Somehow, not everything was bad this year.
Don’t get me wrong, 2020 was terrible. Covid-19 caused unprecedented suffering around the world, hitting the environmentally exploited communities the hardest. It also interlocked all kinds of other crises, like poverty and climate disasters. The oil industry went belly up, but even that’s not worth celebrating, because so many workers got laid off in the process while shareholders’ profits were protected.
But there were also some glimmers of hope for the future of our planet. The climate movement enjoyed some big victories, and polluters took some major Ls. Here are five of the biggest wins for the planet in 2020.
The energy industry took a massive hit due to plummeting fuel demand sparked by covid-19 lockdowns. But renewable energy proved resilient. One report found that nearly 90% of new electricity infrastructure installed this year will be renewable, and that by the end of 2020, global renewable power capacity will increase 7%.
Globally, offshore wind had a particularly great year. A Bloomberg NEF analysis showed that investors poured $35 billion into new offshore wind projects in the first half of 2020. That’s more than 300% higher compared to the same period in 2019. And in the U.S., solar is soaring. Trade group research released this week shows that solar installations are expected to climb 43% by the end of the year, almost keeping pace with industry analysts’ pre-pandemic forecast.
Renewable energy has more growth in store. Bloomberg analysts expect that the world will see 1,123 more gigawatts of wind and solar capacity installed by 2024, which is more capacity than the U.S. currently has available. New, exciting forms of renewable energy are set to come online, too. In May, Ohio legislators approved a proposal to build North America’s first-ever freshwater offshore wind farm. It won’t be easy to erect, but if built, it could generate 20.7 megawatts of energy or enough to power 7,000 homes and serve as a proof of concept for elsewhere.
This all shows the transition away from coal, oil, and gas is already taking place, but we shouldn’t just leave it up to the market. Rather, world leaders should pour even more funding into clean power and ban fossil fuels to make sure the switch is happening even more quickly, and in a just way. We need to protect workers and vulnerable communities from the harshest parts of the transition, and we need to make sure new energy sources are produced in sustainable ways for people and the planet. So sure, there’s tons more work to do, but let’s stop and celebrate for just a second.
This summer, climate activists won a battle they’ve been fighting for years. A judge ordered that the Dakota Access Pipeline must be shut down. A district court found that an important federal permit that the Army Corps of Engineers gave Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s developer, was in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, and thus, it had to be scrapped.
The order was a response to a lawsuit that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe launched four years ago, when mass protests against the pipeline on their reservation were reaching a fever pitch. In the litigation, leaders said the underground oil pipeline would pollute their primary source of water, which they use for drinking, fishing, and traditional ceremonial practices.
This win was particularly heartening because the fossil fuel industry and its allies in government had fought so hard to keep the pipeline alive. Water protectors’ 2016 protests were met with violent attacks by the police, military, and National Guard, and military-style surveillance from a private security firm. Clearly, powerful people really wanted this horrible project up and running, and were willing to go to great lengths for it.
The fight isn’t completely over. The July ruling could still be appealed and overturned, and as for the movement, some water protectors are still facing federal charges that could land them in prison for 110 years. Officials should pardon them immediately, and the court should uphold the order to scrap the pipeline as a start down the road to justice.
The end of the Trump administration is certainly good news for the climate. Our next president has put forth big climate plans—but President-elect Joe Biden has also tapped people with ties to polluting industries for his administration and failed to commit to a plan to get off oil and gas. More exciting are the Green New Dealers who are set to step onto Capitol Hill next session.
Important climate leaders won re-election. That includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, who together introduced the 2019 resolution on a Green New Deal. It also includes all of AOC’s fellow members of the squad–Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley—all of whom have been day one champions of the transformative climate agenda. In fact, as Earther found earlier this year, of the 93 House co-sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution who ran for re-election this year, just one lost their race.
Capitol Hill will also see some new faces who support big, bold environmental policy. There’s Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman, who won his Congressional race in New York. He ran on an unabashedly progressive platform, including support for a transformative Green New Deal and an overhaul of U.S. foreign policy to promote climate justice. Another incoming House freshman, Rep.-elect Cori Bush, is a strong champion of environmental justice. There were some pretty heartening wins further down the ballot, too.
These wins show what polls have shown us for a long time: The vast majority of Americans support climate action. There’s a real future for transformative climate policy out there if we’re willing to fight for it—and fight for the candidates who will push it through.
When Bank of America announced that it will no longer fund oil and gas drilling in the Arctic earlier this month, it became the final major U.S. bank to make that kind of commitment, joining Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Chase, Wells Fargo, and CitiBank. That’s awful news for the companies looking to expand their drilling operations in the region, but it’s great news for the planet.
Bank of America’s announcement followed years of public pressure from climate organizers. They’ve caught particularly high levels of heat since last fall when a coalition of environmental groups launched Stop the Money Pipeline, a campaign to call out Wall Street firms’ role in the climate crisis.
The commitment also followed cratering oil prices, meaning banks are unlikely to see big returns on oil and gas anyway. Activists have also said that if energy companies buy up new Arctic leases, they’ll take those firms and the banks who finance them to court. So it’s not as though Bank of America made this announcement for purely altruistic reasons. But still, it’s good news, and it shows that pressure can work, particularly with an assist from economics.
As always, there’s more to do. Fossil fuel companies looking to drill could still turn to smaller financial institutions, like private equity firms, for money. Those smaller firms tend to charge higher interest rates and expect faster returns on their investments, so they may not exactly be a safe bet, but still, it’s possible.
Environmental and Indigenous rights organizations are still fighting to end Arctic drilling, preparing comments to submit to the federal government on their call for input on newly opened leases while continuing to push banks, asset managers, insurance companies, and even public relations firms to end their relationships with polluters.
The science is clear that the climate crisis and environmental degradation are getting worse, and that human actions—really, mostly the actions of the powerful—are to blame. But numerous findings this year once again show it’s not too late to change course.
When one splashy November study claimed that even if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide, the world has reached the “point of no return” for climate change, experts eviscerated it. They said it was unscientific and pointed to trusted climate models that show the opposite is true.
It’s not too late to solve our massive issues with plastic pollution, either. Yes, the world is on track to triple the amount of plastic we dump into the ocean within just two decades. But that same research also found that the world could reduce that rate by 80% if leaders take the problem seriously. And world leaders are weighing a kind of Paris Agreement for plastic, indicating they may be ready to do just that.
We can get the Earth’s biodiversity crisis in check with bold action, too. A major World Wildlife Fund report released this year found that globally, plants and animal populations have fallen 68% since 1970, which is horrible. But United Nations researchers found while the world has failed to meet its biodiversity goals, it can still pursue transformative changes that would reverse this downward trend. We can—and should—restore ecosystems, overhaul our food systems to boost productivity and minimize harm, transition to a mostly plant-based diet, boost pollinator populations, and stop using fossil fuels.
It’s a lot but it has to be done. This year showed us that another world is possible. Whether we get there depends on how quickly we can act.