As the end of 2020 comes to a close (we made it!), I have noticed many have taken the time to reflect on the environmental wins and losses of the year. While some believe the environment has been cast to the side and a forgotten cause, some claim we have made some of the biggest environmental victories yet this year.
Like many things, the truth usually lies somewhere down the middle. Yes, we have made progress this year, but we still have a long way to go. We must take the time to celebrate our wins but remain aware of the hills and mountains left to climb.
As many of you know, the team at A\J have been writing a weekly column called WTF (the Week this Friday) where we take the time to reflect and report on the environmental stories from the week passed. As one of the most pivotal years of this century comes to a close, we think it is only fitting to highlight the environmental wins and losses of the year…WTF 2020!
1. Air pollution levels lowered from the coronavirus
One silver lining from lockdowns this year was the eco benefit it seemed to have on the natural world. Less people moving around translated to less greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Guardian, back in March, at the height of China’s lockdown “NO2 levels were down by 38% from 2019 and levels of PM 2.5 were down by 34%”.
Unfortunately, as lockdowns eased up, people began moving around again and the highest polluting industries wasted no time in recovering. According to scientists from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, once lockdowns eased up again in spring/summer, NO2 levels in China quickly recovered.
According to scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, emissions would have to drop by approximately 20-30% for 6 to 12 months to actually make a difference. However, global emissions this year likely only dropped by about 7% compared to 2019.
One of the few good things that came out of the coronavirus pandemic was the realization that we could live in a much less mobile world. During lockdown, we witnessed massive reductions of global CO2 and other GHG emissions which contribute to climate change (even if this was just temporarily). Experts and citizens alike encouraged decisions makers that this is the time to rebuild in a more sustainable way. Unfortunately, unless governments get serious about rebuilding into a more green recovery, it looks like we are just going to go back to our old ways.
2. New Delhi drops down to second place in the most polluted city in the world
This year, Lahore, Pakistan was named the most polluted city in the world with a particulate matter (PM) rating of 423with an AQI (air quality index) of 301. In previous years, New Delhi was ranked the most polluted city. This year, they dropped down to second place with a PM rating of 229.
For reference, the US Environmental Protection Agency has previously stated air that is “satisfactory” falls under an AQI of 50.
Years of smog, dust from construction, and crop burning have all likely contributed to such high PM and AQI levels. Air quality in Lahore worsens from October to February when farmers are most likely to burn their crops, which contributes to the overall smog problem. To protect themselves from the pollution, Lahore’s residents are advised to wear a mask, run air purifiers and close windows in their homes, and avoid outdoor exercise.
3. The Amazon forest fires
Back in August, 2020 was on course to be the worst year in over a decade for deforestation in the Amazon. Illegal tree loss was accelerating. In May, after facing immense global pressure, Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, had sent in the army to fight illegal logging – this plan was dubbed ‘Operation Green Brazil 2’. Although this was likely all just for show (deforestation has accelerated ever since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, growing by 209%).
One area of the forest that had fared worse than the others in tree loss was Rondônia, an area that has seen growing deforestation since the mid-80’s. Rondônia is almost the same size as the UK has been burned and cut down to make way for crops and logging businesses. In the summer, NBC Forensics focused on Rondônia as the military was sent in – meant to track the ‘successes’ and accomplishments of Bolsonaro’s mission.
Bolsonaro falsely claimed the mission a success. However, the figures supplied by the government’s own space research agency demonstrated deforestation rates in May of 2020 and higher than in May 2019. In fact, the government’s own data showed that deforestation is increasing every single month since the previous year for 13 months in a row.
What is happening in Rondônia is a reflection of what is happening throughout the Amazon. Eventually, the Amazon will reach a tipping point, where the tree loss will result in a rainforest that cannot produce enough rain to sustain itself.
4. Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement
This year, the United States officially withdrew from the Paris climate agreement.
It was first announced back in 2017 that Donald Trump would back out of the Paris agreement. However, the Paris agreement requires nations to wait a minimum of three years before giving notice to leave (partly to prevent future presidents from withdrawing from the deal in the name of short term interests). This is why the US did not formally leave until the end of 2020.
The United States is ranked the second top polluting country, accounting for over 15% of global emissions. Pulling out of the agreement poorly reflects the values of American in regards to climate change.
However, this news isn’t all bad. Joe Biden, new president elect recently announced that his administration will rejoin the Paris agreement once he takes office. Phew!
