Three Trends That Should Make Environmentalists Hopeful About 2018

The new year will be a crapshoot, to be sure—but these trends augur well for climate and sustainability.

December 21, 2017
Wind turbines near Goldendale, WA

Murray Foubister/Flickr

As far as years go, 2017 wasn’t among the best. Wait, I take that back: If you’re a billionaire who thinks you pay too much in taxes, harbors a deep-seated suspicion of immigrants, and doesn’t believe the United States should be joining the rest of the world in taking climate change seriously, then 2017 was awesome. For the rest of us, though, it was right up there with that year back in the Mesozoic era when the Chicxulub asteroid struck and destroyed 80 percent of all life on earth.

Somehow, though, we survived―and resisted. And we’ll do the same next year, too. As challenging as 2018 promises to be for environmentalists, climate activists, and sustainability advocates taking on the Trump administration, the year ahead doesn’t look all bad. In fact, if certain trends continue, this may turn out to be a great year for the kind of fresh thinking and innovation that we’re going to need if we don’t want human civilization to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Here are some predictions for 2018 that ought to make you feel downright hopeful for our planet.

1. Electric vehicles will continue to surge.

In 2011, electric vehicle sales around the world totaled around 45,000. By 2015, that number had jumped tenfold, to more than 450,000. Sales are expected to keep rising in such dramatic fashion that by 2040, one-third of the global auto fleet—530 million vehicles—will be either an EV or a plug-in hybrid, according to a recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Other analysts may predict a smaller shift, but all are in agreement that battery technology is improving so rapidly that price parity between EVs and gas-powered vehicles is going to be achieved much, much sooner than predicted even just a few years ago. Spurring these improvements are a number of promises—from countries such as India, Norway, France, and Great Britain—to ban the sale of gas-powered vehicles by set dates in the not-so-far-off future. China, meanwhile, recently announced that it was raising its 2019 EV target for domestic automakers from 8 percent to 10 percent; one year later, the minimum target will rise again to 12 percent. (After 2020, it will keep rising annually, although specifics aren’t known yet.)

Even though the American government isn’t likely to exhibit such leadership anytime soon, automakers aren’t waiting. Tesla may get the most press, but the truth is that every major car manufacturer in the world is busy making preparations for a future without gasoline combustion. In 2018 specifically, look for luxury brands like Mercedes and Jaguar to significantly amp up their efforts, now that Tesla has shown that EVs can and do appeal to upscale buyers.

2. Food will move even further toward sustainability.

The demographics of farming are shifting. According to the USDA’s latest Census of Agriculture, the number of farmers under the age of 35 is actually increasing—something that has happened only one other time in the past 117 years. They’re drawn to the land for a variety of reasons, but to a much greater degree than farmers of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, they’re citing things like sustainability, food security, and community-building as factors in their decision. And their participation is driving many of the positive trends that make for healthier food, healthier land, and healthier rural economies: organic practices, urban farms, regenerative agriculture, and community-supported agriculture (CSAs).

Meanwhile, lab innovations continue to whet our appetite for plant-based alternatives to meat, making vegetarian and vegan options more palatable to people who may have blanched at the idea of a veggie burger just a few years ago. In 2017, brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat made headlines by introducing their remarkably beeflike burgers in restaurants around the country. In 2018, watch for them to scale up exponentially, rolling out new product lines and expanding into new markets—including the biggest of them all, Asia. Remember that every gain they make is also a gain for the climate: Our current system of livestock production “generates as much climate pollution each year as all the tailpipe emissions from all the vehicles in the world,” according to NRDC’s Sujatha Jahagirdar.

3. Wind and solar energy will continue to outperform expectations.

Over the past several years, flop-sweating defenders of the fossil-fuel status quo have continued to paint wind and solar as risky and unreliable—even as prices for renewables have plummeted, customer demand has surged, production has ramped up, and utilities have (prudently) invested billions.

And arguments for renewables are just getting better, according to a report issued last May by the U.S. Department of Energy. This time last year, U.S. wind capacity was at 81,000 megawatts; by this time next year, it’s expected to be at 102,000 megawatts—enough to power more than 20 million homes. For its part, utility-scale solar power capacity is expected to increase by 48 percent in 2018—up to as many as 32,000 megawatts. (To give you an idea of solar’s impressive trajectory: In 2010, its capacity was less than 1,000 megawatts.)

One telling trend to watch for in 2018: the rise in voluntary procurement of renewables. Prices have now dropped so low that simple economics—rather than the mandates spelled out in state renewable portfolio standards—are increasingly driving development and purchases. In other words, utilities and large corporations aren’t buying up wind and solar just because they have to. They’re buying it because it’s cheap, it’s reliable, and their customers are asking for it.

I’m not making any promises; 2018 could really go either way. But regardless of how things play out culturally and politically, a number of positive trend lines appear to be holding. Here’s hoping they do. See you in the new year.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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