FtF News #134 – A look back at 2021
A look back at 2021 as we move into the start of a new and hopefully brighter year
Hello, and welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly rundown of the latest climate news.
This week, as promised, we’re taking a look back at 2021. Ah, what a year. Whilst for many I think it may well have been less rocky than 2020, it still feels like it’s been quite a ride, seeming both to blitz past and to have lasted forever all at once. For many, this year saw vaccine rollouts and a return to some form of normal, although COVID still looms, and indeed with the Omicron variant has returned to impact many once again.
But let’s dive into the last 12 months from a climate front, and recall what the year brought us.
A year where climate impacts reached further than ever before
Whilst 2021 wasn’t a record-breaking year temperature-wise, it was still amongst the top ten warmest years, and new heat records were set worldwide. The year was also notable for its breadth of climate impacts – heat, cold, droughts and extreme rain, massive storms, and more besides.
Early in the year came the much-reported Texas cold snap, where the power grid broke under the influence of an unexpected polar vortex, with Republicans blaming the issue on iced-up wind turbines (rather than the ageing and poorly maintained infra that was actually at fault). Later, we saw unprecedented rain in Western Europe, a heatwave in the Pacific NorthWest (followed by extreme floods later in the year), and the now usual massive wildfires across California. Fire and heat also scalded much of southern Europe and Siberia, whilst floods impacted virtually every continent.
The theme, if there can be said to be one, was of more extremes, more frequently. Severe weather is occurring more often, taxing resources and resilience time and again. Even well-off areas struggled under the onslaught, and those that aren’t – well, they suffered. Once-in-a-generation events are now occurring every few years, hammering home the need not only for climate mitigation, but adaptation. The year also saw climate impacts brought to the PNW and Western Europe – wealthy areas largely left untouched thus far – reinforcing that nowhere is truly safe in our rapidly changing world.
More people are aware of ever more information about the climate crisis
2021 was also a bumper year for research and climate science. Climate scientists have been at this longer than almost anyone, but it feels like, bit by bit, the urgency of their findings is reaching the mainstream. Perhaps the biggest signals of that were the 6th UN IPCC Assessment Report and the IEA’s net-zero 2050 pathway report. Both of these institutions have been accused of being too cautious with their findings in the past, but they came out swinging this year.
The IPCC report, whilst no major surprise to those who’ve been following climate news more closely, received major media attention for presenting the current state of the climate more bluntly than ever before. It was notable not just because of the findings it reported, but the fact that the IPCC, normally a cautious and conservative body in its reporting, felt it necessary to state things in such a blunt manner. The IEA report, meanwhile, laid out a concrete pathway to net-zero by 2050 for the first time, showing that such a goal was eminently possible, and indeed beneficial for us all.
Meanwhile, the year has also seen a host of other findings big and small solidifying our picture of climate change ever further. Rapid climate attribution is now increasingly common, with major weather events linked to climate change within weeks of them happening, alongside more thorough data about the changing nature of our world and its impact on us all. However, it’s also become clear that climate science has a strong bias towards rich developed nations, and there needs to be a concerted effort to improve support for climate science within and about those nations most affected by the climate crisis.
Governments are waking up to the climate crisis, though some efforts are more token than others
On the policy front, 2021 has been a mixed bag. In some ways the year was book-ended by two key events: President Biden’s inauguration in the US, and COP 26 in Glasgow. Both were keenly anticipated, and arguably both fell short of what was hoped for. In the US, whilst Biden has fulfilled the essential criterion of not being Trump, his administration has fallen far short of the high climate hopes placed out for it. Towards the end of the year, it has become increasingly clear that the US is likely unable to pass significant sweeping climate bills, and whilst some change is happening, Biden is in many ways living up to his reputation – he is a safe pair of hands, but unlikely to set the US on a radically new path.
COP 26 was another event that was heavily anticipated, with many hailing it as a last chance for major international climate action. This, I think, built it into a do-or-die situation – always risky in a long-running movement such as tackling climate change. In some ways, the conference was an indication of how far the climate movement has come in the past few years – in any other year, the level of progress achieved would’ve been hailed a massive success, but given the intense media coverage, shifting public mood and perception, it felt like a damp squib. If nothing else, it did persuade many nations to come forward with climate pledges of one kind or another, including a number who have previously scorned such acts, like Russia. Much of this is more bark than bite, but it signals a shift in political consensus, which is encouraging. As always, action is happening. It’s later than needed, but late is better than never.
Another key trend was the role of climate in international negotiations as well as elections. Germany, Iceland and Norway were just a couple of the countries where climate played heavily into pledges and promises, and in some cases, arguably swung the results. Similarly, in meetings from the G-20 to negotiations between the US and China, climate was a common theme, not always resulting in concrete outcomes, but always on the agenda. There’s a sense that, for most at least, climate denial is no longer a viable stance, and whilst in some cases it has been replaced with climate delay tactics, it is nevertheless progress. However, in some cases, denial is shifting to a worrying brand of eco-nationalism, wherein the far right are accepting climate change, but using it as a call to isolate and segregate rather than to come together.
Electrify the world
Renewables continue to scale, and EVs also see a bumper year
Renewables have continued their massive growth this year, with a nearly 8% jump in capacity, driven primarily by expansion of solar and wind generation. However, future scenarios from BNEF to the IEA all point to needing even faster roll-out of renewables in all but the most fossil-fuel friendly future pathways. For now however, fossil fuels are proving tenacious, and seem destined not to go down without a fight. Major oil companies are increasingly treading a line between shifting to a more general ‘energy’ focus and trying to maintain business as usual whilst they still can.
The massive growth in both renewables and EVs (another success story for the year) has seen increasing pressure for key minerals needed for their manufacture, and the supply chain crunch in the latter part of 2021 put focus on the need for secure supplies of these materials, as well as how crucial China has made itself in the green energy economy. A new ‘gold rush’ for rare metals like cobalt leaves countries like Congo facing a new colonial era of mineral extraction as nations and individuals vie for a piece of the pie, with little consideration given to the consequences for the countries thus exploited.
Once again into the breach
Progress was made, but as always, there’s plenty more work to be done
It can be hard to gain sufficient distance and perspective in the modern era of social media and always-on information, but looking back, 2021 looks to have been a positive year for climate. We’re still very much in the midst of the climate crisis, but awareness is higher than ever before, and the sense of urgency and desire to act is rising amongst people worldwide. That’s reflected in how the climate is being discussed all the way from the media to government.
However, that is still yet to reflect in meaningful action in many places, with most pledges and plans token at best, even in the face of ever more apparent climate impacts. What action is occurring is largely confined to wealthy nations helping themselves, and climate inequity is still not receiving the attention it deserves. I hope that we’re on the edge of a tipping point, where this building pressure converts into concrete action, in turn inspiring more to make changes, but time will tell. What’s certainly true, as ever, is that we collectively cannot let up. Change, when it comes, will be as a result of sustained pressure from people across the world, and without that pressure, it would be all too easy to lose the momentum we have gained thus far. Here’s to a cleaner, greener 2022.