5. Canada’s proposal to ban single use plastics and a new Net zero plan
My favorite story of the year!
This year, Ottawa announced single-use plastic straws and plastic shopping bans are among the six items that the federal government plans to ban in 2021. The six items include: stir sticks, six-pack rings, plastic cutlery and plastic food take-out containers. This decision is part of a broader initiative to divert plastics from landfills and classify them as a “toxic substance”.
This ban is one of elements of a broader plan on their list to reach zero plastic waste by 2030. The government will consult on it’s plans this December because they are sure to experience pushback from industry groups and the Albertan government which have already voiced concerns – especially about the toxic classification on plastics. Alberta is worried that this federal plan will undermine the provinces’ petrochemical sector and its goal of becoming a plastics-recycling hub. Instead, Alberta states that Ottawa should focus on creating a circular economy whereby plastics from manufacturing go through recycling.
Environment and Climate Change Minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, pressed on that the ban is necessary because of the significant harm plastics are causing to Canada’s wildlife and coastlines. A daunting statistic was mentioned: In Canada, only 9% of the plastic that is thrown out is recycled. The government also plans to set recycled-content requirements on products and packaging and will further consult with all provinces and territories to set up these targets. Additionally, earlier this year the federal government released a draft state-of-the-science assessment on plastic pollution – effectively arming Ottawa with the scientific basis to regulate plastics. Basically, the assessment discussed the dangers of macro and microplastics causing harm to the environment and on wildlife.
Members of Greenpeace have criticized the ban, saying that this is simply not enough of a response for the severity of the global plastics problem. I would have to disagree; I think this is a great first step.
Moreover, other governments have tried to implement a ban on single use plastics in some form or another in the past (read about Laredo’s plastic bag ban), and have lost because big oil won’t go down without a fight and is eager send their reps into the courtroom or lean on old legislation to prevent a plastic ban from going through. With these past failures in mind, I would rather take small victories over a huge loss.
6. Coral reefs: The Great Barrier Reef moved to critical conservation outlook
According to the International Union for Conservation for Nature (IUCN), the health of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s most extensive and once spectacular coral reef ecosystem, is in a critical state and deteriorating as climate change warms up the waters in which it lies. The Reef has lost more than half its coral in the past three decades. Coral-bleaching in 2016, 2017 and now 2020 has further damaged its health and affected its animal, bird and marine population.
Coral bleaching occurs when hotter water temperatures destroy the algae which corals feed on, causing them to turn completely stark white. Because of mass bleaching events, the IUCN moved the reef’s status to critical and deteriorating on its watchlist. Some activities which threaten it, like fishing and coastal development, can be tackled by the management authorities.
“Other pressures cannot be addressed at the site level, such as climate change, which is recognized as the greatest threat,” the IUCN explained. Although efforts to safeguard the reef are rising, the process has been slow under a long-term sustainability plan through 2050. HSBC and the Queensland government said back in October that they would buy “Reef Credits”, a tradable unit that quantifies and values the work undertaken to improve water quality flowing onto the reef.
According to Optimist Daily, “Buying one credit is the equivalent of removing one kilogram of nitrogen from the water, or preventing 538 kilograms of sediment from entering the ocean.”
7. The rise of jobs in the sustainability sector (Netflix, Microsoft… did big hirings this year)
As a sustainability grad, one of the most promising changes (stories) of the year was witnessing the rise of jobs in the sustainability sector. Companies that would have never before considered hiring a team “to make them more green” now have huge departments all focussed on reducing company emissions and leaving behind a better legacy. To name just a few examples, this year Netflix, Microsoft and Tesla have all been making major hiring moves in sustainability.
According to ECO Canada, “In the next 3 – 5 years, 84% of sustainability consulting firms expect to hire, creating about 400 new positions. A further 3,800 new jobs will be added to this number as 46% of other sustainability employers increase their staff…The top employers of sustainability professionals are governments (employing 27% of sustainability professionals), research institutions and not-for-profits (24%), large companies in manufacturing, oil & gas, mining, forestry and utilities (10%) and businesses in retail, finance and insurance (10%).”
Good news for sustainability!
8. The Earthshot Prize
Source: Flood Control Asia
Move over Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize for environmentalism is coming through!
Back in October, Sir David Attenborough joined forces with Prince William to launch “The Earthshot Prize”. According to BBC, this is the biggest environmental prize to date. They are searching for 50 solutions to the world’s biggest environmental problems, allocating five one million-pound prizes (valuing at $1,704,300 CAD each) to be awarded over the next decade.
