The Environment in 2019: Glass-Half-Full Version

It’s easy to get hung up on all the bad stuff that happened. But there was actually some good stuff, too!

Greta Thunberg at a climate rally in Sweden

Credit: Ulricaloeb via Flickr

Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that 2019 was a fantastic year, environmentally speaking. We know that’s not the case. But despite our current president’s mission to ignore a warming planet and destroy our environmental protections (more on that later), 2019 also had a lot of bright spots amid the doom and gloom. And you don’t even have to look very hard to find them. That’s because the year’s bright spots—while relatively few in number, perhaps—were extra-intense in their brightness. Taken individually, each one represents a proverbial candle lit in lieu of cursing the darkness. And taken together, they just might give off enough light to illuminate the path forward.

Here are four of the brightest of the bright:

Demonstrators at the Youth Climate Strike in Washington, D.C.
Credit: Hilary Swift for NRDC

The Emergence of the International Youth Climate Movement

Last January, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with this stark proclamation: “Either we prevent 1.5 degrees of warming, or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control, or we don’t. Either we choose to go on as a civilization, or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival.” In her unpracticed guilelessness, she managed to break through the noisy din of political argument and clarify the inescapable truth about climate change: Humanity is standing at the crossroads, and the choices that we make today will determine whether future generations will be able to thrive—or whether they will suffer almost unimaginably. Six weeks after her speech, Thunberg helped organize the first Youth Climate Strike, a massive, coordinated protest that saw students from around the world walking out of their schoolrooms and into the streets, demanding immediate climate action. World leaders took notice. Then, in September, a second, even larger strike took place, with approximately four million people participating in more than 4,600 separate events spread out over 139 countries. There could be no misapprehending the message that the strikers were sending: the next generation will remain silent no longer, and we can expect to see more (and increasingly big) protests until substantive climate action is taken. For her efforts in sparking an entire global movement, Thunberg was named Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, an award that made perfect sense to almost everybody . . . except for maybe this guy, who clearly seems threatened by the teenager’s grace, poise, and popularity.

The McFadden Ridge Wind Energy Project in the heart of Wyoming coal country
Credit: Nick Cote for NRDC
A massive, publicly accessible urban solar array covers a parking lot in Cincinnati.
Credit: Luke Sharrett for NRDC

The (Continued, Consistent, and Now Pretty Much Unstoppable) Rise of Renewables

Large-scale, government-sponsored action of the sort that Greta Thunberg and the Youth Climate Strikers are demanding is essential if we’re to stave off a future climate catastrophe. But interestingly, the invisible hand of the free market is already easing the economic path for such action, nudging clean renewable energy toward the front of the line. In October the International Energy Agency (IEA), a group not known for overzealously singing the praises of renewables, acknowledged the phenomenon in a pair of reports predicting explosive growth for the wind and solar sectors in the near future. Between 2019 and 2024, according to the IEA, renewable power capacity will grow by fully 50 percent—an increase “equivalent to the total installed power capacity of the United States today.” The IEA’s authors further note that offshore wind energy has the potential right now to generate more than 18 times the electricity demand of the entire world. The IEA’s reports came on the heels of an equally sanguine report revealing that the United States reached an important milestone in April: For the first time in American history, renewable energy capacity was actually greater than that of coal, meaning that renewables such as wind and solar became capable of generating more electricity than coal. Two years from now, renewables could account for nearly 25 percent of our total available installed generating capacity. So not only are we moving in the right direction, we’ve got the wind at our backs.

The Volvo Polestar 2 all-electric automobile on display at the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York City
Credit: Richard Levine/Alamy Stock Photo

The Fast and Furious Growth of Electric Vehicles

Right now there are about a million electric cars quietly zooming along America’s roads. By 2030, according to the Edison Electric Institute, there will be nearly 19 million of them in the U.S. fleet. This year brought with it further signs that electric vehicles (EVs) are in the pole position, poised to compete with gas-powered vehicles on both cost and performance. A report published earlier this month illustrated one big reason why: battery prices have dropped so sharply in the past 10 years—from $1,100 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to $156/kWh today—that batteries have almost reached price parity with internal-combustion engines. Once batteries drop to $100/kWh, which analysts believe could happen in the next three to four years, that long-awaited parity will be achieved, the green flag will come down, and the race will officially be on to see which type of vehicle comes to dominate the global automotive market in the second half of the 21st century. Other nations have seen this moment coming for a long time and have been busy crafting policies designed to scale up production and build out EV infrastructure. Here in this country, some states are preparing for this inflection point by offering EV purchasers an extra tax credit on top of the federal tax credits that they already receive (and that President Trump wants to see come to an end), as well as by adopting new standards requiring carmakers to increase sales of zero-emissions vehicles within their states. Governors, start your engines.

NRDC was victorious in a lawsuit to designate critical habitat for the endangered rusty patched bumblebee this year.
Credit: Kim Mitchell/USFWS

The Successful Fight Against Trump’s Rollbacks

Earlier this month, NRDC filed its 100th lawsuit against the Trump administration. Of the 61 cases that have been resolved thus far, the organization has been able to claim victory in 92 percent of them. Another group, Earthjustice, has won 32 of the 37 lawsuits that it has filed against the administration, giving it an 86 percent success rate. Numbers like that are an indicator of just how legally ill conceived the administration’s rollbacks have been. (Even the best litigators can’t expect to crack 92 percent when they’re up against people who know what they’re doing.) This was the year it became abundantly clear that the law, like public opinion, is not on Donald Trump’s side when it comes to weakening the rules that keep Americans safe and our environment healthy. In many instances, a judge’s ruling resolved the cases. In others, though, the administration has just given up before going to trial—implicitly admitting that their arguments wouldn’t hold up in court. None of this is to say that we can afford to let down our guard; in fact, just the opposite is true. We’ll keep winning—but only if we keep fighting. Bring it on, 2020.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

Related Stories