This is the last edition of Current Climate for 2021. Instead of the usual Climate Talks, I’m using that space to recap the biggest sustainability stories of the year. The next edition of Current Climate will reach your inboxes on January 8, and Climate Talks will focus on nuclear energy—a topic many of you have enquired about.
☀️Off to a good start. In 2020, for the first time, renewables generated more electricity than fossil fuels across the EU, spurred on by new solar and wind power projects.
💪David versus Goliath. In January, an appeals court in The Hague issued a landmark verdict against Shell, finding the energy giant’s Nigerian subsidiary responsible for four out of six pipeline leaks covered by an oil spill case lawsuit, as well as declaring that the parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, had violated its duty of care. The lawsuit was brought by Nigerian farmers as well as the NGO Friends of the Earth, which later in the year scored another milestone victory against Shell.
🇺🇸The U.S. is back. President Joe Biden returned the U.S. to the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, January 20, reversing a decision from his predecessor to break away from the international climate agreement. On Earth Day, April 22, Biden committed to halving U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.
⛏Cryptocurrency reckoning. In May, Elon Musk announced a u-turn on his prior decision to let bitcoin holders use the cryptocurrency to buy Tesla cars, citing its energy use (and sourcing) as major factors for the change of heart.
🛢Fossil fuels must fall. In its first-ever roadmap to net zero, the International Energy Agency called for phasing out all unabated coal and oil power plants by 2040—a goal central to the discussions at the UN Climate Conference COP26 later in the year—as well as ending all new fossil fuel developments.
🧑⚖️Historic verdict. Shell suffered another court defeat of the year at the end of May, when a Dutch court ordered it to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030 from 2019 levels. Shell intends to appeal the verdict.
🚒The little engine that could. Activist investment firm Engine No. 1 managed to get three of its four proposed director nominees elected to the board of ExxonMobil, a defeat for the oil and gas giant that reflected the increased sway of sustainability concerns among shareholders not just at Exxon, but at some of its competitors, too.
🚨Sounding the alarm. A comprehensive assessment of climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change affirmed “it’s unequivocal” that climate change is caused by human activity, and that global temperatures have already risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, contributing to the extreme weather events—from drought to floods, from wildfires to deep freezes—witnessed across the world. Humans face the prospect of a warmer and less habitable planet by the end of the century if drastic action isn’t urgently taken to reduce emissions.
⚠️Building back badly. An initial economic recovery from the pandemic drove demand for coal power, contributing to a jump in greenhouse gas emissions that had briefly fallen in 2020 because of worldwide lockdowns. In the first half of 2021, electricity demand and emissions were 5% higher than in the same period in 2019.
🌎A tarnished milestone. COP26 in Glasgow ends with a dramatic last-minute change of language softening the final outcome’s call to end coal power from “phasing out” to “phasing down.” It’s nonetheless the first time that the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change is recognized in such an agreement—one of the mixed results delivered by the UN Climate Conference. In the best case scenario, the pledges countries committed to during COP26 fail to limit a rise of global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.