I’m so over 2020. So, in the interest of “glass half full,” here is my top 10 list of good things that happened to the environment this year:
1. The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Team Joe has managed to make climate change and the new energy economy a pillar campaign theme that resonated with the public for the first time in U.S. history. Their ambitious plan of action, if implemented, will make significant headway in fighting the causes and consequences of climate change.
2. China’s climate targets. China has historically fought against emissions targets that were not tied to economic activity. This has changed. China has embarked on a serious path toward carbon neutrality. This. Is. A. Huge. Deal.
3. Renewables and storage are getting cheaper. Solar and wind continue their march toward being the cheapest source of electricity available. Across the world we are seeing record after record fall. That makes grid-scale storage the final frontier, and things look promising there as well.
4. Coal is on its way out. Sing it. The swan song. Light it. The cigar. It’s over. What has happened to coal in the past year exceeded even the Lorax’s wildest expectations. And let’s remember, U.S. coal is still benefiting from an uneven playing field. There are subsidies galore and no price on carbon where this stuff is being burned. And still coal can no longer compete.
5. Vehicle manufacturers are onboard with higher fuel economy. The Obama administration implemented aggressive fuel economy standards, which the Trump administration torpedoed. Turns out vehicle manufacturers don’t want the relaxation in standards as much as they would like a single set of standards across the country and some regulatory certainty.
6. Progress on social cost of carbon. The Trump administration reversed Obama-era efforts to properly account for the damages from climate change in federal regulations by changing the social cost of carbon to $1-$7 per ton of carbon dioxide from $42 and stopping all research. Folks at Resources for the Future and Cal’s Climate Impact Lab have pushed the necessary research along so the new administration can hit the ground running.
7. Satellites! Methane! We do not know where a large share of the emissions of the super-greenhouse-gas methane emissions is coming from. New satellite technology will allow us to detect even small leaks of methane at oil and gas wells and in pipeline infrastructure. Knowing where you have a problem is an important first step to successful regulation.
8. The swan song of the combustion engine. I love cars. I never thought I would say this, but I would take a dual motor electric beast over American muscle any day. Just make EVs cost competitive and prettier (come on Nissan!). California and Europe basically laid down the law: Car companies, you have to figure out how to make EVs that have range and that people can afford and want by 2035.
9. Trucks. I grew up in a trucking family. I have dispatched, loaded and driven big trucks. I love big trucks. But I realize that they are seriously bad for the environment and cause massive health damage, often affecting poorer communities of color. California’s advanced truck rule is a first step to fixing this market failure.
10. Environmental justice. 2020 may be the year that even economists finally understood that efficiency is not the only “e” worth thinking about. Equity concerns have finally entered — arguably much too late — the economic discipline’s main stage and the way we will evaluate the economic impacts of environmental policies.
So, yes, 2020 sucks. But let’s take solace in the fact that a few really great things happened this year that will allow us to build a better future for everyone on this planet.
Maximilian Auffhammer is a professor in sustainable development and associate dean of social sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.