2017 Environmental Year In Review

Posted on Dec 21st 2017

With just a few weeks to go in 2017, it seems like an important time to reflect on environmental themes and climate-related news this year and think about what is ahead for us in 2018 as citizens, businesses, community members and consumers.

Read on for what we’ve taken away as key themes of the year, including (1) seemingly relentless and tragic natural disasters, leading to much dialogue about what this means for our future and climate change, (2) the US federal government’s focus on reversing existing regulation and measures to combat climate change, with our nation’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement being one of its notable moves, (3) countries, states and businesses stepping up after this withdrawal was announced and doubling down on their commitment to environmental progress, and (4) the continued promise and cost competitiveness of renewable energy.

From an environmental progress and climate change perspective, many of these 2017 events are alarming. But I’ve taken away some hopeful and inspiring things from the year as well. As the federal government has taken a stance that is decidedly against conservation and climate change reversal, these actions have hopefully heightened and strengthened the efforts of a rapidly growing segment of eco-minded individuals, activist groups, entrepreneurs, businesses, states and countries that continue to make forward progress. Additionally, the number of Americans who recognize global warming as a serious issue continues to rise. 68% of Americans think global warming is caused by human activities and 62% believe the effects of global warming have already begun. Over 1 million citizens globally participated in the March for Science on Earth Day and over 200,000 people marched in DC one week later as part of the People's Climate Movement. Hopefully, these trends mean that more and more voters and consumers will make decisions that protect themselves, their lands, their communities and their future generations. Renewable energy continues to be the way of the future. Research this year showed that renewable energy accounted for two-thirds of new power added to the world’s grids in the prior year, with solar accounting for nearly half of this volume.

Finally, reflecting on 2017 reminds me of the impact the independent sustainable businesses are having and our opportunity going forward.

As businesses, we have the ability to design sustainable durable products, invest in renewable energy, purchase important carbon offsets, and hold our suppliers accountable to eco practices. As citizens, we can demand favorable environmental policies. As consumers, we can buy less and buy quality, lasting goods. We can favor community and the planet over simply convenience and price at all costs. We can vote with our wallet and our influence, reminding businesses of why they need to make sustainability a critical priority.

For anyone who needs a jolt of hope going into 2018, I recommend Paul Hawken’s latest and most ambitious book, Project Drawdown, one of the most comprehensive plans ever proposed to reverse global warming. I read it last month and found it to be a much needed reminder to opt for action and hope rather than despair and anger if we want to protect our planet for generations to come.

Relentless Natural Disasters

It’s been a heartbreaking and terrifying year of natural disasters. Three hurricanes arose simultaneously in the Caribbean (the first time in recorded history) - Harvey, Irma and Maria. All were Category 4 disasters. They ravaged countless communities and lives. Hurricane Maria is likely to be deemed one of the worst humanitarian disasters America has ever seen. Meanwhile wildfires were also unprecedented. California is still in the midst of its most destructive wildfire season on record, including 5 of the 20 most destructive wildland-urban interface fires in the state's history. British Columbia saw a notably destructive wildfire season, with the largest total area burnt in a fire season in recorded history; the largest number of total evacuees in a fire season; and the largest single fire ever in the provence. In January, a wildfire described as the worst in Chile's modern history killed at least 11 people. Southern Europe endured a record heat wave this year, creating hot, dry conditions that saw Italy, France, Croatia, Spain and Greece all swept by three times the average number of wildfires. Even Greenland, not known for its hot, dry conditions, suffered an unprecedented blaze this summer with a large grassy peatland fire burning for two weeks.

This seemingly relentless string of disasters has led many to ask - is this climate change? (A question that then quickly and frustratingly becomes political fodder rather than true dialogue) There is no neat answer to this question of the exact degree to which one or more events is due to climate change. Climate change is not a single weather event or natural disaster or even one or two seasons of weather events. Many different factors go into the intensity of a single hurricane and entire hurricane seasons or the frequency and degree to which wildfires also start, spread and rage. And while the term “worst on record” is alarming, the number of years we have been scientifically recording different events is still a minute slice of the earth’s history of these natural disasters, so it is hard to determine exactly what is “normal.”

