Amidst the steady stream of bad news, 2020 had room for a bit of optimism. Here are ten important reasons for hope that this year brought us for climate.
Why it matters. As the Covid-19 pandemic shook the world to its core this year, climate change did not take a break, from wildfires ravaging Western US and Australia to a brutal Atlantic hurricane season battering Central America.
The fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement in early December shed light on the lack of climate action by governments across the globe, including Switzerland. Nevertheless, some positive advances were made in the name of climate change. These are worth mentioning but must also be put into context.
1. 2.4bn tonnes of CO2 emissions spared. Never before has there been such a plunge in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions since the beginning of the twentieth century. Lockdowns and the economic slowdown are the main culprits.
However, we should not be too quick to claim victory: to meet the Paris goals, emissions would need to drop this much every year for the next decade. With economic activity expected to recover in 2021, a rebound in emissions is also forecast.
2. Remote working, the new normal. With lockdowns imposed across the globe, working from home has become part of the daily life of many workers, reducing the number of commutes and thus of carbon emissions from transport.
But if remote working becomes widespread, it could lead to an increase in digital data flows. Additional computer equipment would also need to be installed across homes, potentially driving up CO2 emissions.
3. A newly updated CO2 law. After a long road full of obstacles, a revised CO2 Act was finally adopted by the Swiss federal council in 25 November. It provides a new legislative framework for Switzerland's climate commitments and confirms the objective of keeping global warming below 1.5°C and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
The law also raises carbon taxes, introduces several flight taxes and creates a new climate fund. Despite these efforts, the Academy of Sciences (Scnat) considers them to be insufficient for Switzerland to effectively reach its objectives.
4. The return of night trains. While they had been gradually replaced by air travel, night trains will be making a comeback next year. The SBB has reached an agreement with the Austrian, German and French railway companies to expand Europe’s night network connecting 13 major cities. Travellers will be able to move across Europe without any flygskam – flight shame.
The fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement
5. Strengthening climate commitments. Generally speaking, the climate commitments by most governments are still far too weak in the face of the climate crisis, as pointed out by UN director general António Guterres.
But there are signs of progress. For example, Canada is planning to raise its carbon tax and allocate 15bn Canadian dollars to finance its energy transition. The EU has increased its carbon emissions reduction target from -40 per cent to -55 per cent below 1990 levels.
Whether these commitments can be attained, it remains to be seen. The Canadian tax is facing strong resistance at the national level. As for Europe, it will have to take into account its Eastern members’ strong dependence on fossil fuels.
6. China’s target to phase-out coal by 2060. Among the world's largest GHG emitters, China took everyone by surprise when it announced in September its intentions to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. China accounts for 28 per cent of global emissions, which could be decisive in achieving the Paris objectives. This commitment is all the more important as it implies the end of the use of coal, the country's main source of energy.
But China’s strategy to continue to build new coal plants until around 2030 to soften the transition threatens to make its target unreachable, according to the Draworld Environment Research Center and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
7. The US’s plan to re-join the Paris agreement. Barely out and already back in? In any case this is what the newly confirmed US president Joe Biden has promised to do as soon as he takes over the White House. He has also pleaded to make climate action a priority and has appointed John Kerry as the US special envoy for climate.
Energy and technology
8. The spectacular drop in solar power prices. In 10 years, the cost of solar energy has dropped 89 per cent, from $359 per MWh in 2009 to $40, according to a recent analysis by Our world in data. This fall should help speed up the energy transition, particularly in Switzerland where solar energy is expected to be the main substitute for nuclear power.
9. Apple commits to carbon neutrality by 2030. At the end of July, Apple announced its intentions to reach net zero CO2 emissions by the end of the decade. The American company, which emitted nearly 25 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019, is already mostly powered by renewable energy.
The next step in its climate plan is to encourage its suppliers to do the same and improve the recyclability of its products. Other companies such as Microsoft and Unilever have also promised to do the same by 2040.
10. We can slow down the warming now. New climate modelling has confirmed what climatologists had already noticed in the field: a sharp drop in GHG emissions can reduce the rate of global warming by a factor of three or four, even in the short term.