Prince William believes this prize could be the positivity that the environmentalism movement is missing, “The Earthshot prize is really about harnessing that optimism and that urgency to find some of the world’s solutions to some of the greatest environmental problems,” he told the BBC.
According to the Earthshot website, the prize was inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s Moonshot, “which united millions of people around an organising goal to put man on the moon and catalysed the development of new technology in the 1960s.” Attenborough believes it’s this same spirit that can guide the next generation of thinkers and dreamers to solve some of earth’s problems.
The announcement came just after Sir David Attenborough released his latest documentary, “A Life on Our Planet”.
I am looking forward to seeing where this goes.
9. Tree’s ability to socialize and “speak” to each other.
This December, the New York Times shared that forests are social and communicate with one another through dense fungi networks in the soil below the canopy.
More specifically, “trees and fungi form partnerships known as mycorrhizas: Threadlike fungi envelop and fuse with tree roots, helping them extract water and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen in exchange for some of the carbon-rich sugars the trees make through photosynthesis.”
Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, has been studying these relationships in the wild, coastal forests of North America. Through her research, Sinard discovered that these fungal threads link EVERY tree together in the forest- even ones of different species!
These linkages allow vital molecules including carbon, water, and other nutrients to pass through the network circuits. Wait, it gets better. Simard also stated that chemical signals are also passed through this network, allowing trees to signal to others nearby when there is danger.
“If a tree is on the brink of death, it sometimes bequeaths a substantial share of its carbon to its neighbors.”
Is anyone cutting onions in here?
10. Doug Ford’s conservation authority changes
In December, the Ontario government passed its new budget bill. One major change to this bill was the new constraints on the conservation authorities in the province to regulate development and “introduced new channels through which developers can obtain permits.”
According to the Globe and Mail, there are 36 conservation authorities in Ontario (with most of them in the southern end) all tasked with protecting the various watersheds that make up the province. This might include operating dams, defending against flooding or erosion, regulating development on wetlands, protecting water sources, and managing natural parks. Ultimately, conservation authorities are nature’s defender against poor land use policies.
Unfortunately, their ability to defend will be threatened with the upcoming changes as a result of the new bill. And this isn’t the first time the government has tried to sidestep these authorities. Past budget cuts and using ministerial zoning orders (MZO) has allowed the government to circumvent the rules and bypass conservation authorities.
Schedule 6 of the new bill will only add to this momentum. Changes include:
- The conservation authorities must now issue a permit once an MZO has been issued
- Developers can more easily appeal a conservation authorities decision
The decisions ultimately allow developers to take the path of least resistance if they want to build on a naturally significant area, while making it harder for conservation authorities to fight back and stand up for what they are meant to do.
11. Buzzworthy – Honeybee venom shown to kill cancer cells
Now here is some news to buzz about, scientists in Australia have found that Honeybee venom has been linked to killing some aggressive breast cancer cells. This exciting news shows signs of hope for treatment of breast cancer – which is the leading cancer in women across the globe, representing 25% of all cancers in women.
Melittin – the compound within the venom were used to destroy two cancer types: triple-negative and HER2-enriched. Bee venom has been discussed to have anti-cancer properties before but there is still a long way to go from watching cancer cells be destroyed in petri dishes to being applied in medicinal practice.
It does provide us with hope and has proven to be yet another prime example of how nature is really the best doctor we have. Dr. Ciara Duffy a 25-year-old PhD researcher led the study and found the venom killed the cancer cells within an hour! We hope to see more development with this great news, and hopefully it increases acceptance towards incorporating more holistic approaches to cancer and medicinal treatments. Now that is buzzworthy.
12. Stay away poachers: rare white giraffe is now being tracked
Being the only white giraffe left is causing a stir up around the world to protect the remarkable creature, the extremely rare giraffe now has a tracker attached to it in order to trace its whereabouts hourly – this allows rangers in Kenya to monitor the giraffe and keep it out of danger from poachers. The device was planted on one of the horns on the animal on November 8th..
The white colour of the giraffe is from the absence of pigmentation in its skin – also called leucism, which is a rare genetic condition that can affect a variety of animals. Due to its rarity – the animal is in a critical position to stay alive as the rest of its family has been killed off by poachers and making this one especially lucrative in the poaching and wildlife trafficking underground market.