It seems like people asking this question may actually be asking one of two different things.

They may be asking, “Is this season of natural disasters proof that climate change is real?” For anyone who is still looking for this type of proof, we would instead direct you to more conclusive (and yes, much more boring and less newsworthy than natural disasters) evidence - global temperature averages, CO2 levels stores in frozen ice cores, and the fact that the total sea ice extent was at its lowest level in January 2017 since satellite records began in 1978 and is believed to be the lowest it’s been for thousands of years.

Or perhaps they are asking, “Should we expect all future hurricane and wildfire seasons to look like this?” Scientists don’t think that every single future wildfire season or future hurricane will resemble 2017. But they do consistently and conclusively say that yes, temperatures are rising and rising temperatures do, on average, increase the occurrence and severity of wildfires and hurricanes. So yes, this is what we should expect to see as we conduct longitudinal analysis of future seasons of these natural disasters.

Bottom line? This was a tragic year - human lives, wildlife, foliage, agricultural land ravaged. There is a lot of smart rebuilding to be done. We despise seeing these events used as fodder of talking heads on either side. But, to the extent that people and influencers who have directly felt or borne witness to these disasters are more likely to try to understand climate change and the degree it poses a real threat to communities, nations and our planet - we hope this all leads to more activism, conscious consumerism, and eco-minded policies going forward.

US Rolls Back Federal Environmental Regulation

One of the Trump administration’s main priorities has been to roll back environmental rules and regulations and support fossil fuel and chemical industries. Many of these reversals were in response to petitions from oil, coal and gas companies and other industry groups. For example, in his first month in office President Trump streamlined the approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, despite a year of protest and legal action from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, ending the environmental impact assessment and comment period that was in progress. Trump reversed the Obama Administration’s decision to block the Keystone XL Pipeline. He revoked a rule that prevented coal mining companies from dumping debris into local streams. The list goes on.

Many anti-regulation actions took place within the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA was founded in 1970 under Republican President Richard Nixon with a stated purpose of keeping people safe from toxic pollutants.

Scott Pruitt was appointed as the head of the EPA in February. Pruitt is a staunch climate change skeptic, stating “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So no, I would not agree that [carbon dioxide is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet, we need to continue to debate, continue the review and analysis.”

Pruitt is pro coal and pro natural gas. For example, in March, the EPA canceled a requirement for reporting methane emissions. In October, Pruitt moved to withdraw from the EPA’s Clean Power Plan a key part of Obama’s climate policies, a collection of emission standards for U.S. states that would curb greenhouse gases from fossil-fuel-fired power plants (the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the nation) 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Pruitt is also pro big business. Chlorpyrifos, a very common pesticide manufactured and sold by Dow Chemical had been under fire based on research demonstrating its negative impact on brain development. In October 2015, the EPA proposed to revoke all food residue tolerances for chlorpyrifos in response to a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network North America. In March 2017, before the EPA’s proposal was implemented, Scott Pruitt reversed course and argued the previous administration’s scientific rationale was dubious, denying the petition: The October 2015 proposal largely relied on certain epidemiological study outcomes, whose application is novel and uncertain, to reach its conclusions. This decision has faced scrutiny in large part because the CEO of Dow Chemical, Andrew Liveris, had been appointed by Trump to a White House manufacturing working group, and his company donated $1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration fund. Liveris also was scrutinized over reports that he met with Pruitt prior to his announcement reversing the ban.

In total, the Trump Administration has sought to roll back or overturn over 60 environmental rules. This New York Times article describes many of them (through October 2017.)

Some environmental rollbacks are being challenged in court, often successfully, suggesting that the judicial branch may be a powerful tool in maintaining some environmental protections under the Trump administration. For example, in June the EPA announced that they would delay implementation of a 2015 regulation to reduce smog-forming pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes. 16 state attorneys general sued the EPA over the delay, leading the EPA to reverse the delay. In July, a federal appeals court rejected the EPA’s justification for lowering renewable fuel standards. In June, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued the EPA, prompting them to restore a mercury protection rule they had tried to overturn. In July, a three-judge panel of a federal appeals court held up a 2016 rule that limits methane emissions from wells that the EPA sought to suspend.

