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23 December 2021

Protests, pledges and alpacas: 2021’s environmental year in review

The progress of the natural world often evades easy categorisation, but this year contained some notable moments.

By India Bourke

“Geronimo.” When reflecting on the stand-out environmental moments in a year, it’s hard to know how to allocate appropriate categories. What dominates attention in the present isn’t always what will be remembered most in the future. While weighing up what constitutes the greater “good” is not always an easy task when it comes to environment policy.

The campaign to save Geronimo the alpaca in the UK this summer is a case in point. The animal – who had twice tested positive for bovine tuberculosis (bTB), yet his owner argued was healthy – captured the public’s imagination. Animal activists pleaded that the tests were mistaken and that he should be spared euthanasia, which the state claims is required to control the infectious disease. The resulting court case made international headlines and saw the alpaca receive widespread support: a march through London was made in his name, a petition signed in his defence. Yet eventually, on 31 August, bureaucratic rule prevailed and the Geronimo was put down.

What to make of this “silly season” story? On the one hand, it can feel jarring for the plight of a non-endangered animal to hog newslines when much wider environmental loss is at stake around the world. Earlier this month, scientists issued the frightening warning that Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier, the ice shelf holding back the glacier’s huge mass of frozen water, could shatter within the next five years. When it does so, Antarctica’s contribution to sea level rise could increase by as much as 25 per cent, further threatening the existence of countless coastal communities and ecosystems. 

Geronimo’s story pales into insignificance in the face of climate change’s destruction and displacement. But, in some ways, the dead alpaca is also a microcosm of our fraught engagement with the natural world. 

In the name of stemming the spread of bTB, which can be fatal to humans, Britain culled more than 30,000 cattle in the 12 months before June 2021 (not to mention other animals which are connected to the disease, such as badgers). Whatever you think about the efficacy of the testing or the culls, Geronimo’s fate highlights the messy moral decisions that are often at play in humanity’s relationship with nature. 

Similar ethical tussles are displayed on the macro environmental scale. Reducing global emissions is imperative, but as countries such as India and China reminded delegates at this year’s Cop26 climate summit, how fast those emissions can be reduced, and by whom, must also be weighed up against nations’ right to develop. With extractive processes such as deforestation and overfishing, the need to protect the health of the natural-commons is often in conflict with the desire to trade or farm. 

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We will only see more of such tensions in the years ahead as the need to slash emissions increases and the global population rises. The outpouring of compassion for the alpaca, however contradictory and compromised it may be, can also be seen as an example of the vast empathy successful climate solutions will require.

So while it could hardly be said that Geronimo had a good 2021, his story is perhaps apt to introduce a short summary of things which could be said to have had a “good” and “bad” year – in all the compromised senses of those terms. And to inspire us to plunge forward into the myriad environmental challenges we will face in 2022.

A good year for: Alok Sharma

“May I just say to all delegates I apologise for the way this process has unfolded,” an emotional Alok Sharma told Cop26 attendees as he wrapped up the negotiations in Glasgow.

The summit’s president was referring to the watering-down of the final agreement’s wording – from a resolution to “phase out” coal to the less powerful “phase down”. In particular, he was acknowledging the injustice many climate-vulnerable countries felt at the way heavy-weight, coal-dependent nations such as India and China had been accommodated at the last-minute – while others had been told that the text was closed.

Apologies alone are not enough to ensure that the world rises to its emissions challenge. Yet while the previously obscure Sharma does not have the diplomatic clout of his US and Chinese counterparts, greater empathy could help the world advance towards a more just energy transition ahead of Cop27 in Egypt.

A bad year for: Joe Biden

Joe Biden entered the year (and his US presidency) with the promise of a green revolution. Legislatively, that took the form of a “Build Back Better” bill, which would have seen up to $1.75trn spent on a range of climate change priorities, such as electric vehicle infrastructure and housing insulation. 

