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Global Carbon Emissions Actually Fell in 2020, and We Can Keep the Momentum

Sustainability News
by Tim Wenger Dec 31, 2020

This is The Climate Win, the most positive sustainability news around the world every week.

New Year’s Eve is upon us, signaling the end of a dramatic and, for many, disastrous year. The term “silver lining” hardly seems appropriate to qualify positive developments during a pandemic that has taken the lives of 1.8 million people worldwide and upended the stability of millions more. Still, we’d be remiss to not acknowledge that 2020 was in many ways a monumental year in the fight against climate change. This is a year-end roundup done Climate Win style.

The world watched rush hour disappear seemingly overnight in March as more than one billion people globally endured lockdown measures. Non-essential businesses sent employees home, where the fortunate learned to fire up Slack and Zoom rather than their car engines at the break of each new workday. Travel came to a near-halt, with borders sealed and the fate of the airline industry tossed into chaos. We pulled the plug on in-person entertainment and flocked instead to streaming services and virtual happy hours. As lockdown measures loosened with the warming weather of spring and we adjusted to — or at least accepted — the chaos, summer and fall became seasons of cautious road trips close to home and evermore video streaming. We also hopped on bicycles and took over the streets of our cities like hordes of two-wheeled ballyhoos, some of which we never gave back.

The end result was a stunning seven percent decline in global carbon emissions from last year, according to the Global Carbon Project.

To be sure, 2020 will go down as a dark year in history, both for the travel industry and for humanity at large. But on the climate and justice fronts, it will also be remembered as the year we learned what is possible because we were, at once, forced to see it play out before us. Through forest fires and hurricanes, through a terrifying pandemic and a knee on the neck of the innocent, we learned that the people who keep our shelves stocked, our stomachs fed, and our hearts beating are the true heroes. We learned to get by with less and had more time to call old friends for a laugh.

And we learned that Mother Nature still has our back, even when those in power don’t have hers. Americans headed en masse to their public lands in 2020. Getting outside gave us something to do when the restaurants, bars, sporting events, malls, and everything else we took for granted weren’t viable options. Fortunately, this proved the economic value of protecting public lands, highlighting the importance of conservation and outdoor recreation in combating climate change.

Many also came to understand the importance of honoring the original inhabitants of those lands, furthering the call to protect them, and that environmental justice is not just a faint cry from the sidelines but the best conceivable way to move society forward.

This year, solar power became the cheapest way to produce and distribute energy to the masses, and with technology increasing and prices dropping, renewable energy and the electric vehicle sector have the power to make that seven percent drop an annual occurrence. Initiatives like 30 by 30 — protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050 — are gaining steam worldwide. Carbon capture and storage is newly on the rise and clean energy research and development is a massive part of the new coronavirus relief bill in the United States.

Seven percent is not a large number. And indeed, past periods of emissions drops have seen rebounds and eventual gains as society simply “returned to normal.” But we didn’t have the technology or the environmental foresight in 1918, 1945, or even 2009, that we do now. Seven percent year over year puts us at net zero emissions by the mid-2030s, within range of the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement and with a fighting chance at preserving much of Earth’s biodiversity and the habitats that support it.

The world’s biggest polluters are waking up to the need for climate action. The results of the US election in November promise to sweep a collective of climate advocates into prominent federal and state positions the likes of which our country has never seen, with the power to re-establish the US as an innovator on the world’s most pressing issues. As travelers, it is our duty to use the knowledge gleaned from our ever-broadening perspectives to support this in every way we can, starting with traveling more sustainably once it’s safe to do so.

Reader, we finally have both momentum — and, soon, Obama’s former EPA director Gina McCarthy — on our side. Let’s do 2021 like our future depends on it.

More climate wins

Electric airplanes are closer than ever to being commercially ready for flights under 500 miles, according to a report from Quartz. Hybrid and battery-operated planes could be in the air as soon as next year, if all goes right, their research and interviews found.

Also on the sky-high front, Japan Airlines has launched what it has dubbed the “Ethical Choice Meal Skip” option, which gives passengers the chance to skip an airline meal they probably wouldn’t eat anyway and thus prevent it from being prepared in the first place. The goal is to reduce food waste and is part of the airline’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

We close the year by looking forward. The National Park Service released its annual list of days you can visit national parks and monuments for free in 2021. The free-for-all starts with Martin Luther King, Jr. day on January 18 and concludes with Veterans Day on November 11.

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