DECADE IN REVIEW: Top environmental achievements from the past 10 years

Isabella O'Malley
DECADE IN REVIEW: Top environmental achievements from the past 10 years
DECADE IN REVIEW: Top environmental achievements from the past 10 years

Human-caused climate change is an increasingly urgent issue and largely dominates all news related to the environment. The planet is getting warmer and the overwhelming majority of research shows that human activity is to blame. The good news is that because the science shows what is causing the problem, we know what we can do to start fixing it.

Millions across the world have become environmental leaders in their communities -- whether it was a single person who developed a local recycling initiative in their neighbourhood or an international company that produced clean energy for entire cities, the past decade has shown us how we can start taking steps in the right direction and ways we can mitigate and adapt to the changing climate. Below are some of the most notable environmental achievements made this decade.

NATIONS COME TOGETHER TO COMBAT CLIMATE CHANGE

The Paris Agreement is considered to be a landmark international effort to prevent the world from facing the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. Through this agreement, 197 nations and governing bodies have committed to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions, investing in renewable energy and protecting the environment. The agreement was signed on December 12, 2015 and its central aim is to keep global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

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Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), which led to the signing of the Paris Agreement. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

RECORD INVESTMENTS IN RENEWABLES

Renewable energy became the cheapest source of energy generation in 2019, even without subsidies, according to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). This report analyzed recent energy trends and found that on-shore wind and solar energy are frequently less expensive than any fossil fuel option. The report states that the low and falling costs of electricity, especially for solar and wind energies, will “make renewable power the competitive backbone of the global energy sector transformation.”

As renewable energy production skyrocketed from 2010-2019, the global electricity production from coal fell by nearly 3 per cent in 2019, which is the largest drop on record. Coal is the dirtiest source of energy and releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide, as well as mercury, lead, sulphur dioxide, heavy metals, and other particulate matter. China is the country with the highest amount of carbon dioxide emissions and roughly 70 per cent of their total energy is derived from coal. While a 3 per cent decrease might seem small, coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel and even minor reductions will have significant impacts on the climate.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The United States is the country with the second-highest amount of carbon dioxide emissions and has made large strides in its renewable energy sector this decade. For the first time, renewable energy supplied more of America’s electricity than coal in April 2019. Hydroelectric dams, solar panels, and wind turbines were the main sources of renewable energy and the shift towards renewables largely stemmed from the increasingly cheap cost of production.

Costa Rica stood out as a big adopter, as the country broke a world record in 2015 by going 299 days using only renewable energy for electricity needs. The nation then beat its own record in 2017 by going 300 days with only renewables to produce electricity. Approximately 5 million people live in Costa Rica and over 99 per cent of the nation’s electricity is generated by hydropower (78 per cent), wind (10 per cent), geothermal energy (10 per cent), biomass and solar (1 per cent).

PLANTING MILLIONS AND MILLIONS (AND MILLIONS) OF TREES

India set a world record in 2016 by planting over 49 million tree saplings on July 11, which was completed in 24 hours by 800,000 volunteers. This initiative was part of the commitment that India made to the Paris Agreement, which includes reforesting 12 per cent of its total land and to improve air quality.

Ethiopia shattered India’s tree planting record in July 2019 when over 350 million trees were planted in a single day. The project aims to repopulate areas where forests were cut down, better manage the effects of drought, and fight climate change. The United Nations estimates that Ethiopia’s forest coverage declined from 35 per cent in the 1900s to approximately 4 per cent in the 2000s.

Other countries in the world have committed to planting millions of trees and are accomplishing this feat at a slower pace. A new law in the Philippines went into effect on May 19, 2019, that requires all students to plant at least 10 trees before they can graduate. Gary Alejano, a House representative who co-authored the bill, believes the law will result in an additional 525 billion trees being planted over the course of one generation and at least 175 million trees being planted on an annual basis.

PROTECTING OCEANS, LAKES AND BEACHES

In 2018 the Australian government committed an investment of 500 million Australian dollars to protect the Great Barrier Reef from climate change. Warming ocean temperatures and increasing ocean acidity are having catastrophic impacts on the world’s largest reef system, which is essential for a healthy habitat and supporting some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.

Meanwhile, Canada began the process of banning microbeads in 2016 due to their ability to infiltrate water-treatment systems and contaminate bodies of water and wildlife. The Microbeads in Toiletries Regulations came into effect on July 1, 2018, which prohibits the manufacture, import, and sale of most toiletry products that contain microbeads.

The largest beach clean-up in the world began in 2015 on one of the most polluted beaches in Mumbai, India. Afroz Shah, a lawyer and environmentalist, began cleaning Versova beach in 2015 and over time more than 1,000 volunteers joined him. Over a 21 month period, approximately 5,300,000 kilograms of decomposing trash and plastic were collected from the beach and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) gave Shah the Champion of the Earth award for his work in organizing community-led clean-up efforts.

CLIMATE CHANGE AWARENESS GOES GLOBAL

Greta Thunberg began gaining international recognition for her efforts to raise awareness about the need to fight climate change after her speech at the COP24 United Nations climate change summit on December 4, 2018. Thunberg’s activism began by skipping school on Fridays to protest outside the Swedish Parliament and has since spoken at several global conferences, met with political leaders, and in 2019 became the youngest Time magazine’s Person of the Year.