The Biggest Climate Change Stories of 2020

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2020 was a monumental year for just about every kind of news, and climate news was no exception. As the world reeled from the shocks of the coronavirus pandemic, racial tension, and economic collapse, it also dealt with deadly heat, hellacious wildfires, and the most active Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history.

We may also remember 2020, however, as the year the world started to reverse centuries of damage to the climate. Just before the start of the year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a new Green Deal, which would go on to become the centerpiece of the European Union’s economic recovery plan. Several more of the largest global economies—including China, which is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other country—also came out with net-zero pledges. As oil and gas prices plunged due to the pandemic, NextEra Energy Inc., the world’s largest supplier of wind power, overtook Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. to become the world’s most valuable energy company, bar none. And in November, the U.S. voted to make Joe Biden, who adopted climate change as one of his signature campaign issues, its next president.

As we put this year into the rearview, we at Bloomberg Green decided to take a moment to reflect on and begin to process the most important climate stories of this insane, overwhelming, anguished, historic year. This newsletter will be taking a break for the rest of 2020, but we’ll see you again in 2021.

Disasters got worse

Fires were especially bad this year—particularly in northern California, where I live. But we also experienced an unprecedented Atlantic hurricane season, and it was hotter than it’s ever been in some places. Phoenix set triple-digit heat records, and Siberia hit 100 degrees. There was a record number of climate disasters that cost us $1 billion. Climate migration had already begun, but more than ever, people started to wonder: Is it time to move? —Emily Biuso, editor

Oil and gas companies took heat from investors over emissions

In August, Exxon Mobil disappeared from the Dow Jones Industrial Average; it had been a member since the company was Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1928. That same month, energy (read: oil and gas companies) shrunk to become the lowest-weighted component of the S&P 500; in 2008, it was the component's second-largest sector, right after information technology. In obvious way, this is the bottom for the oil and gas sector. More important to me is what its path up from the bottom—if there is one—will look like. For European supermajors, it runs through commitments to significantly or even wholly reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also coming to terms with a future of falling oil demand. For U.S. oil majors that path is less clear, but capital is having its say. Exxon, long dismissive of both specific emissions reduction strategies and climate change in general, now faces two activist campaigns calling for, among other things, a reckoning with what investors see as an unsustainable emissions trajectory. The company is listening—this month it announced plans to significantly reduce its upstream emissions intensity. —Nathaniel Bullard, Sparklines columnist/BloombergNEF chief content officer

Clean energy fantasies got closer to reality

Before 2020, the idea that America could—or would—fully rid its electrical grids of carbon emissions was practically a moonshot. But in 2020, that moonshot became something of a national calling. Joe Biden, as a presidential nominee, didn't just take the unprecedented step of making climate change a centerpiece of his campaign, he proposed greening the country's grids by 2035, outpacing the targets of California and other progressive states. None of that will be easy. While many large U.S. utilities have pledged to hit net-zero emissions in the next three decades, some say the technology necessary to achieve Biden’s goal doesn't yet exist. —Brian Eckhouse, reporter

Voters showed up for the climate

The 2020 U.S. presidential election made at least one thing clear: voters care about climate change. President-elect Joe Biden put environmental-friendly policies at the forefront of much of his campaign—including the crucial final weeks—just as young, first-time voters have been begging the world to take the climate crisis seriously. Once he takes office in January, Biden will have to confront the legacy of the present administration, which rolled back numerous environmental regulations put in place during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president. Accomplishing these campaign promises will be especially difficult if Republicans are able to maintain control of the Senate. But either way, the voters have spoken. —Elizabeth Elkin, reporter

China threw its weight behind global climate goals

Without doubt, the most important story this year was China’s commitment to hit net zero by 2060. There is a lot we don’t know about China's plan and, like any country, the central government will need to fight vested interests like the coal industry to make it happen. But China’s ruling Communist Party can (almost literally) move mountains when it really wants to. If China can really meet its goal then maybe—just maybe—we can get our arms around this crisis. Bloomberg Green’s coverage (rightly) focuses on the jaw-dropping data behind climate change: CO₂ parts per million, gigawatts of power, dollars per kilowatt-hour etc. But Katherine Rundell’s beautiful wildlife writing for the London Review of Books reminds us that it's not just humanity’s future that's at stake. “Consider the Hedgehog,” which closes with a heart-rending description of how global warming is devastating one of nature's gentlest creatures, is just one such example of the quiet power of Rundell’s work. —John Fraher, editor

