The Climate Issue: a reflection on 2020

In a year of bad news, here are some things to celebrate The Economist

December 14TH 2020

The Climate Issue

The best of our climate-change analysis, delivered every fortnight

The stripes on our banner were developed by Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading. They represent the years from 1850 to 2018 and the colour marks each year’s temperature, compared with the average in 1971-2000.

In a year of bad news, here are some things to celebrate. Eleven days ago Britain said it would reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 68% below 1990 levels within ten years, becoming one of the first countries to adopt a short-term target that is in line with what the science says is needed to meet the goals of the Paris agreement. The governments of more than 127 countries, representing roughly two-thirds of global emissions, have either made or are considering promises to reach net-zero emissions by around mid-century. Joe Biden’s election to the White House, Xi Jinping’s promise to aim for carbon-neutrality in China by 2060, and the EU’s Green Deal all raise hopes for renewed leadership in tackling climate change from the world’s largest economies and largest emitters.

The pandemic and rolling lockdowns dealt an unexpected blow to fossil fuels, which has caused an unprecedented drop in global emissions. King coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, is on its way out in the West. Covid-19 recovery plans have provided an opportunity to shift economies away from fossil fuels. Over the past 12 months, green innovation and venture capital have been boosted, and more and more investors are pressing polluting companies to shape up. Some are testing the courts as a last-resort measure to exert pressure.

That’s not to say the climate problem is solved. Far from it. Coal’s fate rests in the hands of Asian governments and companies, particularly Chinese ones. G20 governments’ plans for economic recovery from the pandemic are funnelling 50% more money into projects that rely on burning fossil fuels than into greener ones. Disclosing the financial risks posed by climate change is still optional not mandatory. And yet, as the rapid disintegration of Arctic ice-sheets, deadly heatwaves and blazing fires remind us, the need for policies that don’t just promise decarbonisation but set it in motion are sorely needed.

But at the start of 2020, I would not have bet on this much progress. So for now, since it’s the time of year for celebration and reflection, let us salute the silver linings.

Catherine Brahic
Environment Editor

Editor’s picks

Image article 1

Ratcheting up

Paris-anniversary climate pledges bring progress but fall short

Promises at the Climate Ambition summit do not mark a real turning-point

Image article 2

Coal’s endgame

The dirtiest fossil fuel is on the back foot

Time to topple it for good

Image article 3

Hydrogen-powered flight

Is the time now ripe for planes to run on hydrogen?

Some planemakers think the answer may be “yes”

Image article 4

Reluctant revolution

Oil-rich Alberta seeks ways to go green

Canada’s main fossil-fuel producing province mulls hydrogen and geothermal power

Image article 5

Losing seam

As the federal government harrumphs, Australia moves away from coal

Both its states and its export markets have pledged drastic cuts in carbon emissions

Image article 6

Chasing rainbows?

Britain excels at announcing climate targets

But it must do more to meet them

Image article 7

Counting the carbs

Making sense of banks’ climate targets

A lack of data and differing methodologies will make measuring performance fiendishly tricky

Image article 8

The Intelligence

“It’s clear climate change is moving faster than we are—but there is hope”—a chat with the UN chief

Also on the daily podcast: a Dutch populist prodigy implodes and the revealed preferences of AirBnB bookers

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