The year that was 2020 - a climate story
The newsletter for people "woke" on carbon and climate
|Walter McLeod||Jan 3||5|
Issue No. 59
Welcome to the latest issue of Carbon Creed - a curated newsletter for people “woke” on carbon and climate.
2020 was a pivotal year in (human) climate history.
It was a monumental year for just about every kind of news, and climate news was no exception. As the world reeled from the shocks of the coronavirus pandemic, racial tension, and economic collapse, it also dealt with deadly heat, hellacious wildfires, and the most active Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history.
We may also remember 2020, as the year the world started to reverse centuries of damage to the climate. Just before the start of the year, the European Commission announced a new Green Deal, which would go on to become the centerpiece of the continent’s economic recovery plan. Several more of the largest global economies—including China, which is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other country—also came out with net-zero pledges.
As oil and gas prices plunged due to the pandemic, NextEra Energy Inc., the world’s largest supplier of wind power, overtook Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. to become the world’s most valuable energy company, bar none. And in November, the U.S. voted to make Joe Biden, who adopted climate change as one of his signature campaign issues, its next president.
IN THIS ISSUE we feature the top climate news stories of 2020 with some help from the talented writers at Bloomberg Green. Then we reveal what happened to the 2020 lexicon when the climate crisis met a global pandemic - get ready to stretch your vocabulary. All in the spirit of wishing 2020 a hasty “adieu.”
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The biggest climate stories of 2020
(source: LA Times/Shonagh Rae)
As we put the year 2020 into the rearview, the folks at Bloomberg Green decided to take a moment to reflect on and begin to process the most important climate stories of this insane, overwhelming, anguished, historic year. We thank them for this excellent summary of highlights from a pivotal year.
Disasters got worse
Fires were especially bad this year—particularly in northern California. But we also experienced an unprecedented Atlantic hurricane season, and it was hotter than it’s ever been in some places. Phoenix set triple-digit heat records, and Siberia hit 100 degrees. There was a record number of climate disasters that cost us $1 billion. Climate migration had already begun, but more than ever, people started to wonder: Is it time to move? —Emily Biuso, editor
Climate change mitigation became an economic positive
The Covid-climate parallels write themselves. Among the most significant: stopping Covid-19 is by far the best economic stimulus. The same goes for climate change. Environmentalists and some climate economists have long argued that addressing climate change is a win-win: a win for the climate, and for the economy. This fall, the IMF joined the fray. The reasoning: decarbonizing the economy is a major undertaking, requiring large investments in clean, efficient technologies. Climate success, in short, looks like more economic activity, not less. None of that means the transition will be costless. Far from it. Much like ridding the world of Covid-19 might hurt some companies, from Amazon to Zoom, so will cutting carbon to zero—and then some. Enabling a “just transition” is key, a term that has entered the vocabulary of staid economic institutions like the IMF and is front and center in president-elect Joe Biden’s climate-economic planning. —Gernot Wagner, Risky Climate columnist
Everything happened in the Arctic
Every possible climate change story played out in the Arctic at some point this year. Ice melting, sea level rise, fires, extremely high temperatures, permafrost thawing, infrastructure collapse, extinction of species, uncontrolled carbon and methane release. Warming in the Arctic is happening so fast that the region has gone from being the perfect example of what will happen in the rest of the world if we don’t cut emissions. This year, scientists embarked on the largest Arctic expedition in history to gather data and understand the region before it all but disappears. At the same time, natural gas exporters benefitted from the thinning ice that allowed for the longest ever navigation season along the traditionally challenging Northern Sea Route. —Laura Millan, reporter
Clean energy dreams got closer to reality
Before 2020, the idea that America could—or would—fully rid its electrical grids of carbon emissions was practically a moonshot. But in 2020, that moonshot became something of a national calling. Joe Biden, as a presidential nominee, didn't just take the unprecedented step of making climate change a centerpiece of his campaign, he proposed greening the country's grids by 2035, outpacing the targets of California and other progressive states. None of that will be easy. While many large U.S. utilities have pledged to hit net-zero emissions in the next three decades, some say the technology necessary to achieve Biden’s goal doesn't yet exist. —Brian Eckhouse, reporter
