Big environmental progress was made during a terrible 2020.
It’s only December 7th, and most of us are completely done with 2020. The suffering the pandemic has caused across the globe is almost impossible to measure. Its consequences will be with us for the foreseeable future. The executive branch of the government has spent more time torpedoing environmental policy than dealing with COVID-19. While they have been completely ineffective at the latter, they have had a lot of success at the former. Many of us are angry and exhausted. So, in the interest of “glass half full”, here is my top ten list of good things in the areas of environment/energy that have happened this year.
- The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They have managed to make climate change and the new energy economy a pillar campaign theme that resonated with the public for the first time in US history. Their plan of action includes charging polluters the full damages of their activities, which just makes me happy to hear. While the environmental team has not been announced, I am hopeful that appointments made across the administration at the cabinet and sub-cabinet level – not just at EPA and DOE – will reflect the importance of this theme.
- China’s Climate Targets. The PRC has historically fought tooth and nail against emissions targets that were not tied to economic activity. This has changed. China has embraced a serious path to a Carbon Neutral economy and is hard at work putting its best minds to making this happen. There are a variety of efforts underway to link up US/European and Chinese agencies and scholars to come up with effective and hopefully efficient policies to bring about this transition. This. is. A. huge. Deal.
- Renewables and storage are getting cheaper. Solar and wind continue their march to being the cheapest source of electricity available. All the grouchy haters out there -> you were wrong! Across the world we are seeing record after record being broken. The last obstacle of course is figuring out a way to store this cheap electricity at scale. The news there has been good as well. Storage costs are coming down and mimicking what happened early in the solar revolution. Once we get cost competitive here, the future is bright!
- Coal is on its way out. Sing it. The swan song. Light it. The cigar. It’s over. What has happened to coal in the past year exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations. Let’s remember, US coal is still benefiting from an uneven playing field. There are subsidies galore and there is no price on carbon where this stuff is being burned. And coal is toast! The regulatory environment over the next few years is not going to favor it, so bye Felicia!
- Vehicle Manufacturers are onboard with higher fuel economy. The Obama administration had implemented aggressive fuel economy standards for model years 2021-2025, which the Trump administration torpedoed with its SAFE rule. Turns out vehicle manufacturers don’t want the relaxation in standards as much as they would like a single set of standards across the country (“stop being so weird California – you’re not special!”) and some regulatory certainty. They are onboard! Even GM and Nissan have now seen the writing on the wall.
- Progress on Social Cost of Carbon. Towards the end of the Obama Administration, the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering published a report pointing out a large number of issues in the way the federal government calculates the Social Cost of Carbon and asking for improvements, which most likely would have resulted in a much higher SCC. The Trump administration responded to this report by essentially setting the report on fire, disbanding the group working on it and cutting the SCC down to $1-7 from $42. While the federal government has not done any work on this, folks at Resources for the Future, the Climate Impact Lab and a variety of other places have been hard at work implementing some of the requested changes, so the new administration can hit the ground running in their efforts to estimate a better SCC.
- Satellites! Methane! It turns out we do not know where a significant amount of methane emissions are coming from. The climate damages from methane are massive yet measuring these leaks is costly. It turns out that we are about to turn the corner on monitoring. New technology will allow us to detect even small leaks of methane at oil and gas wells as well as pipeline infrastructure. Knowing where you have a problem is the important second step to successful regulation. (My kid of course is hoping that we can detect flatulence from space. From cows of course. ).
- The Swan Song of The Combustion Engine. As readers of this blog know, I love cars. I never thought I would say this, but I would take a dual motor electric beast over American muscle any day. Just make EVs cost competitive and prettier (come on Nissan!). California and Europe basically laid down the law: car companies, you have to figure out how to make EVs that people can afford, want, and that have range by 2035. You can do this.
- Trucks. I grew up in a trucking family. I have loaded 40-ton trucks with rolls of carpets, barrels of chemicals, and boxes of who knows what. I have driven big trucks and unimogs (not very far, as it is very scary). I have worked in truck dispatch. I _love_ big trucks. But, I realize that these are seriously bad for the environment. Diesel powered big rigs travelling through densely populated areas cause massive amounts of health damage, often affecting poorer, less white communities. California’s advanced Truck rule, aimed at medium and long haul trucking, is a first step to fixing this market failure. It’s already here in California, but Europeans are working on this and I am sure there will be an effort at the federal level before long.
- Environmental Justice. 2020 may be the year that economists finally understood that efficiency is not the only “e” worth thinking about. Equity concerns have finally entered – arguably much too late – the economic discipline’s main stage. I spend two weeks in the summer with some of the brightest Ph.D. students across the country talking about their research and introducing them to the stars in our field. I would estimate that two-thirds of these students, when asked what they are working on, had an environmental justice dimension in their proposed work. This is important, exciting and timely.
So in closing, yes, 2020 sucks. But let’s take solace in the fact that a few really great things happened this year that will allow us to build a better future for everyone on this planet. May the force be with you and I’ll see you next year!
Keep up with Energy Institute blogs, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.
Suggested citation: Auffhammer, Maxwell. “10 Good Things That Happened This Year” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, December 7, 2020, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2020/12/07/10-good-things-that-happened-this-year/
Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley. His fields of expertise are environmental and energy economics, with a specific focus on the impacts and regulation of climate change and air pollution.