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It turns out that, amid a whole lot of terrible, 2018 brought some good news for the environment, too

Without a doubt, consensus was strongest on various measures of progress toward a renewably powered world during 2018.

photo of wind turbines in the sea
Without a doubt, consensus was strongest on various measures of progress toward a renewably powered world during 2018.
REUTERS/Christian Charisius

Can’t prove this, won’t even try, but the turn of this new year seemed to bring an unusually robust flow of retrospectives on 2018 as a year of good news for our terrestrial environment and the people who care about it.

Can’t explain that but will speculate that it may have something to do with the year’s bad news being so very bad, especially in the realm of climate change: its accelerating pace and proliferating impacts; the deepening concern about feedback mechanisms, already under way, that are poorly understood but are likely to proceed even if greenhouse-gas emissions could be brought down rapidly.

Still, last year’s good news does deserve more attention than it received in most ongoing coverage, including my own. So as a time-conserving service to you, dear readers, I devoted a fair chunk of time to sifting all such compilations I could find; what follows is a selection of the positive developments that struck me as having the most merit, with extra weight to those mentioned by multiple commentators (positive consensus being rather a rare thing among environmentalist opinionators).

Without a doubt, consensus was strongest on various measures of progress toward a renewably powered world during 2018.

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Over at Vox, Umair Irfan and David Roberts wove their examples into a narrative in which “clean energy technologies also got bigger, better, and cheaper. The political will to fight climate change gained considerable momentum. And the business case for cutting greenhouse gases got stronger. “

Among the clean-tech developments: deployment of electric scooters for short-term rental in cities across America; rising interest in ever-larger wind turbines; new approaches to solar energy, including “floating solar farms”; 43 new natural gas plants with carbon capture either operating, under construction or under development; retirement of coal plants with a combined capacity of 15.4 gigawatts.

Irfan and Roberts also cited state- and local-level policies to push for even greater progress, including Xcel Energy’s announcement that its power generation will be carbon-free by 2050 and California’s commitment to 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2045. And, happily, they are not at all alone in these ambitions:

According to the Sierra Club, more than 90 cities, 10 counties, and two states have set targets for 100 percent renewable energy. That includes cities ranging from Berkeley, California, to Boulder, Colorado, to Cincinnati, Ohio, to Concord, New Hampshire.

As for newfound political will, Irfan and Roberts are among several commentators who feel the midterm elections of progressive candidates to state and federal offices — and the insurgent enthusiasm of young Americans, particularly, for a Green New Deal — hold promise for major progress.

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Surging investment in renewables also led the good-news-in-review list at Newsweek, which farmed out the reviewing to a panel of climate researchers. Also:

  • Expansion in the global economy may have peaked, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, though it’s too soon to say what a “degrowth” trend might deliver in lowered production, consumption and globe-warming emissions.
  • Those emissions seemed to be going down, notably if not conclusively, in the U.S., the U.K., Japan, Ukraine, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates — but the most recent available data were for 2017.
  • In a silver-lining conjecture, street protests and direct-action engagements by people filled with “personal and collective despair in the face of environmental collapse might be a very positive move indeed,” according to Anna Pigott, a researcher in environmental humanities at Swansea University. Grief is a sign of deep caring, she says, and it’s a sign of progress that such feelings are being welcomed into the public discourse on climate.

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Through the miracle of digital publishing technology, I can register personal and collective restiveness among some readers over all this attention to climate and energy subjects. So let’s move on to saving critters, protecting oceans, setting aside new parklands … and a downward tick in the killing of environmental activists last year.

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Sharing honors for silver-lining detection is Genevieve Belmaker at Mongabay, who finds “a reprieve of sorts in 2018” for front-line environmental defenders around the world — the organizers whose resistance to illegal deforestation, dam-building and other abuses of industrial power puts them at risk of violence, up to and including murder.

Keeping track of this mayhem is the Global Witness organization and its campaign director, Billy Kyte, who said the official tallies for 2018 weren’t yet finalized, but would show “a marked decrease” from 2017. On the other hand, 2017 was the record-setter at 197 documented killings.

The data show the Philippines and Brazil had the highest number of killings this year. India and Guatemala experienced significant increases, while Mexico also recorded an increase. Honduras was one country that reported a large drop in the number of killings.

