It’s still hard to believe the year we just had. But we made it!
2020 was terrible for almost every human being alive. Nonetheless, it brought some good tidings for planet Earth. Greenhouse gas emissions dropped thanks to the COVID-19 economic slowdown. Renewable energy prices continued to fall, and as we discussed in The Current Climate, 2020 was the year Big Renewables defeated Big Oil.
And best of all? Some of the world’s biggest emitters, from China to South Korea to Japan to the European Union, made real pledges to reduce emissions to net zero by mid-century.
Nonetheless, the progress made in 2020 to keep the climate stable and keep the planet healthy for humans and nonhumans alike was not enough. Despite the emissions decline, 2020 will likely go down as the hottest year on record.
Thankfully, 2021 could be planet Earth’s best year ever.
Below is an optimistic and realistic scenario for how the coming year could play out for the planet:
#1: Biden comes out swinging
Even without congressional cooperation (which may be a pipe dream even if Georgia goes blue), the Biden administration can do a lot for the climate. They’ll have their hands full managing the pandemic, but the President-elect’s rhetoric and appointment choices point to a robust plan to tackle the climate crisis.
What could that look like? Biden could (and definitely will) reverse Trump’s dangerous environmental rollbacks which would go a long way. He should end new oil drilling on federal lands. He can protect lots of federal land — from oil drilling and other harmful activities like mining and logging.
Biden has talked a big game about the severity of the climate crisis and the urgency of a unified federal response. Only time will tell if he’ll make good on his word. As I wrote last year, we need a rapid mobilization like World War II to kick the climate crisis to the curb.
But as he said as the pandemic raged in March 2020, “I give you my word as a Biden: When I’m president, I will lead with science, listen to the experts and heed their advice, and always tell you the truth.”
He’ll enter the Oval Office in two weeks. If he makes good on his promises and leads with science (on COVID and climate change among plenty of other areas), he may go down as the most impactful President in modern American history.
#2: COP26 is a raging success
When the Paris Agreement was negotiated in 2015, countries planned to evaluate their progress five years later. A climate change conference planned for November 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland was postponed by a year.
The postponement of COP26 was a letdown. But while there’s still a lot more talk than action on climate change, a total of over 110 countries (representing more than 65% of global emissions and more than 70% of the world economy) have now set net zero emissions targets for the middle of the 21st century. This aligns with guidance from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that emissions must fall by half by 2030 and that carbon neutrality must be reached by 2050 to avoid worst-case warming scenarios.
So this November, with more momentum than ever given the recent spate of major net-zero pledges, the world has a golden opportunity to keep that momentum and deliver some knockout punches against the climate crisis. Combined with growing pressure from climate activists like Greta Thunberg and a favorable economic environment (see below), COP26 could permanently turn the climate tide and reorient the world toward a 1.5 degrees Celsius warming pathway, which would make my day (and year and decade and maybe my life too!).
#3: Renewables dominate
In October 2020, the International Energy Agency concluded that in some parts of the world, solar energy now offers “the cheapest source of electricity in history.” It’s not a coincidence NextEra Energy Partners, a major utility with America’s largest fleet of solar panels and wind turbines, became America’s most valuable energy company that month.
Renewable energy got much cheaper in the 2010s. Like most kinds of manufacturing, renewable energy — like solar and wind — gets cheaper the more you build. No one foresaw these steep cost cuts at the beginning of the decade, and as big players like the world’s major automakers get serious about renewables, this trend will continue unabated.
For decades, critics have derided renewable energy as economically inefficient. That argument no longer holds, and as governments and companies alike ditch fossil fuels, the scales will only tip further.
Like most things these days, the fight to keep climate change within reasonable limits will sadly come down to dollars and cents. As the economic case for going green wins out, even the staunchest defenders of the dirty status quo will face a reckoning.
#4: Lifestyle shifts
COVID may spell the end of Big Commute. After some rough patches in the spring as we adapted to Zoom, it’s now commonplace to conduct important business from the comfort of your messy living room. That means a lot less commuting going forward — by planes, trains, and automobiles.
But another big chunk of the global greenhouse gas pie brings more promise to reduce emissions: food.
We must end our global addiction to fossil fuels. Nonetheless, we cannot forget about industrial agriculture. It’s arguably the most insidious aspect of modern capitalism, and it’s a large percentage of the 26% of greenhouse gas emissions that come from food. Since much of that comes from methane, industrial agriculture is especially noxious for the planet.
Bitcoin might have all the headlines right now as the wave of the future. But don’t sleep on the potential for meatless diets to revolutionize the global food landscape and upend the climate calculus. Nostra-Danny predicts the 2020s will be the turntables (thanks Michael Scott!) for forgoing meat. In 100 years (or less, hopefully), we will look back on industrial agriculture the way we see slavery and Jim Crow: unconscionable moral catastrophes.
Food isn’t the only major area of opportunity beyond fossil fuels. Check out Project Drawdown’s handy list of 100 solutions; many of them don’t involve fossil fuels at all. From refrigeration to more equitable education to cookstoves, there’s plenty of work to be done to make the world cleaner, fairer, and more sustainable.
Optimism remains difficult in the face of a bevy of major existential threats to the planet. Don’t confuse the potential for progress with reality: these things will be hard, and powerful obstacles will fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo.
But the alternative is unthinkable. We cannot despair and shrug as the world burns and melts. We cannot give in to hopelessness or ease the pressure on governments, companies, and other major players as the necessity of going green becomes clearer by the day.
We have a lot to gain and too much to lose if we don’t. This is the only home we’ve ever known, and as Carl Sagan reminded us three decades ago, we have a responsibility to preserve and cherish this pale blue dot.
Let’s hope 2021 is the year we protect the planet and turn the climate tide.