In hindsight: environmental optimism from 2016

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Climate activists in the Lusatia coal fields of Germany shut down one of Europe’s largest open cast coal mines in May 2016 as part of the Ende Gelände campaign. Photo credit: Ende Gelände/350.org via Flickr.

By Andrew Hattle

Arctic sea ice continued to melt, forests were felled and coral died en masse, in 2016 there were ominous predictions surrounding the longevity of summertime polar ice caps and greenwashing merely persisted as a thing. Even the most earnest of environmentalists must be, by now, completely desensitised to last year’s string of broken/records, and has since returned to twitter to vent on #ExxonKnew.

Trump, his cabinet picks, and Brexit were of little comfort and succeeded only in perpetuating uncertainties surrounding U.S. and UK environmental ambitions and the dour narrative of the climate debate in general. Yet whilst western establishments adjusted to new status quos, atmospheric carbon failed in all 12 months of last year to drop below 400 parts per million, encroached on an already dwindling carbon budget and helped average global temperatures surpass 1.5 ℃ above pre-industrial levels in February and March.

So where are the success stories? The pick-me-ups to be taken from what is at first glance, a truly awful year for environmental news.

Despair less – inside and out of political and economic circles 2016 showed that policy, grassroots and technological responses can coax an increasingly inclusive environmental movement forward when faced with big, petite-handed hurdles that you seem to think you’ve met before.

A report released in March by the UN Environment Programme showed record increases of renewable capacity during 2015, especially in developing countries and documented a 5% increase in renewable energy investment globally, doubling those of fossil fuels suffering from dwindling oil and gas prices. The International Energy Association (IEA) confirmed that carbon emissions had been decoupled from economic growth (for a second year running), consolidating renewables as a mainstream energy source able to compete with fossil fuels in business as usual markets, replace coal and help stall global emissions. The reports followed falling costs in renewable power production and preceded increased solar and wind capacity across the globe.

Morocco completed the first phase of its concentrated solar plant, Noor 1, producing 160 megawatts (MW) of solar thermal energy consumed by over 650,000 citizens. On completion, the solar plant will be the largest of its kind, produce 500 MW of power and reduce the country’s carbon emissions by 560,000 tonnes – launching it towards majority renewable electricity by 2030. On wind, Britain gave planning consent to expand the Hornsea One offshore wind project, led by Danish company Dong Energy, with an extra 1.8 Gigawatts (GW) of electricity being provided by 300 wind turbines. Alone, Hornsea One will be the largest offshore wind farm in the world and when combined with Hornsea Two (which may not be the last) the farms will provide close to 1.6 million U.K homes with low carbon electricity and have an output similar to that of Hinkley Point C at a fraction of the cost. Across the Atlantic, Rhode Island may have finally rid the US of its aversion to offshore wind. The 30 MW Block Island Wind Farm is home to the first five offshore US turbines and went online in December last year. Admittedly it’s tiny, but the project is primarily a pilot to show that there aren’t any eco-anarchists hiding out in turbine masts, or whatever. Importantly it is the first offshore development in the US to maintain public and media support for long enough to allow completion – think Cape Wind amongst many others that didn’t – and with 11 commercial leases available for offshore projects in the US with a potential 14.6 GW to offer the energy mix, like all good pilots maybe it’s the start of something more lasting. In 2016 the World Economic Forum got the thoughts of 750 leading economists who came to the conclusion that climate disasters are the new greatest threat to the global economy. Although irritating as it may be that their assertions will likely result in more action on climate change than years of activism and steady dissemination of knowledge, we can hope that any resulting government subsidies, investments in cleantech and installations can maintain the renewables boom.

Last years Medium-Term Coal Market Report, compiled by the IEA, stated that demand for the most polluting and archaic of fossil fuels will not increase over the next five years, and may signal the end for coal in developed nations, at least. China’s coal consumption has been the biggest barrier to global emissions reductions in this millennium, but for the third year running production has continued to decline, suggesting consumption may have peaked in the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitting nation. In the first half of 2016 worldwide coal developments shrunk by 14%, driven primarily by new policies in Asia. China announced that it planned to close 1,000 coal mines in a single year and though it fell well short of targets by mid-summer, oversupply issues can hope to stunt the sector’s growth over the next five years. Similarly, India’s underutilisation of existing coal-fired power stations led to the downsizing of plans for future infrastructure development. Private companies also felt the effect of demand downturns and in April the largest privately owned coal company, Peabody Energy Corp, filed for bankruptcy, which made it the fifth large coal mining company to do so in just 13 months. Grossly excessive spending on lobbying in the years running up to its insolvency made the event pretty enjoyable for those involved in the climate debate that thrive on Schadenfreude.