Companies came clean on climate risk
Despite the administrative turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic, more companies than ever before are disclosing their climate impact and risks. The annual report from the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure (of which Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority shareholder of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, is the chair) found an 85% year-over-year increase in transparency practices aligned with its recommendations. Meanwhile, CDP, formerly known as the Climate-Disclosure Project, had almost 10,000 companies disclose to its platform, a 14% increase on last year. These practices are crucial to evaluating corporate climate-change impact and setting meaningful goals. And they aren’t likely to be voluntary for much longer. This year, New Zealand and the U.K. became the first countries to say they’ll require companies to disclose their climate risk. —Todd Gillespie, reporter
Investors got responsible—in a big way
Sustainable investing has been growing for some time now—in fact, investments under the environmental, social, and governance label, or ESG, nearly doubled over the past four years globally to encompass more than $40 trillion in assets. Still, 2020 will mark a pivotal moment for the power of the green investor. It started with a bang in January when BlackRock added its $7 trillion heft to the Climate Action 100+, an investor coalition that pushes companies to reduce their greenhouses gases. The pace was accelerated further by Covid-19. As the rest of the market swooned in the early days of the pandemic, active ESG managed funds outpaced the market and won new converts. While investors are no substitute for government regulation and not every ESG fund is actually interested in cutting carbon, the markets are already showing their power to force companies to disclose carbon emissions and create plans to cut them. And the trend seems set to continue—some predict 60% of the market could be ESG by 2025. —Leslie Kaufman, reporter
Fires reached science fiction-scale
As climate change worsens, our only frame of reference for it may be science fiction. That was already the case in September, when California’s biggest fires on record singed the sky a color we’ve collectively seen only once before, in the 2017 movie, Blade Runner 2049. The orange-red skies kept entire regions locked indoors during a pandemic that made outside the safest place to be around others. This year began with historic fires half a world away in Australia, where high temperatures and persistent drought set the stage for extreme conflagrations. Even the Arctic, which many of us used to know as permanently cold and frozen, saw anomalous blazes, including “zombie fires” that burned underground through the winter before roaring back to life. Warming-stoked fires are no longer in the future. They’re in the immediate past and present, and the climate conditions that encourage them are growing only more intense. —Eric Roston, reporter
The global economy went green
Eight out of 10 of the world's largest economies—including China and Japan, the first and fifth largest emitters in the world—have set goals to reach net-zero emission within decades. Once Joe Biden takes office as president, the U.S. will increase that list to nine. If these countries deliver on those promises, the world will come within spitting distance of keeping warming below 2º Celsius. —Akshat Rathi, reporter
2020 climate words of the year
Remember the Australian bushfires? Back in January, the unprecedented blazes looked like strong candidates to make wildfires the disaster theme of 2020, even as news buzzed in the background about the spread of a mysterious new coronavirus. Instead, the bushfires were simply an inauspicious start to a year when the world got very, very tired of hearing the word “unprecedented.”
Each December, dictionary editors consider how our collective vocabulary has changed and pick out a word that captures the year’s spirit. Last year, some selected phrases that expressed concern for our overheating planet, like climate emergency and climate strike. This year, unsurprisingly, it was all about the virus. Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com played it straight and went with pandemic. Collins Dictionary, in Scotland, picked lockdown. In an unusual move, Oxford Languages decided that “2020 is not a year that could neatly be accommodated in one single ‘word of the year.’”
The pandemic ushered in swift and widespread changes to the lexicon. Little-known concepts like social distancing and respiratory droplets suddenly turned up in everyday conversation. We borrowed words that sounded like they belonged to another era or a scary movie, like quarantine. People coined some “fun” words too, as much as life in a pandemic can be fun: Doomscrolling, covidiot, and maskne (mask-induced acne.)
