More bad than good. That sums up news related to the environment and sustainability.
This year, scientists warned that about 1 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction. They warned that the world is on track to warm by more than 3°C by the end of this century. It may have crossed a series of climate tipping points, or thresholds beyond which certain impacts, such as the melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, become unstoppable.
But readers in search of positive developments need not despair.
From unwavering climate strikers to billions of trees planted, here are the stories of 2019 that gave the planet—and us—hope.
1. Climate strikes have jolted the world awake
In just one year, Greta Thunberg has gone from the lone teenager on school strike at the Swedish parliament to a global symbol of climate resistance, inspiring people from all corners of the world to hold their own climate strikes and demand that governments act on global warming.
Coined Fridays for Future, the movement estimates 13 million people have taken to the streets so far, denouncing the political inertia which has obstructed climate action for decades. Even in conservative Singapore, the first-ever climate rally drew nearly 2,000 strikers calling for tougher emission targets.
Just as youth climate strikes are on the rise, so are youth climate lawsuits. In September, Thunberg and 15 other youths filed an international complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, saying climate inaction violates children’s rights.
Through traffic-blocking, slogan-chanting marches and increased media coverage and awareness of climate change, the youths have given climate change a new moral urgency, placing increasing pressure on governments to address the problem.
More than 1,000 jurisdictions covering 798 million citizens have declared a climate emergency, and from the European Union and Ireland to Costa Rica and Sweden, nations have announced bold plans to tackle the issue.
Youths will, without a doubt, continue shaping climate politics in years to come.
2. Countries bid farewell to plastics
Plastics are a growing global concern as they pile up on beaches, clog rivers and choke oceans. In 2019, governments stepped up their efforts to address the problem.
Taking the lead is Europe, which confirmed its new single-use plastic ban in January. By 2021, European citizens will say goodbye to plastic items most frequently found to be polluting European seas, including cutlery, plates, food containers and straws. The clampdown on plastics was approved by the European parliament last year.
Other countries have taken similar steps. Canada, for instance, announced in June it would ban disposable plastics by 2021, while India looks to abolish the material by 2022.
Plastics harm marine life, pollute the planet’s most remote corners and have even entered the human food chain. The waste crisis is among the world’s biggest environmental challenges, but 2019 has shown governments have the courage to battle it.
3. We can fix things: The ozone hole is healing
Many of us are too young to remember, but history shows collective action can mend environmental ills. This year, the ozone hole, a man-made weakening of the earth’s protective ozone layer, was the smallest it’s been since its discovery 40 years ago.
In 1987, the world came together to sign a pact, called the Montreal protocol, to phase out most ozone-depleting chemicals previously pumped into the atmosphere.
In recent years, these unprecedented international efforts have proved fruitful. The ozone layer, a blanket that shields humans from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation, is projected to completely recover in the 2030s. The question is: can the world pull off a similar feat to fix climate change?
4. Big banks ditched coal
2019 was a big year for sustainable finance as lenders backed away from funding the single biggest contributor to man-made greenhouse gas emissions, sending a clear signal that the end of the fossil fuel age is in sight.
The European Investment Bank (EIB)—the biggest public lender globally—announced last month it would phase out financing coal, oil and gas projects after 2021, making it the first multilateral bank to rule out all lending that contributes to climate change.
The EIB is not alone; banks across the world quit coal this year as investment risks in the industry grow.
London and Hong Kong-headquartered Standard Chartered Bank, for instance, recently pulled out of three Southeast Asian coal projects, and Southeast Asia’s three biggest banks pledged to cease coal power lending earlier this year. Similar moves have been announced by financial institutions in China and Japan.
Just as banks cut climate-wrecking financial flows, fossil fuel divestments are on the rise, posing an additional material risk to fossil fuel companies.
Coal, a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) shows, is now a dying industry, with the clean energy industry massively outperforming fossil fuel firms.
5. The European Green Deal is to become reality
The European Green Deal—the EU’s answer to the climate crisis—is here, and could help turn the tide in humanity’s favour in the climate change fight.
Under the ambitious plan, the European economy is to be re-evaluated according to the imperatives of climate change and ecological degradation. This will encompass dramatic changes in energy use, farming, housing, transport, trade and diplomacy.
The EU’s commitment to a climate-neutral Europe by 2050 would be enshrined in law. This would make the bloc the world’s first carbon-neutral continent. By 2030, greenhouse gas emissions are to be cut by at least 50 per cent.
The EU vowed to press ahead with the plan at the 2019 UN climate change conference (COP25) in Madrid this month, putting it at the forefront of this year’s global climate endeavours.
6. Meatless meat is on the rise
Meatless products designed to taste like real chicken, beef and pork are taking the culinary world by storm.
Created by the likes of Los Angeles-headquartered Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, another Californian food technology firm, meat-free products don’t come with the vast environmental impacts associated with livestock farming.
Some of these products taste so much like the real thing that even seasoned meat-eaters can’t tell the difference.
The Impossible Burger has seen an explosive surge in popularity most notably in the United States, selling out at many American restaurants in June.
The firm has now partnered with thousands of fast-food restaurants and chains globally to make the burger more widely available. It launched its plant-based meat range in Singapore this year.
While there are no statistics yet to show that plant-based protein is displacing animal protein, these foodtech firms are making it easier for meat lovers to change their diets for the sake of the earth.
7. The pope speaks up for the climate
Pope Francis was outspoken about climate change politics this year, lamenting global climate inaction and calling on businesses and nations to commit to more ambitious targets.
Speaking at a climate change conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in May, the leader of the Catholic church urged finance ministers to put an end to global dependency on fossil fuels and cease engaging in activities that are destroying the planet.
“We live at a time when profits and losses seem to be more highly valued than lives and death, and when a company’s net worth is given precedence over the infinite worth of our human family,” he told the convention.
With more than 2 billion Catholics around the world, Pope Francis’ influence is undeniable and his climate advocacy could well put additional pressure on governments to step up their game.
8. Countries are planting trees
Everyone knows trees are vital to combat global warming. Forests not only suck carbon from the atmosphere; they also provide food and jobs, clean up dirty air, prevent soil erosion and safeguard water resources, making them key to freshwater supply.
Recognising these benefits, some countries launched tree planting programmes in 2019. Ethiopia was at the forefront of this development. The drought-prone African nation recently planted 350 million trees in just one day as part of a larger effort to restore its tree coverage by planting four billion trees.
In Western Europe, forests have grown by an area larger than Switzerland in a decade, and under the European Green Deal, the EU has even more reforestation projects in the pipeline. China, India and Pakistan have also rolled out tree-planting schemes. So have Canada, England and New Zealand.
Forests have been fragmented and destroyed in recent decades as countries felled trees to make space for industry, agriculture and roads, and this year was no different. However, countries showed that given the will, they can still turn things around.
This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the stories that shaped the world of sustainability over the last 12 months.
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