The conservation status of the species as a whole is vulnerable, with over 68,000 giraffes in the world. Two white giraffes of the same family were killed in march and there was discussion that there was one found in Tanzania in 2015. With the tracking device, this hopes to protect the vulnerable giraffe and keep it out of harm’s way.
13. Shell Canada going carbon neutral
Shell will become the first gas retailer in Canada to offer a program that offsets emissions from customer fuel purchases with an optional buy-in at the pump. The Drive Carbon Neutral program will be available to 1,400 stations Canada wide. The program allows customers to offset their carbon emissions from fossil fuels for two cents a litre. Shell states that many of their carbon conscious customers were demanding them to do more. They also stated that many individuals cannot afford to buy an electric car but still want to offset their carbon footprint – this will allow this to happen. This is a model that was taken from a program in Europe, which saw positive feedback and adoption levels with nearly 20 percent of people in the Netherlands using it.
Shell also announced their plan to reforest British Columbia in a partnership with Central Chilcotin Rehabilitation. They aim to plant 840,000 native trees in effort to resort much of what was lost in the 2017 wildfires. They plan to do this over a two-year planting period, with the cost being unreleased. Meanwhile Environmental Defence is arguing that this is “pure greenwashing”, as it directs the cost onto the consumer rather than the giant who is profiting from the world using fossil fuels.
14. A galaxy of microfibers in California – literally
Invisible but plentiful is a good way to describe the unfortunate situation of the plastic microfiber problem. A whooping 13.3 quadrillion (yes, quadrillion) plastic fibers are found in California alone – that is more than 130,000 times more fibers as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. In 2019, an estimated 4,000 metric tons were released into California’s natural environment. With these fibers ending up in our water systems, a study found that 73% of fish caught at mid-ocean depth in the Atlantic had microplastics in their stomachs.
The fibers are under 5mm in length and most often come from washing materials in our laundry. Mostly from synthetic fibers that make up our clothing, they go from our washing machines all the way to our water streams. Just one load alone can pass out more than 700,000 fibers alone. The amount of microfibers shed also depends on the material, wash temperature, detergent, etc.
15. Hottest Temperatures EVER recorded
We hit a record again! There is no surprise of temperatures reaching soaring highs with the rising records of fossil fuels emissions, every year seems to hit a new heat record. But Death Valley held the flaming torch of the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth, sitting at 54.4C (130F).
Death Valley is a desert valley in the Mojave Desert that lies 86 meters below sea level. It is one of the hottest places on Earth but these soaring temperatures this high have never been accurately recorded before. There were extreme heat advisories, urging people to not walk in the desert past 10AM.
It serves as the hottest air temperature ever recorded, this begs the question of what is to come in the future. It is so hot, that the sweat evaporates so fast off your skin that you actually don’t feel wet. Talk about a hot – n – not sweaty?
16. Zero carbon flights by 2035?
By 2020, we may have already expected flying cars – while our expectations may have been sold short, we do have something as exciting in the talks. Transportation giant Airbus has revealed their plans for the first commercial emission-free flight by 2035. Airbus has three ZEROe concepts in store, all to use hydrogen to power the planes.
In order to truly make this a feasible carbon-free option, it relies on finding large quantities of renewable or low-emitting sources of hydrogen. As this process currently relies mostly on methane and fossil fuels – it is not exactly a low-carbon option but more innovative solutions to hopefully come in future announcements.
One of the concept designs could carry up to 200 passengers for more than 2,000 miles. This is a milestone waiting to happen in the aviation industry and would mark a remarkable moment in history – with hopes that all travel and transportation can one day be emission free.
17. Google now has a carbon footprint of zero.
The tech giant has set the bar again. Although already being carbon neutral since 2007, Google now has offset their entire carbon footprint to ever exist. While many in the technology industry are right behind Google – such as Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft has released a statement to become “carbon negative” by 2030, and Apple is announcing to be carbon neutral for their business and the supply chain for their products by 2030.
Google is also moving into using carbon-free energy by 2030 by using renewable energy such as solar and wind to power their operations. They also plan to increase their use of battery storage. Artificial intelligence will also come into play by allowing AI to forecast the demand of electricity. This shift would create over 12,000 jobs in the span of five years. Not only will it be good for the environment to turn away from oil and gas but it will also contribute to the economy, as they vowed to no longer create AI for oil and gas exploration. Nice one Google!
