When it comes to the environment, 2016 brought a steady stream of grim news.
CLIMATE RECORDS MADE
The year will almost certainly hold the prize for the hottest in recorded history, eclipsing the records set in 2015 and 2014. Researchers tracked how Antarctic ice sheets continue to melt and how the Arctic continues to warm. Coral reefs are dying. Air and water problems keep surfacing around the globe. Some scientists are predicting that sea levels will rise even more than expected in coming decades, while others are linking extreme weather events to the changing climate and detailing how environmental and climatic factors are fueling the spread of Zika and other devastating diseases.
So, yeah, pretty dismal.
NOT ALL BAD NEWS
At the same time, it’s not all bad news out there. The year saw some clear signs of environmental progress, too. Rare though they were, these five environmental stories were true bright spots:
5 ENVIRONMENTAL STORIES
1) GLOBAL CARBON EMISSIONS APPEAR TO HAVE STOPPED INCREASING. A picture is beginning to emerge of a world where the increase in emissions of carbon dioxide seems to be flattening, despite countries’ continuing use of fossil fuels. In the United States, emissions are actually going down.
Data from the Global Carbon Project suggests that global emissions have not changed for three years straight. Moreover, the cause has not been a global recession — growth has continued. What appears to be happening is a “decoupling” of economic growth from carbon emissions, thanks to more clean energy and other lower-emitting sources of energy like natural gas. From the perspective of the climate system, it isn’t enough for emissions to flatten; they actually have to go down (and down and down). But this plateau is a very good start.
2) WORLDWIDE, WIND AND SOLAR ARE BOOMING. The U.S. solar industry has experienced a blockbuster year. According to one recent report, the industry added a record 4,143 megawatts (or million watts) of solar-generating capacity in the third quarter of 2016 alone, with similar growth projected in coming months. Wind energy also had a record year, with thousands of turbines popping up from the U.S. heartland to Europe to China. This nation’s first offshore wind farm also became a reality off the coast of Rhode Island.
That growth shows few signs of slowing. A report this fall from the International Energy Agency said renewable energy products surpassed all other sources of new electricity in 2015, with wind and solar leading the way. Renewables still account for only about 23 percent of the electricity produced worldwide, according to the report. But the agency predicted that will increase to 28 percent by 2021, as the costs of building wind and solar farms continue to decline.
3) WORLD LEADERS SEEM DETERMINED TO COMBAT GLOBAL WARMING (WELL, MOST WORLD LEADERS).
In late 2015, leaders from nearly 200 countries joined a landmark climate accord negotiated in Paris. Each country pledged to help slash greenhouse-gas emissions, with the goal of avoiding the most drastic effects of global warming in the decades ahead. In 2016, countries began the first steps of backing up those promises. In October, the accord officially entered into force when more than 55 countries, representing more than 55 percent of global emissions, ratified the deal. The following month in Morocco, representatives took initial steps toward implementing the deal’s ambitious goals.
That said the fate of the Paris accord is uncertain. The United States pledged to cut its emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below their 2005 level in the coming decade, but whether the country can meet that mark remains unclear. Other countries face similar obstacles. And even if countries meet their initial pledges, experts say the world must scale up its ambition over time. In addition, President-elect Donald Trump promised during his campaign to “cancel” U.S. participation in the deal, raising questions about whether other countries would stick to it if the United States abandons its leadership role.
Workers drill at the CarbFix I pilot carbon dioxide injection site in Iceland in 2014. Steam emissions from the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant are visible in the background. (Juerg Matter)
4) TECHNOLOGY IS PROVIDING A GLIMMER OF HOPE. Iceland is home to magnificent landscapes, geothermal spas and spectacular views of the Northern Lights. But it also touted a potentially major advance in the growing effort to store carbon dioxide rather than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere, where it can fuel global warming.
Officials at Reykjavik Energy took carbon emissions from a geothermal plant (along with emissions of hydrogen sulfide, a dangerous gas) and stowed them away in the rocky ground 400 to 800 meters (1,300 to 2,600 feet) deep. Once injected into basalt rock, the carbon dioxide rapidly was mineralized, or turned into rock.
The Carbfix project, as it was known, is a big deal because it means the gas cannot escape back into the atmosphere. American researchers are working to take the science even further, in hopes that such storage of large amounts of carbon dioxide — that either come from industrial processes or are sucked from the atmosphere — may be a key piece of the solution to climate change. “We’d seen these things in the lab, but the field is often a case where your best-laid plans and ideas from lab experiments fall apart and just don’t work out,” one researcher said. In this case, the experiment might just work in the real world, too.
5) THE OCEANS ARE FINALLY GETTING THE ATTENTION THEY DESERVE. A decade ago, only a fraction of the world’s oceans were protected from overfishing and other environmental threats. Slowly but surely, that has begun to change. In 2006, President George W. Bush designated an island chain spanning nearly 1,400 miles of the Pacific northwest of Hawaii as a national monument. This summer, President Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced “Papa-HA-now-moh-koo-AH-kay-ah”) Marine National Monument to 582,578 square miles of land and sea, creating the largest ecologically protected area on the planet.
In September, the State Department hosted the third annual Our Ocean conference, a global gathering of government leaders, scientists and environmental activists aimed at hastening protections. Roughly 3 percent of the oceans are now safeguarded — far from the 30 percent to 40 percent that many scientists claim is necessary for the seas’ sustainability over the long term, but a vast improvement in only a few years. “I’m thrilled with the progress we’ve made,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry told The Washington Post in an interview, even as he said much more work lies ahead.