The top 5 carbon and climate stories in 2015

Record-breaking natural disasters made headlines this year, but so did unprecedented efforts by the global community to put the brakes on climate change. Here are the top 5 carbon and climate stories from 2015.

calcutta heatwave respite
A man in Calcutta, India, seeks some respite during a summer heatwave that sent temperatures soaring beyond 40 degrees celsius in many parts of the country between May and August. Image: Saikat Paul /

Climate change and its impacts dominated global headlines this year. On one hand, the scale of disasters such as floods, heatwaves, and typhoons - many of which broke records for their intensity and the damage they caused - underscored the urgent need for the world to rapidly bring down greenhouse gas emissions. 

On the other, a growing momentum among businesses and governments to support climate action culminated in the historic Paris Agreement, a universal deal where almost 200 countries committed to reducing emisisons.

Here are the top 5 carbon and climate stories of 2015: 

1. Historic climate change deal in Paris

After two decades of political wrangling, negotiators from 195 countries signed the first ever universal climate change deal in Paris on December 12, a move leaders hailed as the dawn of a “low-carbon age“. 

The Paris Agreement aims to ensure that by the second half of the century, greenhouse gas emissions will be low enough to limit global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” above pre-industrial levels, and ideally, below 1.5 deg C. 

Countries, which in the lead-up to the summit submitted climate action plans known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs, will also review and strengthen their pledges every five years. They will also ensure that at least US$100 billion of climate finance is available to developing nations by 2020. 

But while businesses hailed the deal as one which would boost low-carbon investments and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it a “resounding success for multilateralism“, civil society leaders were more circumspect. 

Observers said that the 188 pledges made by countries prior to the deal only limit temperature rise to 2.7 deg C - more than the acceptable target of 2 deg C. The agreement, some added, also did not guarantee a transition away from fossil fuels. 

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim noted: “The conference in Paris produced an agreement that went beyond our expectations. We must now move with ambition that matches this historic deal.”

2. Record breaking temperatures - and damage

Meteorological readings around the world this year showed that 2015 was the hottest on record.

The United States National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)  in July and September warned that global sea and land temperatures since the beginning of the year had been the hottest on record since 1880, and that there was a 97 per cent likelihood that this year will be the hottest on record.

Meanwhile, the UK Met Office said in November that for the first time ever, the world was one deg C hotter than pre-industrial levels; “uncharted territory” for the planet. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) also predicted that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will hit a new high of 400 parts per million (ppm) next year, far beyond the safe limit of 350ppm.  

In addition to human causes, scientists also attributed this year’s record highs to weather phenomenon El Nino - which is associated with abnormally hot and dry weather. This year’s El Nino - deemed the biggest in over 15 years by WMO - is expected to linger into early next year, putting 2016 on track to be as hot as, if not hotter, than 2015.  

Things are likely to get worse in coming years, the UN agency for disaster risk management said. In a report, it found that 335 weather-related disasters were recorded per year between 2005 and 2014, twice the level recorded between 1985 and 1995.

3. Religion takes on climate change

Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic church, in June released a hard-hitting encyclical or teaching letter that made headlines all over the world when he urged the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to take rapid action on climate change. 

Titled ‘Laudato Si’, or ‘Praised Be: On Care of Our Common Home‘, the 180-page document called for a reduction in carbon emissions, an increase in policies that favour renewable energy and warned of the long-term effects of continuing to use fossil fuels as the main source of global energy

In the second half of the year, Islamic and Hindu scholars also issued separate statements urging their followers - about 3 billion people in total - to shift to using clean energy, and adopt sustainable lifestyle habits such as a vegetarian diet.

 4. World’s first successful climate lawsuit 

A Dutch court in June delivered a landmark ruling that will have global implications when it ruled that the government had a legal obligation to protect its citizens from the dangers of climate change.

This lawsuit, initiated by the  the Urgenda Foundation, a sustainability based non-government organisation, and nearly 900 co-plaintiffs, was the first successful climate change action to be taken in a court of law.

The Netherlands court ordered the government to slash its emissions reductions by a quarter from 1990 levels by 2020. This is a higher target than the government’s planned cuts of 16 per cent below 1990 levels. 

The successful lawsuit also sparked similar cases around the world. In November, 21 children from the United States filed charges against President Barack Obama, accusing the federal government of violating the youth’s constitutional rights by supporting fossil fuel development. 

And as the UN climate talks kicked off in Paris, the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, in response to a petition by Greenpeace and survivors of disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan, announced it would investigate fossil fuel companies for their role in causing climate impacts, such as extreme weather events.

5. Demand grows for a global carbon price 

Momentum picked up this year among the public and private sectors for a global carbon price, with leaders saying it was “the only way” to achieve the emissions reductions targets needed to curb dangerous climate change.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Philippines President Benigno Aquino III and French President Francois Hollande, joined other world leaders in October to issue a statement urging governments and businesses to set up carbon markets and tax emissions.

This call was reiterated on the first day of the Paris climate summit, when the heads of  state called for a price on carbon, arguing that it was the most efficient way to drive investment away from dirty technologies and support clean ones. 

The private sector also joined in. In late November, more than 360 institutional investors representing over $24 trillion in assets called on governments to provide “stable, reliable and economically meaningful carbon pricing” to support clean

Additional support for carbon pricing came from an unexpected source: The world’s biggest oil and gas companies. In June, six firms including Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Total, and Statoil, called on the UN’s climate change body to introduce carbon pricing, arguing it would “reduce uncertainty and encourage the most cost effective ways of reducing carbon emissions widely”. 

This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene in each of our 11 categories.

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