all the carbon the company has ever emitted by 2050.
Apple: The tech giant announced it plans to go completely carbon neutral by 2030, meaning every Apple product sold by this time will have a net-zero climate impact.
Google:Carbon-neutral since 2007, Google announced it purchased “high-quality carbon offsets” to compensate for past emissions and balance its carbon footprint.
Starbucks: In early 2020, the world’s largest coffee chain pledged to become “resource-positive” in water, carbon, and waste by 2030.
Delta: In March, Delta committed $1 billion over ten years to achieving carbon-neutrality, the largest pledge from a major airline to date.
Stripe: In September, the digital payment company launched Stripe Climate, a tool that allows users to direct a fraction of their revenue towards carbon offsets.
8. A Shift in U.S. Climate Policy
United States President-elect Joe Biden has a more ambitious plan for climate action than any president in the country’s history. With over 14% of voters citing climate change as their top priority – second only to COVID-19 and the economy – he has more incentive to maintain his bold commitments than anyone who has ever held the office.
Biden’s carbon plan includes re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement, a transition to clean energy that prioritizes green jobs and smart infrastructure, and action against fossil fuel companies and other polluters that profit at the expense of marginalized communities.
Although the current administration has reversed over 100 environmental regulations, climate advocates have kept the pressure strong. EarthJustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, has filed more than one hundred lawsuits against the Trump administration over the last four years – and they’re winning.
To date, over 80% of settled lawsuits have been ruled in EarthJustice’s favor, including those that protect the Arctic from oil and gas drilling, prohibit coal leasing on public lands, and ensure key health protections against smog.
2020 has underscored the intimate connection between our political, social, and economic realities and our environment. This unprecedented year has shown us the power of globally coordinated action; the coming years will determine if we leverage that insight to combat the climate crisis.
Global change starts at the individual level – and personal change starts by understanding your impact. Joro users track their carbon footprint to find ways to live lighter. Our 2020 Carbon Year in Review breaks down our community’s collective impact.
Ready to jump-start your lowest-impact year on record? Download the Joro app today to develop your own personal climate practice.
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