While the coronavirus pandemic might have been the most immediate crisis we’ve faced this year, climate change has continued to propel the planet towards catastrophe, with extreme weather records being broken all over the world.
It’s not all been pure doom scrolling, though: there have also been glimmers of hope, with big business and governments finally taking some relatively significant steps towards tackling the climate crisis.
We’ve summed up some of the year’s biggest environmental stories, which you might have missed, or just purposefully ignored to avoid adding more dread to your day.
January – Australia’s ‘Black Summer’
As the world saw in the new year, Australia was living through the peak of its most devastating wildfire season in history, with apocalyptic scenes of blood-red skies, firestorms and entire communities ablaze. Fuelled by a record-breaking heatwave that created tinderbox-like conditions, infernos of unprecedented scale ravaged over 92,000 square miles of land – that’s an area the same size as Portugal – destroying over 3,000 homes and killing or displacing nearly 3 billion animals.
February – UK’s Record-Breaking Rain
The UK lived up to its rainy reputation, with the wettest February since records began, in 1862. An average of 209.1mm of rainfall – 237 percent above the average – fell, with storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge putting swathes of the Midlands and Yorkshire under water.
March – Europe’s Climate Law
The European Commission announced its proposal of the EU Climate Law, as part of the Green Deal. Its stated aim is to reduce emissions Europe-wide to net-zero by 2050, making Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent. Activist Greta Thunberg wasn’t convinced, slamming it as “surrender” in an open letter also signed by other climate activists. “We don’t just need goals for just 2030 or 2050. We, above all, need them for 2020 and every following month and year to come,” she said.
April – Global Lockdown
By April, the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic were being felt by most of the world, forcing entire economies to come to a standstill. The (albeit temporary) environmental silver lining? Shutting down factories and taking cars off the road led to a 40 percent reduction in the average level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in Europe, reportedly avoiding over 11,000 deaths relating to air pollution in April alone.
May – Oil Turmoil
Lockdown kept our cars in their driveways, and as a result the oil market went into meltdown; a surplus of oil caused prices to dip below zero for the first time in history. Netflix did rather better, with their share price rocketing to a new record high of $448 (£360), taking its market value to higher than oil giant Exxon Mobil. Time will tell what impact this will have once “normal” life resumes, but a volatile oil market will likely place greater importance on oil and gas producers diversifying and investing in greener alternatives, according to experts.
June – An Arctic Heatwave
The remote Siberian town of Verkhoyansk is usually known for its extreme cold, but on the 20th of June, the mercury soared to a sweltering 38°C. It wasn’t a one-off: temperatures in the Arctic are rising faster than elsewhere. Not only does this spell trouble for the Arctic’s sea ice and the wildlife that rely on it for shelter and food, the icy continent helps to regulate the world’s temperature, reflecting heat from the sun – known as the albedo effect. Warmer temperatures also risk releasing frozen methane deposits, which have a warming effect 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide over 20 years.
July – Apple’s Climate Neutral Plan
Apple unveiled its plan to become carbon neutral by 2030, across its entire business and manufacturing supply chain. This means that every Apple device sold will have net zero climate impact. It’s a big undertaking, considering their current carbon footprint is 25.1M metric tonnes of CO2 (for context, that’s roughly half of Portugal’s 2019 emissions). Their ten-year roadmap includes transitioning their entire manufacturing supply chain to 100 percent renewable electricity, and only using recycled and renewable materials.
August – Pantanal Wildfires
While the US battled record-breaking wildfires in California, one of the most remote and biodiverse regions on Earth was also going up in flames. The Pantanal wetlands – straddling the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia – saw double the amount of fires compared to last year, which were believed to have ignited into out-of-control infernos because of a deadly combination of deforestation, drought and highly combustible underground peat.
Approximately a quarter of the vast floodplain – twice the area of California’s wildfires this season – has succumbed to blazes to date, a devastating blow to a habitat that’s home to endangered wildlife such as jaguars and giant otters.
September – The Hottest Month On Record
This year’s sizzling September was recorded as the hottest ever, according to the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service. Globally, September was 0.05 degrees Celsius warmer than the same month in 2019 – a clear indication of temperatures being driven up by emissions from human society, scientists say.
October – The Great Bleached Barrier Reef
The largest coral reef system in the world has reportedly lost half its corals since 1995 due to climate change warming the oceans, a study released in October reported. During the summer, the reef suffered its third mass coral bleaching in five years, the process in which corals become stressed by changes in conditions and expel symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to lose their vibrant colours and turn stark white.
November – Hurricane Season Hits
Central America was dealt a deadly double blow in the form of two successive category four hurricanes, Eta and Iota, in less than two weeks in November, resulting in devastating flooding and causing a major humanitarian crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The same month, Typhoons Vamco and Goni – reportedly the strongest storm of 2020, with 195 mph winds – battered the Philippines and Vietnam. Research has shown that climate change is making these storms more intense and destructive – and it’s a trend that is only going to ramp up as the oceans continue to warm.
December – Denmark’s farewell to fossil fuels
Denmark’s government announced that it will end all new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea and shift away from fossil fuels entirely by 2050, a watershed moment as the EU’s biggest oil producer (not including non-EU members UK and Norway).
“We are now putting a final end to the fossil era,” Denmark’s climate minister Dan Jørgensen said in a statement, calling the decision “necessary” if the country is to credibly hit its targets of reducing emissions by 70 percent by 2030 and be climate neutral in 2050. As part of the plan, new job creation will come from the country's growing off-shore wind sector.
So what do the experts think as we move into the new decade? If we continue along the trajectory we’re on, we’re going to see more disastrous headlines.
“The average global temperature in 2020 is set to be about 1.2 °C above the pre-industrial (1850-1900) level. There is at least a one in five chance of it temporarily exceeding 1.5 °C by 2024,” said Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas of the World Meteorological Organisation, the UN agency of meteorology, in a statement. “We welcome all the recent commitments by governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because we are currently not on track and more efforts are needed.”
“Optimism has been a rare commodity in 2020, yet there are reasons for hope,” Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK's policy director, told VICE World News. “The pandemic may have delayed the political timetable for climate action, most notably the Glasgow climate summit, but it seems to have speeded things up in the public conscience... Many people have realised that ending the pandemic is only half the job - we also need to start building something better. And there are already some signs that this is happening, with major shifts in favour of climate action, especially in Asia, but also in the US and the UK.
“And the most basic lesson of all: if we get complacent about the threats we face, there’s hell to pay.”