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27 December 2021

Protests, nature protection and plant-based meat: ten climate and environment predictions for 2022

Our environment editor identifies some key trends in the year to come, and looks at why building back better after the pandemic could get in the way of reducing global emissions.

By Philippa Nuttall

Covid was supposed to be the moment the world changed. Shows of solidarity among neighbours and the enjoyment of small pleasures and local parks during the first lockdown were all heralded as encouraging signs the world was ready for a slower, more sustainable pace of life. Travel stopped, emissions dropped and people appreciated the reduced noise and pollution.

Fast forward to 2022, however, and this vision is increasingly blurry. As people, hopefully, escape from the shackles of the pandemic and governments have to make tough decisions about how to spend depleted coffers and boost the economy, it is unlikely this will be the year that humanity gets to grips with the climate and nature crises. Without a truly devastating extreme weather event in the Western world to shake politicians into action, progress is still likely to fall far short of the radical change required to keep the global temperature increase target of 1.5°C in reach.

With that in mind, here are ten scenarios likely to unfold in the year to come.

1. Will greenhouse gas emissions finally fall?

The context

Lockdown in 2020 pushed primary energy demand down by nearly 4 per cent, causing carbon dioxide emissions to fall by 5.8 per cent, the largest annual percentage decline since the Second World War – and roughly equivalent to removing all emissions from the EU. However, that dip was not sustained in 2021. Emissions in China rose slightly in 2020 and are expected to rise another 4 per cent by the end of 2021. India, the US and the EU will also see sharp rises in 2021, even if America and Europe remain on a longer term trend of slowly declining emissions. 

The prediction

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To achieve net zero by 2050, emissions must fall every year by an amount comparable to that seen during the 2020 lockdown. However, the going doesn’t look good. Researchers are predicting 2022 could set a new record for global emissions as countries rush to boost economies impacted by Covid. This push, coupled with a lack of systemic change anywhere in the world, mean they are likely to be proved correct.

2. What will happen to the protest movement?

The context

Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future marches came to a halt during lockdown in 2020. But protests picked up again in 2021, most notably around Cop26, where daily demonstrations and two well-attended marches kept the pressure on delegates inside the conference centre. Climate hunger strikes also took place in Europe and the US as people’s patience with a lack of action from governments frayed. Meanwhile in the Global South, defending the environment has never been more dangerous.

The prediction

Unless the pandemic keeps us all under lock and key in 2022, protests will get bigger, noisier and more inclusive, as those demanding climate action and social justice come out on to the streets together. Cop27 will be held in Egypt, a country where protests don’t tend to end well, but the governments and other high-level climate negotiators I’ve spoken to insist protests are part of Cop and will remain so this November. If policymakers fail to start stepping up to the climate challenge, protests will also become more radical and intrusive even if governments try to shut them down.

3. Will we finally start to slow biodiversity loss?

The context

Even if climate action is way off where we need to be, change is happening and governments are, on the whole, taking the issue relatively seriously. But biodiversity loss is a whole other story. The rate of global change in nature during the last 50 years is unprecedented in human history. A million plant and animal species are threatened. None of the biodiversity Aichi targets set in 2010 have been met, and attempts to hold Cop15 – the parallel, younger biodiversity process to the climate Cops – have been thwarted by Covid. As the pandemic drags on, the chances of the next meeting taking place in China in April 2022 appear shaky.

The prediction

The picture is grim, but 2022 could be a turning point. Biodiversity loss is receiving increasing attention. The success of rewilding in some parts of the world, the reintroduction of lost species, the focus on tree planting and the greater understanding of green spaces wrought by lockdown offer some glimmers of hope. Nature was also included in the Glasgow Climate Pact, and the climate and nature agendas will become increasingly entwined in 2022. This coming together will help push nature protection to the fore as much for its intrinsic value as for its importance for food production, other economic worth and, most pertinently, climate protection.

4. Will we start to end deforestation?

The context

Over 140 countries – including the big rainforest nations of Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo – agreed at Cop26 to end deforestation. Given that humans have been a net destroyer of forests for millennia, this would be a remarkable shift. Globally, around ten million hectares of forest is chopped down every year. Over a decade, this represents an area the size of Portugal.

The prediction

What happens in terms of global deforestation very much depends on what happens in the Brazilian elections in October 2022. A key constituency of President Jair Bolsonaro’s electorate are illegal miners and loggers, land-grabbers and small to medium-scale farmers who care little about climate change and the growing risk of consumer boycotts and restrictions on imports of Brazilian products. If Bolsonaro loses the election – in December 2021, the former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was comfortably leading in the polls – ending deforestation in Brazil by the end of the decade would still be an extraordinary challenge. If he remains in power, what the rest of the world does on deforestation will make little difference. Research published in November 2021 shows deforestation in the Amazon hitting its highest level in over 15 years.

5. How quickly will electric vehicles grow?

The context

The International Energy Agency (IEA)’s net-zero pathway says more than 60 per cent of passenger car sales globally must be electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030 for the world to be on track for net zero by 2050. EV sales soared in 2021 and the trend is set to continue – data shows they will increase from 4.3 per cent of the market in 2020 to 11.6 per cent in 2025, and to 26 per cent in 2031. The trend is underpinned by the Cop26 deal for signed-up nations to stop selling fossil fuel-powered cars and vans by 2040, and “by no later than 2035 in leading markets”. However, it was far from all good news. A report published by the IEA at the end of December coldly stated that: “The number of SUVs on the world’s roads increased by more than 35 million over the past 12 months, driving up annual CO2 emissions by 120 million tonnes.”

