Before the outbreak of a novel zoonotic disease colonised the news cycle, 2020 had been earmarked as a landmark year for global environmental politics and policy. In Glasgow, world leaders were set to substantiate their commitments to limiting climate change to 1.5ºC of warming under the Paris Agreement, while in Kunming, the international community planned to outline fresh targets for global biodiversity conservation under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Although these summits have been postponed, 2020 has nonetheless provided an unprecedented call to arms to address the conjoined crises of global warming and the extinction crisis. World leaders, scientists, activists, and the public have demanded reform, while support for a green recovery as part of government plans to “build back better” in the wake of the pandemic have dominated policy agendas across national and partisan borders. These efforts have been intermittently labelled a last chance saloon and a historic opportunity to build greener socio-economic systems.

Despite the relentless march of dismaying environmental news this year, 2020 has also offered humanity a keyhole glimpse of a better environmental future. The following summary aims to demonstrate that surrendering to apocalyptic determinism about the future of life on Earth is both an inappropriate and invalid response to the climate-ecological crisis. Rather than forcing us to surrender to a wholly negative narrative about the future of life on Earth, if anything, this year should reaffirm notions that humanity both wants to, and can, be better planetary custodians.  

Climate Change, Energy, and the Future of the Paris Agreement

2020 has been kind to renewable energy, which accounted for nearly 90% of additional power capacity added to global grids, according to analysis by the International Energy Association. Due to the pandemic, carbon emissions declined by 7%, the largest emissions fall since World War II, and the United Kingdom received over 40% of its power from renewables for the first three quarters of 2020.

In contrast, it has been a difficult year to be an oil company, as profits and share values buckled relative to pre-pandemic numbers. Despite a third-quarter rally in share prices, there is a growing investor belief that hydrocarbon enterprises will increasingly be hamstrung by stranded asset risks in the coming years.

Accordingly, the race to decarbonise intensified this year, as several countries announced their net zero targets. In advance of COP26 (the Conference of Parties to the Paris Agreement) in Glasgow, New Zealand, France, South Korea, Japan and the UK have stated they will be net zero emitters by 2050.

As the host nation, the UK has laid down a gauntlet for a step-change in the scope and ambition of the next round of negotiations by announcing it will unwind its investments in overseas fossil fuel projects in advance of the COP. However, once he returns the United States to the Paris Agreement, all eyes in Glasgow will be on President-elect Biden’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Biodiversity and Conservation

COVID 19’s origins in human-wildlife conflict have made the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) campaign to make 2020 a “Super Year” for biodiversity look ominous in hindsight. However, global lockdowns offered biodiversity conservationists an opportunity to take stock of their past failures and formulate new plans ahead of the Kunming COP and the dawn of the UN’s Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.

Although lockdowns postponed these initiatives, a slowdown of everyday activities prompted nature to reassert itself upon human settlements. People the world over marvelled at the speed with which animals forayed into undisturbed cities, suburbs and canals.

Confined to their homes, millions learned about the forces that drove wildlife away from peopled environments through Sir David Attenborough’s latest documentaries: Extinction: The Facts and his “witness statement” on biodiversity loss, A Life on Our Planet. Deciding “it’s no longer enough to make purely celebratory nature programmes,” Attenborough concluded his newest offerings by calling for egalitarian redistributive policies, “curbing” unregulated capitalist systems, and rewilding degraded ecosystems to reverse the degradation and destruction of the natural world.

2020 also proved to be a retrospective affirmation for the science and practice of conservation. A paper published by the journal Conservation Letters found that without conservation efforts, extinction rates would be 3-4 times higher than they are now. Furthermore, it determined that conservationists have averted up to 50 bird and mammal extinctions since 1993.

In this regard, the resilience demonstrated by nature in 2020 has been a real-time advert for what a rewilded world may resemble. Blue whales rediscovered their pre-whaling haunts in South Georgia, bison were reintroduced to Kent (where they have not lived for 6,000 years), grey wolves were returned to Colorado for the first time since 1940, critically endangered Cross River gorillas, including juveniles, were caught on camera in Nigeria, and the reintroduction of Burmese roofed turtles (which were presumed extinct at the turn of the millennium) to the wild has continued their miraculous recovery.

Our Environmental Futures

Popular enthusiasm for a green recovery, whereby governments rejuvenate the economy by investing in environmentally-friendly industries and jobs, signals a burgeoning public interest in, and scrutiny of, the specificities of domestic climate policy. It has been suggested that the structure and content of these transition programmes transcends the realm of environmentalism, all-encompassing though this issue may be.

Decisions made now and in the immediate future could “rebuild consciously at all levels … a future we would like to partake in.” This echoes calls by leading economists and international agencies to restructure the rudiments of human civilisation in order to simultaneously recover from a crippling recession and live in harmony with the biosphere.

Additionally, the origins and effects of the pandemic may justify preserving ecosystems as a hedge against future zoonotic disease outbreaks. Nature-based solutions, which attempt to use natural systems to mitigate and adapt to climate change, meet this need by limiting human-wildlife conflict, preserving biodiversity and combating climate change.

2020 has highlighted the unquestionable necessity of placing environmental policy at the apex of local and global policy agendas. In snippets, this year has also highlighted the promise of a more stable, safe and fair world should humanity prove equal to its grand environmental challenges. The agenda for the future must be no less than turning these silver linings into prolonged, sustainable prosperity and environmental well-being for decades to come.

Aadil Siddiqi

Reading for an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at Christ Church, Aadil Siddiqi’s research interests lie in marine conservation, ecosystem restoration, and the law, economics and institutions underpinning environmental policy. Previously, he was a Trust Scholar at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he read Land Economy.