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Honors for self-deprecating humor, meanwhile, go to Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who blogs about matters oceanic at Scientific American. For the fifth year running, she has compiled a good-news list of  “The Top 10 Ocean Conservation Victories” — this time with the subheadline,  “(Just kidding, there were only three this year”). To wit:

New protected areas have been created (shoutout, most recently, to Argentina!), there has been progress toward a U.N. treaty to manage the high seas (shoutout to the High Seas Alliance!), and new science shows a few strong corals on the Great Barrier Reef can withstand super-hot temperatures without bleaching (shout-out to Terry Hughes, et al.!). Plus there is a lot going on behind the scenes now that will come to fruition in the next few years, including many of the commitments made at this year’s Our Ocean conference in Bali.

Speaking of the ocean, did you know that Palau banned sunscreen last year to protect coral reefs? That was one of three points of progress in the Pacific Islands noted by Earther’s Yessenia Funes; others came in calls from Fiji and the Marshall Islands for a more concerted response to impending climate doom, from places where sea-level rise is hardly a far-off risk. Other items:

  • The creation of new national parks in heavily forested portions of Chile and Peru (1 million and 2 million square miles, respectively.)

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  • The United Nations’ announcement that the “ozone hole” may heal within a few decades.
  • A new 12-nation treaty in Latin America in support of environmental activists’ civil rights, including the right not to be murdered.
  • Two small steps forward, even, from the Trump administration, with the president signing a new law to clean up marine garbage, and his Environmental Protection Agency pursuing better pollution limits on heavy-duty trucks.

Though its focus is largely if  not exclusively avian, the newsletter at BirdLife International managed to come up with a positive item for each of the 12 months of 2018, none involving partridges or pear trees. Examples:

Discovery of a new breeding ground for the white-winged flufftail in South Africa; protection of a flamingo breeding ground in Tanzania from soda ash pollution; the rebound of Sweden’s black-tailed godwit; possible population increases for the critically endangered blue-throated macaw in Bolivia; a new conservation area in Singapore and a new ban on thin plastics in Malawi; good breeding results for the Chinese crested tern, long thought extinct, in a new coastal colony in South Korea.

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OK, I’ve saved the best list for last. Though its focus was not entirely environmental, the most comprehensive good-news collection I saw for 2018 (or any other year in memory) was prepared by Angus Hervey for Future Crunch, which has “an ongoing mission to stop the fear virus in its tracks.”

It came my way from a friend I’ll call David, because that’s his name; he distributed it — with a caution against “yeah, but” reflexes — to a circle of friends who conspire more or less weekly to ward off despair over the fate of our country, our planet, our aging frames.

Hervey came up with 99 items (!), 18 of them from the general area of environmental protection and 13 more about progressive change in energy systems. Unsurprisingly, most of the developments mentioned above made his roster; here are five additional standouts from each group:

  • Deforestation in Indonesia fell by 60 percent, as a result of a ban on clearing peatlands, new educational campaigns and better law enforcement.

  • $10 billion (the largest amount ever for ocean conservation) was committed in Bali this year for the protection of 14 million square kilometers of the world’s oceans.

  • Niger revealed that thousands of local farmers have planted more than 200 million trees in the last three decades, the largest positive transformation of the environment in African history.

  • Spain said it would create a new marine wildlife reserve for the migrations of whales and dolphins in the Mediterranean and will prohibit all future fossil fuels exploration in the area.

  • Following “visionary” steps by Belize, UNESCO removed the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world, from its list of endangered World Heritage Sites.

  • China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, revised its renewable energy target upwards, committing to 35 percent clean energy by 2030.

  • Chile said it had managed to quadruple its clean energy sources since 2013, resulting in a 75 percent drop in the average cost of electricity.

  • 11 European nations either closed their coal fleets or announced they will close them by a specific date, including France by 2023, Italy and the UK by 2025, and Denmark and the Netherlands by 2030.

  • Some of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds, representing more than $3 trillion in assets, and Black Rock, the world’s biggest fund manager, with assets worth $5.1 trillion, said they would only invest in companies that factor climate risks into their strategies.

  • Spain committed to shutting down most of its coal mines by the end of the year, after the government agreed to early retirement for miners, re-skilling and environmental restoration.

I know, I know. Adding up all the good news without subtracting all the bad news does not equal fair and balanced assessment.

Yeah, but. Math was not the point today. Surely we can all agree that whether 2018 was a bad, good or great year for the environment, it could have been way worse.

Let’s all try to do better in 2019.