Welcome to Planet Days, a five-minute roundup of the latest climate news. If this was forwarded to you, smash that subscribe button:
This morning we’re covering the top stories from the year. We’ll still limit the newsletter to seven stories, and it’ll still be under a five minute read, but instead of linking out to external content, we’ll link to Planet Days’ coverage.
And some housekeeping: We’re taking next week off, but we’ll return to your inboxes on Monday, January 10. Thank you for reading every week, and we hope you have a safe and healthy New Year. Now, onto what happened around the Planet in 2021:
The state of the Planet
Before we dive into the year, let’s unpack the state of the Planet. After green recoveries failed to catch on (out of the $15 trillion in recovery spending, only 2.5% went toward “green” initiatives at the start of the year), CO2 emissions came surging back, rebounding to pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth assessment report, unequivocally linking human actions to extreme weather and warning that the Planet will surpass 1.5 degrees of global warming before the end of the century.
Up against this challenge, the International Energy Agency provided a “narrow” pathway for countries to hit net zero, something that will take “unprecedented transformation.”
The world’s wild weather year
Those who say climate impacts are in the future should look out the window. This year, the Planet experienced a flurry of extreme weather events, all made worse by climate change.
The United States saw record wildfires and heat, deadly clusters of tornadoes, and an active hurricane season, headlined by Hurricane Ida. Meanwhile, a record cold front and series of winter storms swept through Texas, leaving millions without power, and record heat and extreme flooding upended the Pacific Northwest.
In Europe, flash floods, drought, and heat marred the continent, with wildfires sweeping the Mediterranean and rainfall drowning Western Europe. In Asia, deadly floods submerged Central China, and Cyclones Yaas and Tauktae, as well as a glacier burst, made deadly disasters in India. Australia, meanwhile, saw its worst flooding in 60 years.
Biden comes in hot
Amid these cascading impacts, a new climate leader emerged on the global stage. In his first week, U.S. President Joe Biden signed 17 executive orders, reentering the Paris Agreement, killing the Keystone XL pipeline, and freezing new oil and gas drilling leases.
Months later, Biden hosted a Leaders Climate Summit, where he committed the U.S. to cutting 50–52% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Japan, Canada, South Korea, Brazil, and China also made notable commitments.
On the Hill, Biden made use of a Democrat-controlled Congress to pass his COVID-19 relief bill and bipartisan infrastructure package, which included more than $100 billion in climate provisions. But the year ended on a low note: Key swing vote Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) withdrew support for the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better Act, Biden’s signature climate bill.
Renewables are on the rise
Let’s get back to some good news: In 2020, wind and solar power capacity grew by a record 238 gigawatts. Meanwhile, renewable energy installations jumped 45% from 2019 to 2020, the largest year-to-year jump in two decades. And renewables overtook fossil fuels as the primary source of electricity in Europe.
But, alas, the catch: IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2021 found that our transition to clean energy is “far too slow” to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the target set to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid a climate catastrophe.
… But so is Big Oil
Renewables aren’t the only ones with a record year. After pandemic-related lockdowns sent oil prices plummeting, profits have surged for Big Oil — and for those wondering, Omicron is unlikely to change that.
But it’s not all rosy for Big Oil either. Oil companies faced a public reckoning this year, as courts and shareholders demanded more climate action. Despite years of intentionally misleading the public and greenwashing, some of the world’s largest oil producers are finally increasing investments in renewable energy.
The climate crisis is a public health crisis
The links between climate change and health are becoming increasingly clear. This year over 230 medical journals issued an urgent warning: Unchecked climate change could have “catastrophic” consequences for global health.
An avalanche of studies backed up this claim. Research found more than 356,000 people died from extreme heat-related causes in just nine countries in 2019. Another study linked climate change to 5 million deaths each year. And more research attributed over a third of all heat-related deaths between 1991 and 2018 to our warming planet.
But it’s not just deadly heat. Another study published this year found that air pollution from fossil fuels prematurely killed 8.7 million people worldwide in 2018.
COP26 delivers progress but lacks a breakthrough
Against this backdrop, 130 world leaders gathered at the 26th Conference of Parties, or COP26, which many labeled as the last best chance to get climate change under control.
The 13-day summit was rife with protest, disagreements, and inequity, but good did come of it. Countries unveiled new climate plans, focused on ending deforestation, cutting methane emissions, halting funding for oil and gas, and ending oil and gas exploration and extraction altogether.
The summit also produced the Glasgow Climate Pact. The non-binding agreement keeps alive the critical 1.5-degree target (though barely) by urging a “phase-down” of coal power and oil and gas subsidies, pressuring rich countries to “at least double” finance by 2025, and calling for countries to meet next year with stronger pledges.
A time capsule
It’s been nearly two years since the idea for Planet Days emerged. After Sam and I left the same job at the same time, Planet Days started as a way for us to keep working together and writing about something we deeply cared about.
It has since morphed into something that (I hope) fills a void in the climate space: A one-stop shop for anyone who doesn't have the time or energy to keep up with everything going on with our Planet.
As newsletters and articles get longer, I want to go the opposite direction: Keeping every newsletter under five minutes, while still providing clear context for the Planet’s top climate stories. I have more changes underway for 2022, and I hope you’ll be along for the ride.
Have a happy and safe New Year,