The rapidly changing climate sparked new words, too. This year, our picks focused on the ones that slipped into popular use. Some are related to the pandemic, like anthropause and ghost planes, while others reflect new ways of talking about the anger and anxiety brought on by our warming planet. We hope you enjoy the pickings!
A period of diminished pollution following the COVID-19 lockdowns.
When the world started quarantining earlier this year, traffic, air travel, and factory production slowed.
Air pollution temporarily improved around the world; people started hearing birdsong again. Global carbon emissions dipped by an estimated 7 percent. In June, a group of scientists published an article in the journal Nature that christened this period the anthropause, from the Greek anthropo-, meaning “human.” It’s a reminder of how human activity radically reshapes the planet.
Someone who is convinced the world is headed straight for all-out collapse.
If last year was all about “OK, boomer,” this year’s motto could be “OK, doomer.”
These are the people who are waiting for the world to fall apart. Doomerism is a mindset that short of a miracle, problems like climate change, food shortages, refugee crises, and political instability will lead to the near-term collapse of civilization — so why even bother to try and stop it? Climate scientists like Michael Mann push back at this narrative, arguing that there’s still time and hope for action on climate change. A lot of doomers, some from Gen Z, hang out on subreddits like r/doomer and r/collapse, where you’ll find people saying things like, “Sometimes I wonder how we are not all walking around in a state of pure unquellable panic” (one answer:psychic numbing) and “What signs of collapse do you see in your region?”
Oppression in the service of climate action or conservation.
“Nature is healing. We are the virus.”
During the anthropause earlier this year, people posted this line on social media alongside genuine pictures of clear skies or doctored ones of dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice. The memes reminded some of a dark corner of environmentalism: the idea that human suffering can help heal the planet. In the 20th century, some conservationists used this logic to justify racist and anti-immigrant policies. Eventually, the internet turned” nature is healing” into a joke that satirized this way of thinking, using it to caption images of Lime scooters abandoned in a lake or dinosaurs roaming Times Square.
Ghost flights, n.
Planes that fly empty.
This spring, growing fears of coronavirus and lockdowns meant that most people stopped flying.
But many planes kept taking off anyway, often nearly empty, burning through thousands of gallons of fossil fuel. In the United States, the financial rescue package passed by Congress in April required airlines that received aid to keep flying to every domestic airport they normally served, no matter if they had passengers. Some European airlines flew empty because of an old policy where airlines needed to keep flying or risk losing their competitive time slots at major airports. Ghost planes are just as scary as they sound — nothing beats air travel if you want to supersize your carbon footprint.
Offsetting the carbon dioxide you emit by making sure that the same amount gets sucked up by trees, plants, machines, or other things.
Corporate executives have started talking differently about the climate crisis, even if the words they were using, like net-zero, were kind of inscrutable.
The phrase net-zero has been around for a while, but it took on new meaning this year when Amazon, Unilever, Shell, and other big corporations pledged to aim for net-zero emissions. Turns out that many companies ignore the bulk of their emissions using this measure, instead considering only a select piece of their operations. Corporate jargon is sneaky, and words like climate-neutral, carbon intensity, and carbon-negative can get pretty confusing. That doesn’t mean they’re meaningless, though.
A QUOTE TO THINK ABOUT
“Talk of ‘saving the planet’ is overstated… Earth will be fine, no matter what; so will life. It is humans who are in trouble.” – Stewart Brand
The Keeling Curve a daily record of global atmospheric CO2 concentration.
Congressional Policy Tracker a summary of current federal energy legislation.
Click Clean your favorite apps and tech company clean power rankings.
Advancing Inclusion Through Clean Energy Jobs a report by the Brookings Institute.
Understanding ESG a series of ESG-focused thought leadership webinars for business and investors, presented by Baker McKenzie.
Temperature Check, a weekly podcast about climate, race, and culture hosted by Andrew Simon.
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