Why 2021 could be a good year for the environment

Published by Georgia Crump on

2021 – a good year for the environment?

2020 was a big year for the planet. Joe Biden was elected President of the United States with an ambitious climate policy. China surprised the world with it’s net zero goals. And global pollution levels fell dramatically. Based on this trend, could 2021 be a good year for the environment?

Around the world, we have all been looking forward to 2021 and the hope of an end to Coronavirus. But with some important steps in the fight against climate change on the horizon, this year is shaping up to be a good one in more ways than one. 

Here’s why 2021 could be a good year for the environment. 

COP26 conference in November 2021

After being delayed by a year because of the pandemic, the UK is hosting leaders of 190+ countries in Glasgow for a key climate change conference. This UN conference, known as COP26 (Conference of Parties), is a vital opportunity for global leaders to come together and commit to climate action. 

Parties present at the COP21 Paris Conference in 2015

The last conference of this kind was COP21 in Paris 2015. The outcome of this conference was the Paris Agreement – a landmark environmental agreement signed by almost every nation. This agreement commits all parties to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. 

As a result of this agreement, countries including the UK made pledges to slash their emissions. They also created a framework for developed nations to assist developing nations with climate mitigation and adaptation.  

Unfortunately, scientists currently estimate that we are wildly off track in meeting our temperature targets. At the current rate, we will see a temperature rise of 3C by the end of the century. This will have catastrophic consequences for countries and communities around the world. 

However, good news came in 2020 when Joe Biden committed America, one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide, to rejoining the Paris Agreement. 

The COP26 conference will be an opportunity for global leaders to review their progress and targets so far. The precedent set by the Paris conference suggests that we can expect to see some serious climate policy as well as a ratcheting up of emissions targets. 

A record number of countries have commitments to slashing carbon emissions

In June 2019, the UK was the first major economy to announce a legally binding commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. This was shortly followed by a similar commitment from the European Union (made up of 27 member states) in March 2020. This clearly set a hopeful trend.

Since then, according to UN estimates over 110 countries have made net zero targets. Combined, this totals more than 70% of the world economy and 65% of global emissions. 

Then, in September of last year, some unexpected news brought joy to environmentalists. Completely out of the blue, President Xi Jinping  announced at the UN General Assembly that China would be carbon neutral by 2060. This is a huge leap for several reasons. 

China is the world’s largest polluter, responsible for 28% of the world’s emissions. Their commitment to net zero sends a clear message to other countries. Without a doubt, more countries than ever before are taking the fight against climate change seriously. 

Emissions by country in 2017. Source: Our World in Data

What’s more, the country has a track record of delivering results on time, making it likely that they will indeed reach net zero by 2060. And China is in the ideal position to lead the way as the world’s largest manufacturer of goods. So if a technologically advanced country like China can reach net zero, this will pave the way for smaller nations. 

The details of how countries are going to reach these targets will be a key part of the COP26 conference. So by the end of 2021, we can hope to have a much better idea of how these targets are going to become a reality. 

Renewable energy is cheaper than ever

And the good news is that meeting these net zero targets will be made easier than ever this year. All thanks to the falling cost of renewable energy. This is another reason why 2021 could be a good year for the environment.

Renewable energy sources include solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal. Historically, they were more expensive in part because they were rarer. In October 2020, the International Energy Agency announced that solar power is now “the cheapest source of electricity in history”. 

Falling price of renewable energy

Already, in the case of building new power stations, renewable energy is often cheaper than fossil fuels. The more countries invest in wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources, the cheaper it will become. We can hope that in the near future it will make financial sense to start replacing coal and gas power stations with renewable energy. 

This is great news for the green energy industry, who will likely see much more investment as a result of falling prices. Already ExxonMobil (one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies) who were once the world’s most valuable company of any kind, have been booted off the Dow Jones stock exchange as a consequence of their falling share prices. And Tesla’s rocketing share price has made it the world’s most valuable car company, electric or otherwise.

Green recovery promised 

Coronavirus has brought more than one unexpected silver lining when it comes to climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions levels down 7%, mainly thanks to international travel grinding to a halt. In addition, the shock to the economy of the pandemic has provided an unprecedented opportunity for a green recovery. 

Global CO2 emissions, 1900-present

So far, the European Union and Joe Biden have promised trillions of dollars of ‘green investment’ to try and reboot their economies. And this has the potential to kick-start the process of decarbonisation. 

The more countries join them, the more the cost of renewables and green investment will be driven down. As part of this, we may also see more carbon taxes introduced in 2021. This would incentivise nations like Brazil, Russia, and Australia who are all big polluters, to rethink their attitude to emissions. 

So there’s much to be hopeful about for 2021. It remains to be seen whether nations can deliver on their climate pledges. But based on the trends set by 2020, this year is shaping up to be a positive year for the environment. 

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