The initiative has met with firm resistance, however, both from Republicans and from some within Biden’s own party. Led by senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia (who it was revealed has significant investments in the coal industry) and senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, conservative Democrats watered down the bill’s spending commitments and then still withheld their support. The bill finally made it through Congress at the end of November, but it still had a tortuous route ahead.

With the midterm elections on the horizon in 2022 and an ongoing fight to vaccinate Americans, there is concern that climate change may recede as a US administration priority.

A good year for: protest solidarity

Even as Covid-19 restrictions began to lift, protesters around the world faced mounting challenges in 2021 – sometimes brutally so. In Sudan, at least 10 were shot dead in demonstrations against a military coup. In Hong Kong, pro-democracy protests have all but fizzled-out under the weight of harsh new rules. In India, opposition to the marketisation of agriculture led to sedition cases being filed against journalists and activists, including 22 year-old Disha Ravi.

Against this pressure, climate demonstrations have rallied to the causes of others – and made the case that the pursuit of action on climate change must also entail the pursuit of wider justice. 

At Cop26, Greta Thunberg shared her platform with youth activists from around the globe: from Kenya’s Elizabeth Wathuti to Ecuadorian Amazon’s Helena Gualinga. Their message focused on the racial and social consequences of climate inaction. And while the scale of the call is daunting, its faith that a better world is possible has never been needed more.

A bad year for: fossil fuel lobbyists

When veteran Exxon Mobil lobbyist Keith McCoy signed into a video link for what he thought was a job interview, but was in fact an undercover Greenpeace investigation, he opened up a pandora’s box. 

What McCoy alleged that day – that Exxon Mobil has fought climate science by joining shadow lobbying groups, that it only supported climate policies such as a carbon tax in the expectation it would never happen, and that such groups pushed US senators to weaken President Joe Biden’s signature climate bill – was not especially surprising. But no-one from Exxon has never said it in public before.

The revelations triggered an ongoing congressional investigation, led by the Democrat congressman Ro Khanna, into disinformation efforts by polluting industries. This culminated in a hearing on the eve of Cop26 that many have likened to the exposure of Big Tobacco, as well as the subpoena of a fresh raft of documents from the oil giants. What these contain could bring further shame for the industry in 2022.

A good year for: electric vehicles

The year 2021 was the year that the world’s richest man became even richer. After the stock of electric car manufacturer Tesla soared to almost $1.2trn, its CEO Elon Musk saw his personal wealth rise by £36bn to more than £300bn.

But Tesla’s success also speaks to the power of personality cults. And a good year for the company’s stock was not necessarily a good year for its employees: Tesla has had 43 workers’ rights violations filed against it since 2010. 

The legacy of Musk’s astronomic rise therefore hopefully lies in its encouragement of the electric vehicle market more generally. In the US, pure electric vehicle sales almost doubled in the first 10 months of the year. While in the UK in November, EV sales helped fuel the first rise in new car sales in four months. The transition of electricity grids to clean energy must now keep up with the shift, accompanied by a move away from private vehicles and towards greater adoption of public transport, walking and cycling.

A bad year for: climate chaos

More severe and frequent extreme weather continued to wreak disaster on millions around the world, with droughts ravaging communities from Kenya to Madagascar. Noticeably, not only the Global South has suffered climate change’s effects this year: catastrophic floods were experienced in Germany, while record-breaking heat domes and “megafires” raged across Europe and the US.

To stem this carnage, the latest UN science advises reducing carbon emissions by 50 per cent by the end of the decade. The responsibility should arguably fall most substantially on developed nations, who are historically the largest emitters. However, the world remains way off track: based on pledges made at Cop26, global temperatures will rise by 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2100.

A good year for: Beavers

While tens of thousands of species experienced yet another year of grim declines (not least the formerly ubiquitous house-sparrow), one struggling creature had reason for hope in 2021. After being hunted to extinction in the UK in the 16th century, beavers are to be officially reintroduced into England and the Scottish government has said it will “actively support” their expansion. 

And what’s good for beavers is arguably good for us all. Dams that the species build create invaluable filtering systems for Britain’s polluted rivers. The result? Hopefully, a first step to a cleaner, greener new year.

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