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2015 in Review: A Breakout Year for Climate Action

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Dec 31, 2015 9:40:29 AM

2015 was a pivotal year for the environment, with a broad spectrum of sustainability successes and climate action pledges. The movement (and the planet) received boosts on all fronts from corporate executives, religious leaders, and elected officials.

For those of us working to enhance awareness of and commitments to sustainability, this year offered much desired gratification and hard fought vindication. Our work is far from complete, but the events of 2015 have certainly strengthened the foundation for an abundant, sustainable future.

Historic Global Agreement

The landmark agreement reached in Paris at the COP21 meetings to limit global warming, reduce carbon emissions, adopt clean technologies, and assist poor countries that have been impacted by climate change is a game changer for the planet. Never before has there been so much alignment on action that needs to be taken to mitigate the risks of climate change. Never before have we had such a framework for cooperation.

The Agreement, however, simply opens a door for change, and now we must walk boldly through it.  The success of global climate action efforts will be assessed by the ability and continued willingness to execute on the stated commitments of over 190 countries, cities around the globe, and hundreds of multi-national businesses.

The Paris accord forces the hand of both the public and private sectors to shift to a zero emissions economy, presenting what is considered to be the greatest business opportunity of the century. All aspects of the economy will be affected by the unprecedented move towards decarbonization, sustainability, renewables, and resiliency, and trillions of dollars will be redirected to support the transition.

Business at the Vanguard

Businesses in every sector stepped up this year to support climate action.  Major apparel companies banded together to reduce the textile industry’s environmental impact.

Companies in the construction industry announced initiatives to make all new buildings net zero energy by 2030 and all existing buildings net zero by 2050.

Consumer products giants promised to dramatically reduce deforestation and engage in widespread land restoration efforts.

Transportation companies pledged to reduce vehicle emissions and increase fuel efficiency, while expanding electrification, automation, and connectivity.

Even the behemoth agriculture companies got in on the action by promising carbon neutrality across all operations.

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President Barack Obama hosts the Pope in the Oval Office of the White House on September 23. (Image courtesy of Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty via cnn.com)

Religious Leaders in Lockstep

Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Climate Change made a powerful statement, encouraging people of faith to adopt stewardship as a moral duty. The document helped to depolarize the topic of climate action, shifting the conversation away from politics and onto compassion and humanitarianism.

The Pope’s message, reverberating around the world, was brave and direct: climate change has been caused primarily by human activity; humans have been irresponsible stewards of the planet; citizens of developed nations must change their lifestyles in order to eliminate an abhorrent “culture of waste”; and every one of us must step immediately for an all-inclusive crusade to avert the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem” before the end of this century.

The Encyclical turned climate action into a moral imperative, attempting to unify and inspire people from all walks of life with the suggestion that the planet, and existence itself, is a precious gift, and that each one of us has the responsibility to care for it joyfully, vigilantly, and tenderly.

Congress Finds Consensus

In an amazingly bipartisan move, Congress recently agreed on a spending bill that promises to unleash the potential of solar and wind in our country as viable, cost-effective clean energy sources. The bill lifts the 40-year ban on crude oil exports in exchange for an extension of tax credits for renewables. The Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar was extended through 2021, and the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind was extended through the end of 2019.   The tax credit extensions are expected to provide substantial incentive to ramp up the installation of wind and solar by 2020 across the U.S. (which would result in tens of billions of dollars in new investment and hundreds of thousands of new jobs.)

Crumbling Empire

Fossil fuel companies might just look back at 2015 as the year when they were dealt the fatal blow that finally forced them to release their stranglehold on our economy. With plunging oil prices, increasing carbon emissions regulations, mounting public disenfranchisement, and rapidly growing pressure from competitive clean energy solutions like solar and wind, the economics of big oil are undeniably and irreparably changing.

While our global energy system will likely remain dependent on fossil fuels for decades to come (fossil fuel companies still benefit from trillions of dollars in long-established government subsidies each year), movement towards renewables and clean energy solutions is accelerating at an exponential rate.

Intensifying climate action, like the passing of the Clean Power Plan and the rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline, will further impede the oil industry, and as countries, companies, and cities set increasingly stringent emissions and efficiency targets, renewables will continue to trump fossil fuels. Moreover, ambiguity about future policy against drilling in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Arctic has created an upswell of instability for big oil.

As the economics of big oil transform, banking and finance companies across the globe are divesting from fossil fuels and pouring money into clean energy deals. Clean energy investments are no longer an outlier to the mainstream economy—they’re now considered relatively safe when compared to fossil fuel companies that are burdened with stranded assets that will likely result in trillions of dollars in write-downs

Clean and Connected

The boundless growth of clean, connected technologies—from vehicles to smart home platforms—was exceptional in 2015. These green, intelligent technologies are paving the way to a sustainable future, allowing us to enhance convenience, increase security, boost resource efficiency, and decrease costs. They’ll not only enable us to optimize the performance of our homes, buildings, cars, and cities (taking human error out of the equation,) but they’ll also be able to self-diagnose problems before breakdowns occur, alerting us when maintenance is needed.

The Climate Rubicon?

Unfortunately, 2015 didn’t only bring progress. For the first time since we began recording carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere in the 1950’s, global CO2 levels surpassed 400 PPT for the entire month of March (we’ve recorded 400 PPM in the past, but for much shorter periods of time and only in localized areas.) The last time that the planet’s atmosphere contained this much carbon dioxide was over a million years ago, when modern humans didn’t exist.

Carbon emissions from human activity have contributed to a 5% increase in atmospheric moisture, which has translated into greater climate instability and extreme weather events. Extreme temperatures and super storms wreaked havoc on our country. Prolonged drought brought California to its knees. Unprecedented flooding in Missouri feels like the apocalypse. And the polar vortex in the north is the stuff of movies. While we were rocked in 2014 and shocked in 2015, 2016 is expected to be the hottest—and most extreme—year on record ever.

2015 was a banner year for sustainability and climate action. I’m hopeful that the momentum will continue, and even increase, in 2016.  

How do you think we can further enhance sustainability in 2016? Write to me at sara.gutterman@greenbuildermedia.com or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit Green Builder Media at www.greenbuildermedia.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter for regular updates and breaking news.

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