The prediction

EVs will continue their upward trajectory in 2022, becoming an increasingly familiar sight on our roads. Anyone looking to buy a new car should, if possible, opt for an electric vehicle, and most definitely avoid the temptation to splash out on a road-hogging, gas-guzzling SUV. Electric charging infrastructure will also come online with much greater capacity. Until now, most civil society organisations have been gung-ho in their support of electrifying personal vehicles, but as the market grows, greater focus will be on whether it can also be made sustainable given its reliance on minerals from poorer countries – most notably lithium. And while people in some parts of the world have been shunning public transport in an effort to avoid Covid, the growth of cycling infrastructure and pedestrian-only areas in cities will continue to boom globally. 

6. Will we see the end of coal?

The context

For more years than I can remember, we have been talking about the end of coal. But a report published by the IEA in December 2021 provides a sobering reality check. Global electricity generation from coal is expected to jump 9 per cent by the end of 2021 to a historic high, driven by the rapid economic rebound after the 2020 lockdown, particularly in India and China. The world agreed at Cop26 to “phase down” coal, but the process is proving a difficult one.

The prediction

Market forces and increasingly stringent climate targets will eventually push coal offline, but 2022 is, unfortunately, unlikely to be the year when the balance shifts. Economies are more focused on recovering from Covid through any means possible in the short term, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that China has promised to only start phasing down coal from 2025. 

7. Will Cop27 deliver on climate finance?

The context

Trust between developed and developing countries has been badly damaged over the failure of rich nations to stump up the $100bn in climate finance that was promised back in 2009. Pledges to try to fill the gap came thick and fast at Cop26 in Glasgow, but officially the $100bn mark won’t be reached until 2023. 

The prediction

Climate finance and moving forward with discussions around loss and damage will be at the centre of Cop27 in November. The fact the summit will take place in Egypt should help move the debate forward and put the negotiations more firmly in the hands of African nations, who were still largely in the background in Glasgow. Rich nations put their hands in their pockets at Cop26 and despite the financial strife that will be wrought on all countries from Covid, they will dig deeper in 2022.

8. Will heat pumps take over from gas boilers?

The context

“Electrification, electrification, electrification” is the mantra when it comes to decarbonising heating. But getting gas out of our heating systems is slow-going. In Europe, while some countries, like Norway, lead the way, others – such as the UK – are struggling to ditch the gas boiler and the considerable emissions they push out. 

The prediction

Heat pumps will increase their share of the market in 2022, but gas is not going away any time soon. In the UK, over 70 per cent of heating (26 million boilers) is powered by gas. Many people will misguidedly opt for a boiler that could allow hydrogen gas to flow into their house rather than a heat pump – unless prices come down rapidly or governments decide 2022 is the moment to truly invest in net-zero policies. Blending small amounts of hydrogen with gas has little impact on emissions. Many countries will follow the example of Norway and Germany in 2022 and truly help consumers switch to heat pumps. The UK, under the leadership of Boris Johnson, and with Rishi Sunak in the Treasury, will not follow suit.

9. Will we fly less?

The context

Pandemic lockdowns, fear of catching Covid, testing requirements and quarantines have all worked to partly kibosh the global travel industry in the past couple of years. However, in the small windows of opportunity this year, when there were dips in infection rates and countries opened up, people rushed to meet loved ones in different countries, and hopped on planes in search of some sun and relaxation after a highly stressful couple of years.

The prediction

Covid will be around for some time yet, as will travel restrictions, testing and other measures to try to stymie the spread of the pandemic. We will be forced to fly less in 2022 and business travel will never again reach pre-pandemic heights – apart from among the super rich who will continue to use their private jets, even in the name of the climate. But most people are not ready to give up their love of recreational travel because of climate change. If the pandemic stops being such a threat to our lives and health systems, people will be, à la the 1920s after the 1918 flu pandemic, in search of fun, pleasure and adventure. Investment in technology – electric planes for short-haul flight and e-fuels for longer haul – will grow significantly in 2022.

10. Will we eat less meat?

The context

For many of us living in western Europe, the answer would seem to be an easy yes. I was brought up on a strictly meat-and-two-veg diet in the 1980s, and lived in Paris when ham was still thought of as acceptable food for a vegetarian. The fact so many friends and acquaintances today are vegetarian or flexitarian, and the shops so full of plant-based options, suggests to me that the world has undergone a radical shift. However, this is only one part of the story: worldwide meat consumption has never been so in vogue and this trend is set to continue. 

The prediction

Interest in what we consume and its impact on the planet will carry on growing in 2022. Meat consumption will increase globally, but plant-based options will become totally mainstream, creating massive business opportunities. Companies such as Impossible Foods will benefit significantly. Eating meat is unlikely to become as frowned on in 2022 as smoking is in many quarters, but plants will gain prowess over pork (and all other animal products) in the coming 12 months.

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