Without a doubt, the year 2011 has been a remarkable year in the journey to a sustainable future. There have been some exhilarating highs and some devastating lows. While a steady drumbeat of warnings about climate destabilization persists, growing ever louder, the response seems to finally be an awakening of consciousness of the need to take action. Sustainability is finally becoming mainstream. But is it happening fast enough?
Let’s begin by looking at the environment, because without that, all the other stories become irrelevant. Sadly, 2011 has been a very tough year for life on this planet.
Greenhouse gases rose to record levels, Arctic sea ice melt almost reached the record set in 2007 and, despite being a “La Niña” year, when temperatures are supposed to be cooler than average, it turned out to be the 11th hottest year on record.
It was a year in which temperature extremes became the new normal here in the US, with close to 3,000 monthly temperature records being broken, along with droughts and heat waves across the globe.
Meanwhile Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, doggedly determined to remain in the Dark Ages, took out a TV ad attacking Newt Gingrich for “promoting Al Gore’s Liberal Global Warming Agenda.”
Still, the relentless forces behind the climate change did not let up. Despite the recession, CO2 concentrations have increased to over 390 PPM as the planet registered its 7 billionth human inhabitant.
It was also a big year for weather-related disasters with floods, droughts and wildfires taking massive tolls across the states. According to the Guardian, “The US experienced 14 separate disasters each costing over $1bn. In total, financial losses were estimated at over $50bn.”
NOAA spokesman Christopher Vaccaro said, “In many ways, 2011 rewrote the record books. From crippling snowstorms to the second deadliest tornado year on record to epic floods, drought and heat, and the third busiest hurricane season on record, we’ve witnessed the extreme of nearly every weather category.”
The Guardian report, which I drew from heavily above, goes on in great, if depressing, detail to document the harms the planet has suffered this year at our hands.
In the midst of all this climate instability, there was also political instability, much of it moving in the direction of more democratic society. The Arab Spring, as it came to be known, ushered in a wave of pro-democracy protests. These protests, organized largely by young people, through the use of social media, led to the fall of autocratic governments across North Africa including, Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. There were riots in Britain and the birth of the Occupy movement in the US which later spread to Europe and all around the world decrying to drastic inequities in our current economic system. These events reflect a broad movement towards what Jeremy Rifkin calls, “lateral power.” Rifkin’s thesis, which he expounds in his recent book The Third Industrial Revolution, is that a new communication and energy infrastructure (internet and renewables) will usher in a new economic paradigm, which he calls the third industrial revolution, as dramatic as the first two, but it will lead to a more decentralized and democratic structure, which will also be more sustainable. Let’s hope he’s right.
The last major event in sustainability news was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan which led to the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. This tragic event which cost more than 15,000 lives and cost the Japanese government somewhere on the order of $200 billion, has led to a number of major European countries, including Germany and Switzerland, to walk away from nuclear power. This could very well be the death knell for the industry, at least as we know it today, which further complicates, or perhaps simplifies, the energy picture moving forward.
Speaking of which, 2011 was a banner year for renewables. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), renewables comprised roughly 50 percent of all new power generation capacity added last year. Renewables now contribute about 20 percent of global electricity. The growth rate is strong and it is increasing. Solar PV more than doubled due to declining costs. Offshore wind in Europe is projected to grow seventeen-fold by 2020. All told, Europe is on track to meet their pledge of 20 percent renewables by 2020, but just barely. It’s not clear yet whether the US will meet President Obama’s pledge of “80 percent electricity from clean sources by 2035.”
As we take some time out to relax and be with our loved ones over the holiday, we can be glad for the positive progress that has been made and ask ourselves what all of us can do to make this planet a better place to live next year.
[Image credit:emilydickinsonridesabmx:Flickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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