Global carbon emissions rebounded after a small pandemic-related drop in 2020. The summer saw a series of climate catastrophes, including flooding in Western Europe (China) and wildfires throughout the American West. And although world leaders made some headway at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, their new emission-reduction commitments aren’t nearly enough to get the world back on track.
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It was also an important year for individuals, governments, and organizations to begin to work together in response to the climate crisis. It’s unclear whether that momentum will lead to the sweeping systemic changes the world needs to rapidly zero out greenhouse-gas emissions, but from international agreements to technological advances, some progress is being made. These are the top climate advancements of 2021.
Since the beginning, traditional carmakers have been seen as obstacles in combating climate change. The U.S. has almost 20% of its carbon emissions from internal combustion engines. We might consider 2021 the year that the dam burst, as carmakers from General Motors and Mercedes-Benz literally fell over each other with promises to improve their products and invest in battery cars. Ford released an electric F-150 pickup truck, and Tesla, which was a pioneer in the sector, continues to push ahead with record quarterly profits.
Green power, a gust of it
Offshore wind is one of the world’s best decarbonization tools, especially to power densely populated coastal areas like the Eastern seaboard. But the U.S. hasn’t built more than a handful of those turbines, even as gigawatts of offshore wind power began flowing in Europe and China in recent decades. In November, Vineyard Wind was approved by the United States and construction started. More such projects will be built in the future.
Get the carbon out
Iceland’s largest ever facility to extract carbon from the atmosphere, and store it underground permanently began operation in September. The plant runs on geothermal energy and is able to sequester 4,000 tons of carbon per year. To be sure, that’s several orders of magnitude smaller than the billion-ton scale that would be required to make a dent in global emissions, and many environmentalists are wary of investing in such projects, saying limited resources are better used to build renewable power and storage to replace fossil fuels. Others argue that the development of carbon-capture instruments will be essential for balancing out emissions in hard-to decarbonize sectors like shipping.
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Form Energy, a secretive U.S. company that makes iron-air batteries for charging mobile devices, made its debut in the media this year. Wall Street JournalReporters in July These batteries could prove to be an asset for power grid, even though they are far too heavy for electric cars. This new system uses plentiful and cheap iron pellets. If it works as well as Form Energy claims, it would offer a more affordable way to store renewable electricity and release it when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, making it more financially viable to phase out fossil-fuel power plants.
New deadlines for coal
Despite the disappointment of many, there were still some positive outcomes to COP26. More than 40 countries reached an agreement to end coal power, the leading cause of global climate change. This was one of its key achievements. Major emitters like the U.S. and China didn’t sign on to the deal, and some experts say the agreement gives individual countries too much leeway on phaseout dates, but the international pledge still marks a step toward the goal of eliminating coal power worldwide.
Linking cause and effect
An international group of scientists have been working quietly over the last few years to improve a method for determining the impact of climate change on extreme weather events. This summer, that team, led by European climate scientists Geert Jan van Oldenborgh and Friederike Otto, took only nine days to prove that a deadly, record-breaking heat wave in the U.S. Pacific Northwest would have been all but impossible without the effects of human-made greenhouse-gas emissions. It is vital that people see the urgency of the climate crisis.