18. Thailand will shut national parks regularly to protect nature
Footsteps are not the only things left on the beach. Many tourists flock to Thailand to enjoy their sandy beaches, crystal clear water, and a beautiful culture. Being a travel and tourism hotspot for many years, this has left a lasting impact on the natural environment.
However, thanks to COVID-19, the closure of parks has allowed nature to recover by seeing the return of whales and turtles. This is a lesson that speaks volumes as the Natural Resources & Environment authorities now want to close the national parks yearly for two to four months to ensure the ecosystem and wildlife health remains stable and is not overexerted.
Thailand has more than a 100 national parks and attracts between 10 – 20 million visitors, with this year expecting to drop below 7 million visitors. While tourism is one of the main economic pillars for Thailand’s economy, amounting to one-fifth to their gross domestic product, it could not keep up with the unsustainable degradation the heavy tourism brought. In order to sustain future tourism and a healthy ecosystem, Thailand conservation authorities saw first hand through the pandemic how with time, nature can begin to restore itself.
19. We can see penguin colonies from space
Want the good news or the bad news first? We’ll start with the good. Emperor penguins are very difficult to study due to their extremely remote nature, making them often inaccessible with Arctic temperature conditions dropping below -50 degrees celsius. But good news, a new study using satellite mapping tech reveals that there are 20% more emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica than was previously thought. The scientists from British Arctic Survey (BAS) explain that they used images from European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission to locate birds. They were able to find 11 new emperor penguin colonies, three of which were previously identified, but not confirmed. These findings take the global census to 61 colonies around the continent.
BAS scientists have been searching for new colonies for the past 10 years using land-based research methods. Dr. Peter Fretwell, a BAS geographer, says that satellite images have enabled scientists to discover colonies that would have been extremely difficult to find otherwise.
Now here comes the bad news as promised, the colonies are so few and far between that this discovery takes the overall population count up by 5-10% to just over half a million penguins in total. Emperor penguins are known to be vulnerable to loss of sea ice (their breeding habitat). Given current climate change projections, this habitat is likely to further decline. Most of the new colonies are on the edge of the breeding ground meaning that they are likely to be lost as the climate warms.
20. Water is now trading on wall street
Water, a necessity to all life on our planet, is now being traded on Wall street. We should have seen this one coming, another natural resource commodified and brought onto Wall street. CME Group – the company in charge of managing the contracts states that water will be traded on Wall Street due to the fear of rising scarcity in the future. As with other traded commodities like oil and gold, the price will fluctuate due to supply and demand.
According to the Nasdaq Velez California Water Index, the price of water has doubled in the last year, and the market price of it is at 1.1 billion dollars. On December 7th the trading price started at $486.53 per acre-foot equating to 1,233 cubic meters.
Water contracts are a first of their kind, incubated by the heat and wildfires in California, this change hopes to protect the resource for California’s consumers to indicate the scarcity and the value it holds. Over 2 billion people live amongst water scarcity around the world…This foreshadows the grim future of millions of people getting displaced by this factor. Not only will water limit industries, but it will trickle down to limited supply for human consumption too.
Well 2020 being crazy and turbulent are just a few words we can agree on describing this year in a nutshell (basically this year was one big WTF, right?) With the ever so dynamic natural world and constantly shifting state of politics, it can often make it hard to keep up with what is going on in the ‘green’ world. That is why our team has had the pleasure of picking our top six weekly environmental stories in our weekly column, The WTF (The Weekly This Friday).
We hope to have even more environmental wins for 2021 for us to document every Friday – yes we are extending the series into the next year (woo!) We are hoping to hear less about the pandemic and leave it in the rearview mirror of 2020, and make more strides and reach even more environmental triumphs. We hope you had the pleasure coming along this ride with us of reading these stories as much as we had writing them.
Greta Vaivadaite is a Journalist, Online Editorial and Social Media Coordinator at Alternatives Media. Greta has completed her undergraduate studies at York University in Environmental Management, and completed her Masters of Environment and Sustainability at Western University in 2020. Her professional interests lay in advocating for environmental education, sustainable fashion, and a greener travel industry.
Alexandra completed her Masters degree in Environment and Sustainability at Western University. She also holds a Bachelor’s of Science from the University of Windsor with Honours in Environmental Studies, where she concentrated in Resource Management and was actively involved in undergraduate research. Outside of academia, she enjoys hiking, camping, and spending her summers on the beach in Prince Edward Island.