Companies came clean on climate risk

Despite the administrative turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic, more companies than ever before are disclosing their climate impact and risks. The annual report from the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure (of which Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority shareholder of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, is the chair) found an 85% year-over-year increase in transparency practices aligned with its recommendations. Meanwhile, CDP, formerly known as the Climate-Disclosure Project, had almost 10,000 companies disclose to its platform, a 14% increase on last year. These practices are crucial to evaluating corporate climate-change impact and setting meaningful goals. And they aren’t likely to be voluntary for much longer. This year, New Zealand and the U.K. became the first countries to say they’ll require companies to disclose their climate risk. —Todd Gillespie, reporter

The world put on its green-colored glasses

Climate change has always been an everything story, but 2020 was the first year—in my memory, at least—that it was talked about that way. First came the discussions in the early part of the year about the transformative potential of stimulus money to green-ify the global economy; then, as the U.S. reacted to the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, the long-belated acknowledgement that the environment is a civil rights issue. Finally, at the end of this year, as the Paris climate agreement celebrated its five-year anniversary, an international summit hosted (virtually, of course) by the U.K. made clear that the world has reached a consensus on climate as a top priority. Be cynical if you want, but I don’t think there’s any going back. —Jillian Goodman, editor

Covid-19 was a wake-up call

One silver lining of Covid-19 is that more people are now aware of the links between global health and the environment. As the planet's atmosphere heats up, a growing number of animal species will be forced to leave their historic habitats in search of more hospitable environments—likely closer to human settlements, which means more chances for diseases to jump from animals to humans. There are larger-scale links between Covid and climate change, as well. The crisis has helped illustrate more than ever before that, despite how bad Covid-19 has been, out of control climate change will be far more devastating. It has the potential not only to cause death, economic hardship, and drastic changes to society but also to spark other devastating pandemics in the future. —Karoline Kan, reporter

Investors got responsible—in a big way

Sustainable investing has been growing for some time now—in fact, investments under the environmental, social, and governance label, or ESG, nearly doubled over the past four years globally to encompass more than $40 trillion in assets. Still, 2020 will mark a pivotal moment for the power of the green investor. It started with a bang in January when BlackRock added its $7 trillion heft to the Climate Action 100+, an investor coalition that pushes companies to reduce their greenhouses gases. The pace was accelerated further by Covid-19. As the rest of the market swooned in the early days of the pandemic, active ESG managed funds outpaced the market and won new converts. While investors are no substitute for government regulation and not every ESG fund is actually interested in cutting carbon, the markets are already showing their power to force companies to disclose carbon emissions and create plans to cut them. And the trend seems set to continue—some predict 60% of the market could be ESG by 2025. —Leslie Kaufman, reporter

Contradictions came out into the open

As ESG investing moved from the periphery into the mainstream of finance, more and more conflicts of interest are coming to light, making it difficult for big Wall Street names to continue talking the talk about saving the planet without walking the walk, as well. Take the case of three multi-billion-dollar money managers who jumped on the ESG wave earlier this year, even as their top executives backed groups skeptical about the climate crisis. Investors—including two big pension plans working to align their investments with Paris Agreement goals—weren’t too happy and forced one of the asset managers to enact changes to ensure its activities are in line with the transition to a low-carbon economy. The world’s largest sustainability group also took note—it will now require its 3,500 members, who manage a combined $100 trillion in assets, to share information about their interactions with policy makers to see if their lobbying efforts are aligned with environmental and societal goals. —Saijel Kishan, reporter

