By Anders Lorenzen
Some say that 2019 was the year which the world finally became suitably preoccupied with tackling climate change, even the British Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas message referenced the issue several times. Others, such as Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, argue that this is a myth and action on climate change is still critically slow.
It seemed that this was the year in which politicians across the world were in competition to have the most ambitious climate strategy. In Denmark, new prime minister Mette Frederiksen declared that hers had been the country’s first climate election. In the UK, re-elected prime minister Boris Johnson published the Conservatives’ most ambitious climate manifesto to date. Climate-denying Australian prime minister Scott Morrison struggled to keep denying the existence of climate change as bushfires, which started in August, raged into December at which point he was forced to admit climate change was a likely culprit, but he still refused to contemplate scaling back the country’s coal investments. In the US, Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez co-sponsored The Green New Deal policy proposal with Senator Ed Markey, which, though it failed in the Senate, became a global climate policy discussion point, with some elements of it being adopted by other countries.
But none of this domestic action translated into meaningful action at the COP25 UN climate change talks in Madrid. The summit did, however, break records as the longest-held COP, continuing with its negotiations for two days beyond the closing day.
The world looked on horrified as deforestation rates in Brazil tripled in the wake of president Jair Bolsonaro slashing regulation which was put in place to limit it. Subsequently, forest fires destroyed and ravaged large parts of the Amazon rainforest.
The public mood
The added urgency in politics was helped along by the mood of the increasingly anxious public, switched on to the fact that extreme weather events seemed to be happening with more frequency and ferocity than ever before. This manifested in new global phenomenons like the School Strike movement, kickstarted by Greta Thunberg (2019’s Time Person of the Year) and the more controversial Extinction Rebellion (XR) climate action group. A good proportion of the public also began to change their habits by stopping flying, eating less meat and examining their consumption behaviour, trends which are predicted to keep growing.
Fossil fuel use
While the sense of urgency around tackling climate change intensifies, however, carbon emissions have kept growing and fossil fuel companies have kept looking for new hydrocarbons, dug for more coal and drilled for more oil and gas. Coal consumption kept growing in China, the world’s largest emitter of CO2. In Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil company Saudi Aramco became a public company opening themselves up as an investable company for global banks, investment funds and pension funds. And despite the severe climate impacts in Australia the government kept expanding their coal industry.
Renewable energy technologies
Renewable energy technology continued to improve in 2019, as did the science of capturing CO2 from fossil fuel power plants. In the UK, the Drax power station is for example controversially converting its plant from coal processing to biomass processing; once the plant is fully converted it could become a carbon-negative operation.
Electric car (EV) adoption continued to move forward, albeit at a slow pace. More car manufacturers rolled out EV models and an expanding the solid used EV market. EVs now represent 0.5% of all cars on the road and analysts agree that infrastructure investment is still crucial for EVs to take fully take off.
Green air travel
In the wake of the new ‘no-fly’ movement, the airline industry has been keen to demonstrate that flying can, in fact, become zero-carbon. Several projects are afoot looking at powering aeroplanes with sustainable biomass, hydrogen and hybrid and electric aeroplanes are also being explored as an option.
2019 was a truly eventful year in the climate, energy and sustainability space. This review has highlighted a handful of the crucial developments which we believe will continue to evolve at a faster speed in 2020.