The World Promises Change After Another Year of Extreme Climate Disasters

We look back at our defining events of the year and the photos that captured them.

By Sharon Chen+ FollowDecember 9, 2021, 12:00 AM CST

This will go down as among the hottest of the past 170 years, and the horrors of global warming were on full display.

There were deep, possibly permanent drought conditions in some countries, devastating floods in others, and ever-more destructive wildfires. Greek villages burned, riverbanks burst in Germany and Brazil’s farms frosted over. If one heat wave stood out from the pattern, it was in the usually temperate region of North America’s Pacific Northwest.

It was also a year of climate breakthroughs, both technological and political. Wind power and batteries kept getting cheaper and better. The proportion of new electric passenger vehicles sold worldwide has now reached 10% of the total, according to BloombergNEF. In Iceland, meanwhile, the largest complex ever built to remove carbon dioxide from the air sprang to life.

If it was a year of unprecedented climate disaster, it was also a year of unprecedented climate pledges. The big question is whether those promises yield results.

Governments and companies rushed to show they’re doing their part. The 10 biggest economies and institutions overseeing 40% of global financial assets have now committed to phase out carbon emissions. India, the third-biggest emitter, set a 2070 target to reach net-zero. Even Saudi Arabia and Russia announced carbon-neutrality goals.

The world’s top climate diplomats, who came together in Glasgow from 197 nations in November for two weeks at COP26, agreed for the first time on the need to curb fossil fuel subsidies and coal use. Some of the most polluting companies swore they’re ready to go green.

If nations were to deliver on their goals—an enormous, anxiety-producing “if”—analysts project that the planet would warm by about 1.8 degrees Celsius. That’s a marked improvement, even if it nonetheless exceeds the 1.5 degrees Celsius target enshrined in the Paris Agreement as the best hope to spare humanity the worst effects of climate change.

It won’t be easy. Solar energy is being deployed as never before, but rising prices of a crucial raw material, polysilicon, has thrown a decade of cost declines into reverse. The same could happen to batteries as key metals become more expensive. The Icelandic carbon-removal facility, called Orca, is tiny—sucking up only 4,000 tons per year— and the industry will have to grow much bigger and cheaper to make a real difference.

And what about all those non-binding promises from corporate executives and politicians? Skepticism that they’ll fail to make the hard decisions needed to abandon fossil fuels is more than warranted. Still, this year brought historic action from courts, central banks and other regulators to develop frameworks to hold them to account.

In August, a 4,000-page report by the global consortium of elite scientists backed by the United Nations erased any doubt that humans are responsible for Earth’s current predicament.

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land,” they wrote. Readings on atmospheric carbon dioxide (now at a 2 million-year peak) and recent global temperatures (hotter than any period in the past 125,000 years) show just how much damage has already been done.

If this year showed us anything, it isn’t that we’re headed for a deadlier future. We’re already there. It’s that there still might remain time to turn things around.

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