On the other side of the globe, this year, India’s capital, Delhi, made headlines as it became the most polluted city on Earth, with air quality reaching epically bad proportions. On November 8, pollution surged, with monitoring stations reporting an Air Quality Index of 999, way above the upper limit of the worst category, Hazardous. Much of this pollution is actually coming from farms in nearby states of Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh where farmers were burning crop stubble to prepare the fields to plant wheat and return nutrients to the soil. This smoke mixed with urban pollution, creating extremely poor air quality in the winter months. Delhi’s pollution challenges stem from the government’s inability or unwillingness to enact or enforce regulations that would curb crop burning, reduce wood or coal burning stoves, or promote clean energy. Reading about the city’s state of affairs is a valuable reminder of why we should be grateful for and focused on protecting these regulations designed to keep us safe, with universal access to clean air and water.

Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

In one of its notable reversals from Obama’s climate change focused presidency, President Trump announced in June that the US would cease participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, stating that “The Paris accord will undermine (the U.S.) economy," and "puts (the U.S.) at a permanent disadvantage." The White House will abide by the Paris Agreement’s four-year exit process, maintaining commitments under the Agreement (including the requirement to continue reporting emissions to the UN) until 2020.

In the months following this announcement, Nicaragua and Syria signed the Paris Agreement, making the US the only country in the world not to support the framework deal.

Nations and States Step Up

The US’s withdrawal was described by Christiana Figueres as having “provoked an unparalleled wave of support for the treaty. [President Trump] shored up the world’s resolve on climate action, and for that we can all be grateful.” Fears that other countries would falter in their support for the agreement did not come to fruition, and the G20 (G19) issued what most believe is a strong and aggressive Climate and Energy Action Plan for Growth.

Worldwide, countries are making inspiring environmental strides. Some have put forth plans to phase out gasoline and diesel cars in the near future. The UK committed to shuttering its last coal fuel plant by 2025 (and on April 21st it celebrated its first 24-hour period without coal power since the industrial revolutions!).

Additionally, states are stepping up. Fifteen states have come together to create the United States Climate Alliance in response to the decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. Governors Andrew Cuomo, Jay Inslee, and Jerry Brown created the alliance, a bipartisan coalition of states committed to the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Alliance states represent more than 36% of the country’s population, $7 trillion in GDP, and 1.3 million clean energy jobs. The states in the alliance remain committed to meeting their share of the U.S. target under the Paris Agreement – a 26-28% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2025.

Businesses Step Up

Businesses (particularly consumer facing businesses) of all sizes - the very entities federal anti-regulation actions claim to be protecting - have been vocal in their staunch support for environmental sustainability and the Paris Agreement. This is due to a variety of reasons. The price of renewable energy is dropping, making the switch to cleaner energy a strategic cost-saving measure. Increasingly thoughtful consumers are demanding eco-friendly practices and are rewarding companies that make this a focus. And many companies are or know they are soon to be feeling the immediate impact of constrained resources and climate change.

Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric, one of the top employers in the country, was a vocal advocate for the US to remain in the Paris Agreement. “As a company we think that climate change is real," Immelt told students at Georgetown University. "[Withdrawal is] not going to change one thing that we do regarding energy efficiency...and I think all business is going to feel the same way.”

Energy companies were also onboard with the Paris Agreement. “As a global company, we have to be attentive and other global companies have to be attentive to advancing low carbon, to dealing with climate change in all of its aspects…and I don’t think the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as announced will change that significantly, certainly not for global companies like ours.” said Bob Stout, vice president and head of regulatory affairs at BP America.

Facebook’s data centers are now powered by 100 percent clean and renewable wind energy. The company aims to power all of its operations with at least 50 percent clean and renewable energy by next year. The new Apple Park is already running on 100 percent renewable energy. In April, Walmart announced its plan to remove one gigaton of emissions from its supply chain by 2030. Exxon shareholders voted in favor of the company sharing more transparent information about the impact of climate change on its business.