Barriers against climate action started to crumble

Pandemics and climate change are both poorly served by conventional measures of economic growth—or, to put it more accurately, humans are poorly served by conventional economics when it comes to pandemics and climate change. Many rich countries have failed to keep their populations safe from COVID-19, and the most popular economic models of climate change policy encourage cutting emissions slowly even as the disastrous effects from a hotter, changing climate accelerate before our eyes. Gross domestic product seems like an unassailable dominant measure of macroeconomic success, but this year saw some more orthodox voices—including the World Economic Forum—suggesting it be replaced with a more detailed, holistic measure. But even based on conventional measures of growth, the International Monetary Fund found that the plummeting cost of renewables and a better understanding of climate-related damages means that green measures make excellent policy options to support pandemic-ravaged economies. While I’m aware that information alone doesn’t guarantee action on climate change, it’s good to see the shibboleth of “costs” being removed from the list of excuses. Kate Mackenzie, Stranded Assets columnist

Wall Street saw the value of biodiversity

The rapid destruction of the planet’s biodiversity is starting to capture the attention of fund managers. After several years trying to calculate their contribution to climate change and the portfolio implications of a warming planet, a number of money managers in 2020 pledged to undertake similar efforts for biodiversity. Where collapsing fish stocks and rapidly declining bee populations once seemed like far-removed concerns for financiers, many have come to realize that they pose a massive economic threat: more than half of the world’s total gross domestic product is moderately or highly dependent on nature, with humans reliant on the planet’s natural resources for everything from food to medicine. —Alastair Marsh, reporter

Everything happened in the Arctic

Every possible climate change story played out in the Arctic at some point this year. Ice melting, sea level rise, fires, extremely high temperatures, permafrost thawing, infrastructure collapse, extinction of species, uncontrolled carbon and methane release. Warming in the Arctic is happening so fast that the region has gone from being the perfect example of what will happen in the rest of the world if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions soon to becoming a contributor to climate change. This year, scientists embarked on the largest Arctic expedition in history to gather data and understand the region before it all but disappears. At the same time, natural gas exporters benefitted from the thinning ice that allowed for the longest ever navigation season along the traditionally challenging Northern Sea Route. —Laura Millan, reporter

The global economy went green

Eight out of 10 of the world's largest economies—including China and Japan, the first and fifth largest emitters in the world—have set goals to reach net-zero emission within decades. Once Joe Biden takes office as president, the U.S. will increase that list to nine. If these countries deliver on those promises, the world will come within spitting distance of keeping warming below 2º Celsius. —Akshat Rathi, reporter

Fires reached science fiction-scale

As climate change worsens, our only frame of reference for it may be science fiction. That was already the case in September, when California’s biggest fires on record singed the sky a color we’ve collectively seen only once before, in the 2017 movie, Blade Runner 2049. The orange-red skies kept entire regions locked indoors during a pandemic that made outside the safest place to be around others. This year began with historic fires half a world away in Australia, where high temperatures and persistent drought set the stage for extreme conflagrations. Even the Arctic, which many of us used to know as permanently cold and frozen, saw anomalous blazes, including “zombie fires” that burned underground through the winter before roaring back to life. Warming-stoked fires are no longer in the future. They’re in the immediate past and present, and the climate conditions that encourage them are growing only more intense. —Eric Roston, reporter

Climate change mitigation became an economic positive

The Covid-climate parallels write themselves. Among the most significant: stopping Covid-19 is by far the best economic stimulus. The same goes for climate change. Environmentalists and some climate economists have long argued that addressing climate change is a win-win: a win for the climate, and for the economy. This fall, the IMF joined the fray. The reasoning: decarbonizing the economy is a major undertaking, requiring large investments in clean, efficient technologies. Climate success, in short, looks like more economic activity, not less. None of that means the transition will be costless. Far from it. Much like ridding the world of Covid-19 might hurt some companies, from Amazon to Zoom, so will cutting carbon to zero—and then some. Enabling a “just transition” is key, a term that has entered the vocabulary of staid economic institutions like the IMF and is front and center in president-elect Joe Biden’s climate-economic planning. —Gernot Wagner, Risky Climate columnist

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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