10 years in a climate nutshell: where did the last decade get us?

New Year’s is often a time for reflection and goal-setting, when we collectively take time to look back on the past year and make promises to ourselves about what we will intentionally do better next year. This time, it’s not just a year, but a decade that we are leaving behind, inviting only a larger milestone for us to reflect upon, and one particular question for the millions of us concerned about the climate crisis: where did the last decade get us? 

By the final year of the decade, we had lived through “the hottest year on record” five times over. 

Hurricanes and extreme weather wreaked havoc in cities around the world, and fires and floods threatened lives and livelihoods from California to Bangladesh. At the same time, we ended the last year of the decade with Greta Thunberg on the cover of Time Magazine for her incredible work in mobilizing youth for action globally, and growing electorates all over the world for whom climate is a top priority. 

I am left incredibly conflicted as to how I feel about the last decade in climate terms, as it seems that for just as many terrible new records and impacts, we saw immense potential, the growth of renewables, and most critically, unprecedented public mobilization for the cause. The 2010’s were both the decade that the climate crisis became real, tangible, expensive, and incredibly dangerous to our way of life; and the turning point when we finally realized it and began to meaningfully address it. 

So, here is a look back at some of the best and worst of the decade. 

The Good News

Climate Action – albeit, not enough

The Paris Agreement was drafted, and signed by (almost) every country on Earth. Right in the middle of the decade, the world joined in celebration as 197 countries signed a monumental agreement to collectively keep global warming below 1.5° Celsius. You can say what you will about the weakness of enforcement, or the lack of accountability and ambition, but Paris was undeniably important for global collective action and international recognition of the climate crisis. In 2015, countries took a giant step toward establishing an operational regime to spur climate action after some 20 years of failed attempts to do just that, and the voices of scientists and activists were heard in pushing for a limit of 1.5°C of warming. While the Agreement at the time was an encouraging step, the years that followed were more of a let down. Not only did we end the decade with the U.S. withdrawn entirely from its Paris commitments, but real progress on the sticking points to meet the ambitious warming limits has lacked (more on this below).

Renewables skyrocketed, declined massively in price

Though the Keeling curve continued to climb this decade, the makeup of our energy systems changed a lot. A significant shift came with the decline of coal, the most polluting source of energy. From 2000 to 2009, the total generating capacity of coal-fired power plants taken offline in the United States was 6 gigawatts. From 2010 to 2019, that number jumped to 80 gigawatts. While this shift is very complex, and in part is due to increased capacity of natural gas rather than an overall decline in fossil fuel use, it still is an important shift in the larger transition away from polluting fuels all together.

Importantly, as coal declined, solar energy skyrocketed this decade. Solar energy production increased by about 900 percent between 2010 and 2018, and wind energy is estimated to have tripled in that time period, too. Renewables overall also became much more competitive on price. 

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Wind turbines and solar panels were novelties ten years ago; today, they are an everyday part of America’s energy landscape. The cost of installing photovoltaic panels, whether for a rooftop array or a commercial-scale solar farm, dropped by about $5 per kilowatt since 2010. This is both due to technological innovation in their production, as well as tax incentives and government action both federally and locally to reach renewable energy goals. The U.S. produces almost five times as much renewable electricity from the sun and wind as it did in 2009, and currently wind and solar energy provide nearly ten percent of our nation’s electricity, and if they continue at their current rate of growth, the U.S. has a shot at 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Transportation has also seen  massive technological advances over the past decade. While electric vehicles were seen as futuristic and unattainable just ten years ago, today, you can see Teslas drive by in every major city in the U.S. EV’s have also become increasingly cost competitive with other cars on the market, and are only expected to continue to do so as battery technologies develop further. 

More people than ever believe in science

I know it’s tragic to have to write subtitles like this one, after all, it’s 2020 (!!!) and we have built economies and societies around scientific progress and premises. And yet, when it comes to climate, science has always faced a bit of a challenge to get through to people. That might have something to do with the billions of dollars spent on intentional misinformation campaigns to muddy the waters and sew public disbelief in order to grow the wealth of a few corporations and individuals, all at the detriment of our entire collective existence. But I digress. 

The good news is that we ended the decade with higher public acknowledgement of the fact that the planet is warming, and that it is our fault. This is undoubtedly good news, since without public support and demand, we are likely to never see real action from our elected leaders. We have also seen an immense growth of people taking individual action on climate, too. While the climate crisis is undoubtedly a mass scale issue, and will require systemic approaches to solve it, the power of individual choices can and have changed demand for better, less polluting alternatives to products, and will hopefully continue to do so in the coming decade. 

There is a lot to argue about when it comes to the climate crisis. What, if any, is the role of nuclear energy in the transition? How high should we start a carbon price and how do we use the revenues from it? How do we effectively and justly deal with offsets? How will we ensure that justice and equity prevail through this transition? But there is one thing that I look forward to never having to argue again, and that is the scientific fact that carbon dioxide and other gases from our economic activities are making the planet hotter, and the impacts from that will cause immense amounts of human suffering. 

Climate protests sweep the globe

Another signal for hope on this front is the unprecedented global strike that took place in 2019 demanding action on climate. From New Delhi to New York, the world saw youth-led protests amass hundreds of thousands of people gathering to show their concern and ask for urgent steps to address the climate and environmental crisis. They concluded with a march in Madrid ahead of the international climate negotiations in December, led by youth-activist Greta Tunberg. 

We hope this momentum carries forward and multiplies going into the next decade. There will always be those who argue the facts and deny the truth, but the trends in public opinion are in our favor, and will hopefully translate into political action this next decade. 