The CDP conducted a 2017 study and found that 517 companies have put a price on carbon and 732 are planning to do so in the next two years! Carbon pricing is a strategy that drives internal accounting of carbon in a way that prompts reduction of emissions, investment in carbon credits and adoption of new eco-friendly technologies. Large companies have successfully utilized carbon pricing to make dramatic reductions in their emissions.

While big businesses often make the most headlines, innovative entrepreneurial endeavors are going above and beyond and are trying to truly change the landscape of what it means to be eco-friendly. Companies like Recycling Technologies in the UK are pursuing technology advancements to effectively recycle end of life plastic into virgin plastic, waxes and oils. Companies like Solar Roadways are creating solar panels that can double as sidewalks and roads, changing the way we think about solar panels and highways. And of course, Tesla unveiled a sleek electric semi truck with semi-autonomous capabilities this year. Emphasizing the truck’s “badass” performance, Tesla CEO Elon Musk pitched the new Tesla Semi as the safest, most comfortable truck ever. Advancements like this have the potential to redefine the most carbon emitting aspects of life and business as we know it.

Perhaps most of all, we’ve been struck by the many small to mid-sized businesses, including many we get to work with, who are pursuing innovative strategies related to sourcing, energy consumption and waste management. Without the benefits of massive budgets or research & development arms, these companies are showing us how to turn garbage into all sorts of beautiful things, how to produce goods and leave zero waste behind, and how to run a net zero emissions enterprise.

Renewables Continue Impressive Growth

Government support of coal is not going to make it the long-term winning energy source in the US or worldwide. As described by Christine Lins, executive secretary of REN21, “The renewables train has already left the station and those who ignore renewables’ central role in climate mitigation risk being left behind.”

Lazard, an asset management company, published cost estimates for various types of electricity-generation assets in 2017 and showed that the cost of building and maintaining coal plants has not changed, while the (not subsidized) cost of wind and solar is dropping rapidly. This means that in some scenarios, the operating costs of coal plants are more than the cost of building and operating renewables projects. The US Department of Energy published a report in August that also showcased the competitiveness of wind energy. Their report showed that “when you exclude the production tax credit and look at the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) from interior wind” it comes in at 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Compare that with the Energy Information Administration estimate that a best-in-class combined cycle natural gas power plant has an LCOE of 5.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. This is even before accounting for the hidden costs of natural gas that energy companies don’t have to pay, such as air and water pollution.

Experts do believe the administration’s coal-friendly policies will give the industry a short-term boost, enabling it to compete with natural gas, moving from its current position of accounting for 30% of the US’s energy production to 32 or 33% (overtaking natural gas, the current leader).

However, they do not see pro fossil fuel policies as detracting from the dramatic gains expected in renewable energy. “U.S. wind power, which provided 6% of total U.S. electricity in 2016, is expected to have a 9% generating capacity increase this year and another 16% in 2018," said Gruenspecht. "Solar power, which provided 1% of total U.S. electric generation in 2016, is expected to see the largest rate of growth in utility-scale electricity generating capacity of any energy source, increasing 36% this year and more than 10% in 2018," he said.

Climate Science Special Report

A sobering last note is the November release of the Climate Science Special Report. Researched and written by 13 federal agencies, this report concluded, “based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” The report notes that the past 115 years are "the warmest in the history of modern civilization." The global average temperature has increased by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over that period. Greenhouse gases from industry and agriculture are by far the biggest contributor to warming.

We are grateful for this 600-plus-page Climate Science Special Report - and the fourth National Climate Assessment is part of it - as it illustrates the importance of research, science and information. The report's authors include experts from leading scientific agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the Department of Energy, as well as academic scientists. The report describes that sea level has risen 7 to 8 inches since 1900, and 3 inches of that occurred since 1993, faster than during any century over the past 2,800 years. The report also indicates that heavy rainfall is increasing in intensity and frequency across the U.S., especially in the Northeast, and that it is expected to keep increasing. The report has been submitted to the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House; however, no one has been chosen by President Trump to run this office yet.

What have we missed? I'm sure so many things. Drop us a line and let us know!