Despite the headlines, the past year was a turning point for climate action.
Even for those who don’t regularly engage with or care about so-called ‘green issues’, you’d be hard-pressed to ignore the fact that – according to the newspapers – 2018 was not a good year for our planet. But behind the alarmist headlines and anxiety-driven inertia that the prediction of imminent doom has fuelled, there lies some good news; there is a lot that can be done about climate change, as long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that, even as individuals, the choices that we make really do matter.
In many ways, 2018 was a bad year. We found out that we only have 12 years left to address the climate crisis if we want to recognise the planet that we’ll leave behind to future generations. We also learned that we’ve wiped out 60% of species populations in the past four decades, as well as half of the world’s shallow coral reefs. We were told that our obsession with (and inability to properly dispose of) plastic has seen it end up in the stomachs of over 90% of the world’s sea birds, and we saw Brazil – the Amazon rainforest’s largest home – release its worst deforestation figures in a decade. We experienced heatwaves and freezing cold spells, and saw hurricanes wreak havoc throughout the Atlantic. We watched on as drought drove caravans of migrants from their homes – forcing them to risk their lives crossing borders – and stared in horror as devastating wildfires destroyed the livelihoods of people many would have assumed were wealthy enough to lift themselves out of harm’s way.
Fortunately, unless you happen to be the 45th president of the United States, there is some cause for optimism amongst all of this destruction. The events of 2018 have – once and for all – removed any semblance of credibility from the climate change denial movement. While global warming was once flippantly dismissed as an intangible and distant threat to easily-forgotten, low-lying third world nations, the past year has shown it to be an undeniable reality that is alarmingly relevant, and threatening, to a global audience. The fact that climate change is now tangibly affecting everyone has finally given a sense of urgency to the search for a solution.
Alongside a renewed focus on the need for rapid decarbonisation, emissions reductions and a mass disruption of global supply chains, another simpler solution gained some much-needed traction in 2018: the conservation of biodiversity. It is estimated that up to 37% of the solutions required to keep global warming below 2 degrees centigrade may lie within nature herself. So-called ‘natural climate solutions’ promote the unparalleled potential of forestry and agriculture to accelerate carbon capture, reduce emissions, and improve the resilience and protective capacity of ecosystems around the world. And while they provide a global incentive for the protection of nature, rendering the conservation of biodiversity a necessity rather than a green privilege, they also have the potential to improve the lives of populations around the world.
It is no secret that climate change predominantly affects the world’s most vulnerable people, from low-lying coastal communities to poor rural populations who depend on the land for their livelihoods. It compounds environmental stress and undermines development gains by affecting economic, social and political systems. It forces people from their homes, pushes them into poverty, and removes their access to basic necessities. Despite these individuals having contributed little in emissions to the global climate crisis, they have suffered disproportionately as a result of it. For such communities, natural climate solutions hold life-altering potential. Alongside their simplicity, immediacy and relatively low cost, they can – through effective implementation and management – provide much-needed sustainable livelihood opportunities for local and indigenous communities.
The widespread recognition of the importance of local and indigenous communities in implementing conservation initiatives was another significant win for 2018. Though protected area management has historically been characterised by the forced evacuations of locals, the Illegal Wildlife Trade conference that took place in October of last year demonstrated that this approach is no longer being tolerated by the global community. Placing the implementation of conservation projects firmly in the hands of those who know the land was a central focus of the conference, and is an approach that is being used across the world. While this approach is not yet universal – Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro being the most dangerous example of resistance to it – the progress has been significant. The upgraded status of the Mountain Gorilla from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘endangered’ at the back end of last year is one such example of this.
The year 2018 also had a lot to say to those who have been convinced that, as individuals, they can’t make a difference when it comes to climate change. Whether you look at Sir David Attenborough, who has been credited for kick-starting what can only be described as a Plastic Revolution, or Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who inspired a wave of climate protests across the globe before being invited to speak in front of the United Nations at the end of last year, 2018 taught us not underestimate the power of the individual in driving global action on climate.
But 2018 also showed us the environmental potential in collective action. As businesses around the world responded to consumer pressure to curb their environmental impact (no one ever thought McDonald’s would ban plastic straws, and Shell’s move to link executive pay to carbon emissions targets was truly unprecedented), it was supermarket chain Iceland’s heartwarming Christmas advert that gave true cause for climate optimism. In the campaign, Iceland partnered with Greenpeace to announce the removal of palm oil from their own-brand products and to expose the devastating impact of palm oil deforestation around the world. It received such widespread support from individuals and businesses that it led Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader, to commit to removing deforestation and ‘dirty palm oil’ from its supply chain.
So while the headlines may remember 2018 as a year of climate disaster, I’ll choose to remember it as the year that gave me hope, put a nail in the coffin of climate change denial, and convinced me that 2019 could be a real turning point for the future of our planet. As long as we recognise that the choices we make as individuals, consumers and citizens really do make a difference.