The Bad News

This was the decade climate change became real

The 2010’s will probably go down in the history books as the time when the long held scientific consensus and persistent warnings about climate impacts from the scientific community materialized. We lived through horrific hurricanes and droughts; began to experience migration due to crop failure in Central America; and saw the world quite literally burn. 

We just lived through the hottest decade. Ever. As the year drew to a close, scientists were confidently saying 2019 was Earth’s second-warmest recorded year on record, capping the warmest decade. Eight of the ten warmest years since measurements began occurred this decade, and the other two were only a few years earlier.

Another striking impact we saw this decade – which again, we were well warned about – was the loss of ice. One of the most poignant climate moments of 2019 was the first ever commemoration for a lost glaciar: in August, Icelanders mourned the loss of the country’s Okjökull glacier. The plaque reads, “In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you will know if we did it.” 

The loss of Okjökull – which had been officially stripped of its glacier status in 2014 – was one of many deeply troubling milestones this decade in the world’s cryosphere. Ice loss is happening all over the world – both land ice (from precipitation) and sea-ice (from ocean freezing). The Arctic in particular is warming twice as fast as the global average, and the Arctic region reached its lowest amount of  sea-ice ever recorded this decade, and is on the fastest decline in 1,500 years. 

Extreme weather was also unfortunately a marker of the decade. One of the best-established impacts of the climate crisis is intensified and more frequent extreme weather events. And we certainly lived through some pretty horrific extreme weather events this decade. Just here in the U.S., hurricane Maria forever changed Puerto Rico, with a massive human cost, and highlighted vulnerabilities in the island’s infrastructure. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy pummeled the Northeast, Florence hit North Carolina, and Harvey inundated Houston just a few weeks before Irma hit Florida. These storms not only carried with them untold human suffering, but also presented the nation with massive disaster relief costs, tolling up the economic costs of a changing climate and the need to adapt to what may be a new reality, quickly. 

Political stagnation & Partisanship at home

It would be hard to write this article without acknowledging the big elephant in the room (no pun intended) that is the big partisanship of this issue here in the United States. Partisanship continues to be the dividing line in the American public’s political attitudes, far surpassing differences by age, race and ethnicity, gender, education, and religious affiliation. The even worse news is that climate and the environment have become one of the most partisan issues in the country, only behind gun policy and racial attitudes, according to polling by the Pew Research Center. 2019 ended with a 46 percentage point gap between Democrats and Republicans who worry about the environment, up from a 24 point gap in 2010. 

What’s more, the election of Donald Trump and his decisions to both dismantle decades of environmental regulations here in the U.S., and withdrawal the country’s leadership on climate globally, represented a big challenge for climate progress this decade. Not long after taking office in 2017, the President announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, which he followed through on, officially sending an intent to withdraw late in 2019. The withdrawal is set to go into effect this year. The ramifications of such a decision are significant: from the loss of American leadership on the world stage, to a future inability to participate in continued negotiations about carbon markets and international instruments to implement the agreement – most of them are bound to hurt the U.S. more than the agreement itself. 

As per the New York Times, the Trump administration has completed rollbacks of 58 environmental regulations, and is in the process of rolling back 37 more. These environmental rollbacks could significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to thousands of extra deaths from poor air quality every year

We still don’t have a price on carbon & COP ended with no real progress

Both in the U.S. and abroad, the battle to put a price on carbon emissions is an ongoing one. While a record number of states (16) introduced carbon pricing legislation in 2019, any of those bills are yet to pass. We saw disheartening defeats of these initiatives in Oregon and Washington, and have failed to see any real momentum on any of the Federal bills currently introduced, as well. 

The last year of the decade also ended with a let down internationally, as the climate negotiations came to a close with no real progress or meaningful solutions on the final stages of the Paris agreement before its implementation. Even after the UN’s latest emissions gap report, published ahead of COP, highlighted that under current national commitments, the world is guaranteed to see an estimated temperature rise of more than 3°C by the end of the century, global leaders disappointed at the summit. Importantly, nothing really moved on Article 6 – which allows for the creation of international mechanisms to trade in mitigation outcomes across countries, and create carbon markets. 

Now here’s what we can look forward to – or should strive towards – in the 2020’s

These lists were a bit skewed towards the positives; maybe it’s because I like to remain hopeful, or maybe it’s because research shows us that the more we know about progress being made, the more likely we are to work towards more of it. And that is exactly what we need this decade: work, ambition, and real progress. That goes for all of us. Whether you work in this field or another, there are always things, big or small, that you can do to become engaged on the climate issue, and we need you. 

We need you to vote for people who prioritize climate and have real plans to address it – crucially, we need you to actually vote in every and all elections; we need you to talk to friends and loved ones about this crisis and get them engaged; we need you to buy less single-use plastics and eat less meat if and how you can do so; above all, we need you to care. Because there are real solutions on the table right now, and we need to make sure they become a reality. 

States in the Northeastern U.S. are currently finalizing a plan to cap transportation emissions, and we expect at least 20 states to put forward bills to put a price on carbon pollution. This is also the year the Paris Agreement enters into full enforcement, and while the U.S. may have withdrawn, states and municipalities around the country can continue acting to reach emissions reductions as mandated in the accord. There is surely a lot of work to be done, but the groundwork has already been laid, and by every indication, we can see these solutions through the finish line and turn the tide this next decade.  

If the 2010’s were the decade when this crisis became real and tangible, let’s make the 2020’s the decade we finally did something meaningful about it.