On the climate and energy front, 2016 was a year of contradictions. Again and again, our planet smashed global temperature records. The fingerprints of climate change were visible in extreme weather from the North Pole to Louisiana. But the clean energy sector also hit some major milestones. Wind and solar power expanded rapidly as costs fell, demonstrating that a high-tech, low-carbon future is within reach.
As Donald Trump and his phalanx of science deniers prepare to take office, the world prepares to press on with climate action in spite of this new reality. Between incredible technological progress and enormous environments threats, the tension we saw in 2016 is likely to grow. Here are the energy and climate stories we’ll be following closely next year.
November 4th marked a historic milestone for global climate action, when the Paris accord entered legal force. A few days later, the world’s second largest carbon emitter elected a climate skeptic to the highest office in the land. Trump has promised to drop the Paris accord ASAP, and his cabinet appointments over the past month have only solidified the notion that this administration will be hostile to climate progress. A lack of US leadership would not only make it much harder to meet the accord’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, it could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, causing other countries to backpedal too.
But maybe not. At a UN climate conference last month, China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, reaffirmed that it was committed to climate action, no matter what Trump does. If the US backs out of the Paris accord, China—whose leaders supports clean energy for economic and political reasons—could find itself setting a global example and steering developing nations toward a low-carbon future. And if the geopolitical implications of this got back to Trump, he may be less eager to abandon US commitments.
Over the past year and a half, President Obama has been on an absolute tear with new environmental protections and climate rules. He introduced the Clean Power Plan, which would compel existing power plants to cut carbon emissions by a third by 2030. He helped craft new rules to limit oil and gas sector emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas with over 80 times the short-term warming effects of CO2. He placed a moratorium on new coal leasing on federal land, and banned offshore drilling in vast swaths of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. He helped push the Paris climate accord toward ratification.
Now, Obama’s environmental legacy has been thrown into question, as some of his most vociferous critics get fingered for top cabinet positions. Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General leading a coalition of states in suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan, has been picked to lead the EPA. Trump’s Chief of Staff, Reince Preibus, has described climate science as mostly “a bunch of bunk,” while future National Security Advisor Michael Flynn doesn’t believe the climate is a national security priority. Rick Perry, who has been nominated to oversee that federal energy agency he has trouble remembering the name of, has suggested that a “substantial number” of climate scientists manipulate their data for profit. And let’s not forget that Trump has nominated Rex Tillerson, CEO of the world’s most profitable oil company, to be our next Secretary of State. While Tillerson is an outlier among Trump’s picks in that he actually believes in climate change, his solution is basically to drill for more oil.
In short Trump is assembling one of the most oil-friendly, climate-allergic administrations in US history. What this means for the fate of individual Obama-era climate policies is not yet clear, although we can bet most of them will be hotly contested. Climate progress in Washington, already glacially slow, seems on the brink of freezing over entirely.
Earlier this fall, the International Energy Agency dropped some very welcome news: In 2015, renewables accounted for more than half of all forms of newly-installed power-generating capacity globally. The world added 153 Gigawatts of new wind and solar capacity in 2015—mostly in the form of land-based wind turbines and solar arrays, and mostly in China. Last year’s promising growth is but the latest indication that years of favorable government policies, combined with falling costs, have helped this nascent energy sector gain a foothold. The IEA says growth trends are likely to continue, with a projected 42 percent increase in renewable energy capacity by 2021. US clean energy trends seem to be tracking the global pattern, with promising growth in both onshore wind and rooftop photovoltaic cells last year.
No matter what sorts of policies are enacted in Washington or elsewhere, the clean energy sector seems poised to continue growing next year, especially with Elon Musk promising to make solar rooftops sexy and offshore wind booming in European waters. As far as our climate is concerned, that’s undeniably a good thing.
2016 will be the third year in a row that global temperature records have been shattered, but our planetary hot streak is expected to end next year—temporarily. Contributing to this past year’s global temperature spike was one of the strongest El Niño events on record. But with El Niño gone and its climactic counterbalance, La Niña, already here, a vast region of the equatorial Pacific that’s been releasing extra heat into our atmosphere is now expected to draw heat back down. The regional effects of La Niña are every bit as complex as those of El Niño, but the global effect may be a slight dip in Earth’s thermostat. Of course, the climate oscillations of El Niño and La Niña are a small blip atop the long-term global temperature trend, which is definitely still upwards.
Even if 2017 isn’t another year for the record books, scientists will continue to study how a warming climate is influencing ecological and meteorological events around the world—from catastrophic coral bleaching to weakening Arctic sea ice to longer and more destructive fire seasons.
At the American Geophysical Union conference this month, NOAA released the fifth edition of the annual report “Explaining Extreme Events From a Climate Perspective.” Overall, scientists found evidence that human-caused climate change played a role in multiple types of extreme events in 2015, including ten heat waves, an intense wildfire season in Alaska, extreme springtime rains in China, and record winter sunshine in the UK. So-called weather attribution studies have already identified several events in 2016—most notably Louisiana’s record August floods—that appear to have been made more likely by global warming. As meteorologists have pointed out, 2016 also featured quite a few tropical cyclones whose behavior was consistent with what we predict a warmer future will bring.
Wind, solar and nuclear power are all going to be important parts of our low-carbon energy future, but they aren’t the only game in town. Recent years have seen a proliferation of exciting new clean energy concepts, from wave-powered seafloor carpets to tide-powered underwater fences to an Icelandic effort to harness heat from the Earth’s molten underbelly (because clearly, everything is more badass in Iceland). Then, of course, there’s fusion power, the ultimate clean energy source that always feels about fifty years on the horizon, although perhaps that’s because we keep cutting our most promising fusion research programs.
In terms of mitigating the effects of the carbon we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere, science and technology are entering the discussion more and more, from new methods of sucking carbon right out of the air and burying it deep underground to some intriguing but potentially very dangerous geo-engineering schemes.
If past years are any indicator, 2017 will bring more hype, hope, bitter disappointment and cautious optimism when it comes to the energy sources and climate solutions of the future. Me, I’m still holding out for that space-based solar array we’ve been promised for the last fifty years.