On the face of it, 2020 was a bit of a disaster regarding environmental issues. It was supposed to be the year of climate action, culminating with ambitious emission-cutting targets at the UN Climate Talks, COP26, in my home city of Glasgow in November. Unfortunately, our old friend SARS-CoV-2 put paid to that plan, though it has been rescheduled for November this year. While the virus reminded humanity how fragile it actually was, the planet continued to heat up, with 2020 turning out to be the joint hottest year on record. The year was marked by horrendous fires in the Amazon, and in the western United States. The Atlantic hurricane season was also the most active on record.
There were, however, one or two glimmers of hope. The European Green Deal has tackling climate change at its centre. Major economies, including China, the UK, France and Japan have made net-zero carbon pledges (although, in the UK at least, one would be cynical about any promises made by the Government).
The UK and the USA
Global CO2 emissions fell by 7% last year (largely due to COVID-19), but they are very likely to rebound this year. In the UK we managed to run for 67 days 22 hours and 55 minutes without coal-generated power. This is the longest we have gone since the industrial revolution. The record came to an end only because a North Yorkshire power station fired up a coal unit for maintenance! The energy mix during the period was 36% renewable, 33% gas, and 21% nuclear. In the US, NextEra (a wind power supplier) overtook ExxonMobil as the largest energy company. Joe Biden has been elected on a platform of climate promises including carbon-free electricity across the US by 2035, and of rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement.
The Falling Cost of Renewables
One of 2020s most positive developments was the declaration by the IEA (International Energy Agency) that the World’s best solar power schemes now offer the “cheapest…electricity in history”. The fossil fuel companies have always made the argument that renewables were too expensive. This argument has, however, always been flawed because it ignores the massive costs of tackling the consequences of climate change. With the falling cost of renewables, the case for ditching fossil fuels can now be made more strongly on economic, as well as environmental, grounds.
New developments in battery technology hold some promise for the environment. Solid-state battery technology could produce batteries that are far more energy dense than the existing lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars. Thus, the push towards a zero-carbon future could be enhanced whilst reducing the need for minerals such as cobalt. Unfortunately, as I understand it, they would not do away with the need for lithium, however.
A growing number of countries are supportive of the idea of adding ecocide (the widespread, severe or systematic destruction of our planet) to the list of crimes prosecuted at the ICC (International Criminal Court). Currently, six ICC member states (France, Spain, Belgium, Finland, Vanuatu and the Maldives) are interested, with more countries said to be taking the idea seriously. In 2020, a heavyweight panel of lawyers was convened to draft a legal definition of ecocide.
There were several victories in pipeline fights in 2020. These included Keystone XL, Mountain Valley and the Atlantic Coast pipeline. Probably the most significant one, though, was the win over HilCorp Alaska’s Liberty Project, the first oil development within federal waters in the Arctic Ocean. The project was approved by the Trump administration in 2018, but the federal appeals court blocked it from proceeding. The court rejected the administration’s improper use of economic modelling to reach the conclusion that the project would have a net benefit for the climate. This is even more significant because this modelling has been adopted by a number of federal agencies in different actions, including the approval of oil and gas activity in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The other win in the HilCorp case was that the Fish and Wildlife Service was found to have violated the ESA (Endangered Species Act) by failing to analyse adequately the risk to polar bears (including both lethal and sub-lethal impacts). This could have more widespread significance because there is not a lot of case law in terms of what constitutes harassment under the ESA. The ruling could, thus, be helpful in fighting other projects that adversely affect endangered species. This is despite the damage that the Trump administration inflicted on the ESA.
Although the news about COVID-19 is relentlessly bleak, with a pervasive feeling that the NHS may be completely overwhelmed by the virus, we constantly have to remind ourselves how far we have come in terms of combatting SARS-CoV-2. Three very effective vaccines are being rolled out, though not at a pace with which any of us are happy. Dexamethasone has significantly improved mortality, and monoclonal antibodies are now becoming available to treat severe cases of the disease. Climate change remains a much bigger long-term threat to humanity than COVID-19, and it is essential that our worries about the virus don’t take our eyes off the ball as far as this is concerned. 2020 saw one or two wins on the environmental front. As my new favourite author, Richard Osman, commented “In life you have to learn to count the good days. You have to tuck them in your pocket and carry them around with you.”