Across the globe it is clear governments are moving away from coal, the US-based Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign ushered support for Obama’s Clean Power Plan which has led to significant drops in States’ consumption. Britain also announced it will close all coal power stations by 2025 following Europe-wide trends of reduced coal dependency – and although developing economies in Asia tend to absorb decreases in demand elsewhere, opposition is increasing in the continent, and the plight experienced by opposers deserves our solidarity.

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Opinion polls highlight a void between Trump and his base vote on issues surrounding climate. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Polls conducted shortly after the US general election show that Trump supporters, along with the American electorate, aren’t as cosy with oil, gas and a warming planet as he is. A survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that among registered U.S. voters, seven in ten want to act on and uphold the Paris agreement and nearly eight out of ten voters supported taxing global warming emissions whilst just under two-thirds of voters want President-elect Trump to do more on climate change than has been done previously. Here’s to hoping that for the climate’s sake he is the impressionable populist some believe him to be.

However inaccessible and niche the output of climate scientists may seem, they continued to write open letters and have your best interests in mind throughout last year. Possibly-cum-universally alarmed by the Trump administration’s appointment of Scott Pruitt, climate experts are putting fail-safes in place for the sake of humanity. The “guerilla archiving” of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) climate data began in December, seeking to prevent the political manipulation of masses of crucial measurements by safeguarding them in databases. Civil servants and federal employees in the U.S. Energy Department have also been giving the President-elect’s transition teams a hard time by refusing to respond to a questionnaire, recovered by Bloomberg, requiring a list of staffers and contractors who have attended United Nations climate change meetings, fearing its use in post-inauguration ‘witch’ hunts. The backlash against the memo has since resulted in the Trump team “disavowing” the questionnaire stating it was not subject to standard protocols.

Statistics surrounding the treatment of environmental defenders and activists in 2015 were sinister at best and 2016 seemed no different. In the face of indifferent corporate conduct and aggressive policing, grassroots victories continue to prove the worth of organised movements helping to redress the persisting void between policy and public opinion.

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Protesters in San Francisco opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline which poses a major threat to the Standing Rock Sioux and indigenous peoples water supply and to US emissions targets. Photo credit: Peg Hunter via Flickr.

Anti-fracking campaigns have faced institutionalised attacks against the freedoms of protest for years. State sponsored misrepresentation of the fracking industry was exposed in the US this year when it appeared that the EPA downplayed the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, whitewashes later to be corrected after the original press releases leaked. A U.K report summarising the effect of policing and surveillance on anti-fracking protests was published in November by U.K agency NETPOL and stated that ‘zero tolerance’ policing at demonstrations had restricted freedoms of expression. Taking last year’s Britain as a case study, evidence shows support for hydraulic fracturing had never been lower, yet the decisions of local governments were being overturned by Westminster and fracking green lights continued to increase. So when Tina Louise Rothery, a member of the stereotype redefining Nanas protest group was taken to court by fracking giant Cuadrilla after being evicted from a field in Lancashire a day after she and other protesters had already left the sit-in, corporate tactics were questioned. The case – made all the more ironic as Cuadrilla itself had properly overstayed its tenure on a fracking site in 2012 – concluded in October 2016 with Rothery avoiding £55,000 in legal fees and a 14-day prison sentence. The U.K anti-fracking movement’s refusal to be intimidated by well-funded and entirely juvenile legal cases successfully defended public rights to protest and set a strong precedent preventing multinationals from deterring future action. Elsewhere, climate change campaigns continued to progress, in Victoria, Australia fracking and coal seam gas exploration were permanently banned after years of campaigning by the Lock The Gate coalition. In Germany, further regulations banned an already restricted fracking industry from drilling in clay formations. The Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign achieved fracking bans in the Californian counties of Butte, Alameda and Monterey whilst the Keep it in the Ground campaign gained 210,000 supporters in 170 countries since its 2015 inception. Sierra Club collaborated with Keep it in the Ground to organise with the Standing Rock Sioux and indigenous Water Protectors to successfully halt the high profile and widely opposed Dakota Access Pipeline. The 350.org led Fossil Free divestment movement, in conjunction with the Divest-Invest campaign, celebrated a report compiled by Arabella Advisors declaring the value of assets divested from fossil fuel companies had reached $5 trillion in December, amounting to more than the net worth of all listed oil and gas companies.

Looking to 2017, a reactionary political landscape will demand that society takes the initiative on climate change and the only way for the layperson to do so is to engage in the debate. Whether this is achieved through a vote, consumer choice or affiliation with a movement – 2016 showed that actions like these can amount to greater change and that there is still the possibility of a low carbon version of society, it’s probably just waiting patiently for us at the end of some grotty tunnel.

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2 responses to “In hindsight: environmental optimism from 2016

  1. Pingback: Interview: As Rex Tillerson takes office, renewables in Russia are as distant a pipe dream as always | A greener life, a greener world·

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