6 glimmers of climate optimism for the end of a dark year

It was a year of frightening reports on the future of our planet. But sustainability experts are still feeling optimistic about some of the strides we’ve made this year.

6 glimmers of climate optimism for the end of a dark year

In 2018, we learned from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we have around 30 years to fully decarbonize or risk widespread global devastation from warming and sea-level rise. We also learned that current emissions patterns are nowhere near in line with that goal. Even though the Trump administration tried to bury the U.S.’s own findings on climate, the 1,656-page National Climate Assessment backed up the IPCC report, and called for a doubling down on climate protection policies to prevent damage (which is already underway) to the environment and the country’s infrastructure.


The consensus among scientists, researchers, and sustainability experts following this years’ reports is that while stopping climate change will require an undoubtedly Herculean effort, the biggest hurdle is political, not technical. In other words, if all the innovations in sustainable technology and science were harnessed and directed at reducing emissions and environmental collapse, we might stand a chance at meeting the goals laid out in the reports.

[Photo: Victor Rodriguez/Unsplash]

Don’t get us wrong: It will take a heroic, global effort if we’re even going to come close to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius–the point after which, according to the reports, large swaths of the planet will become uninhabitable, and issues like mass starvation will become widespread. And the lack of leadership from United States, under climate change denier Donald Trump, is making cohesive political action difficult.

But underneath all this, activists, scientists, and business leaders are working to advance progressive climate action, and despite everything, have hung onto a sense of optimism as we move into 2019. Here are some reasons why:

[Photo: Impossible Foods]

We have the potential to radically shift the way we eat

On the heels of the IPCC report, the World Resources Institute released research tracking global meat consumption, and found that food production, especially animal agriculture, accounts for around a quarter of all emissions. It’s the single-largest driver of climate change. This makes a pretty compelling case for wide-scale adoption of vegetarianism and veganism, but far more importantly, should clue in food distributors, like restaurants and grocery stores, that they need to change their offerings. That’s already happening. This year, the plant-based Impossible Burger started appearing everywhere from airline menus to fast-food restaurants, and is preparing to launch in grocery stores. Just, another startup, is growing real meat in bioreactors, which dramatically reduces emissions and the environmental footprint of meat production. It’s possible, now, to imagine a future where factory-farm-produced meat is replaced by plant-based versions, or meat grown in labs.

We can grow more food without damaging the environment

“Over the last century, we’ve relied heavily on fertilizer to meet the food demands of a growing population,” says Karsten Temme, CEO of the startup Pivot Bio. Fertilizer is most commonly made from synthetic nitrogen, which is easy to produce and distribute, but releases a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Synthetic nitrogen alone is responsible for around 5% of global warming. Next year, Temme’s startup will begin delivering a new, natural alternative to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer to farmers. Pivot Bio’s product consists of natural, nitrogen-producing microbes that adhere to plants’ roots, supporting plant growth while eradicating the need for environment-damaging synthetic versions. Especially as populations grow and land constricts due to climate change, well-fertilized crops will be necessary to meet food demands.

[Source Image: Makalo86/iStock]

We’re ready to end dependency on coal

This is something that Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, has believed for years, and is now excited to see play out in policy. “Coal retirement announcements continue coming at a steady clip,” she says. In fact, she says, 2018 saw a record number of coal plant retirements, with 14.7 gigawatts going offline this year, and by 2024, the current coal capacity of 246 gigawatts in the U.S. will drop as much as 15%.


Activists are fired up

“More and more people taking action themselves, but also demanding action from their leaders,” says Philip Drost, who leads the steering committee for the UN Environment’s annual report on emissions targets. Most recently, young activists from the Sunrise Movement have flooded the halls of Congress, calling for a “green new deal” that would transition the economy off carbon, and at least 22 elected officials have signed on. Activists in Portland, Oregon this year also succeeded in passing a first-of-its-kind initiative to mandate that big companies pay a portion of their revenue toward supporting green infrastructure projects in low-income communities of color, which are disproportionately affected by climate change and industrial pollution.

[Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

Some of most polluting industries are cleaning up their acts

The transportation sector remains one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions both in the U.S. and the world. But policies and innovations this year are beginning to address that. California is pushing a bill that will mandate a shift to 100% electric buses. Airlines like JetBlue and Virgin are experimenting with electric planes and using biofuel blends, both of which are more sustainable than pure fossil fuels. And Shell, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, is investing in clean energy solutions.

A full shift to renewable energy is already under way

“For the first time in U.S. history, renewable energy is now cheaper than running existing coal plants,” the Sierra Club’s Hitt says. And Ellen Roybal, who heads up strategy and market intelligence at GE Solar, cites the fact that some of the largest companies in the U.S., like Walmart and Google, are making steep commitments to renewables. “There are so many companies falling into line behind them–it’s trickling down to smaller consumer brands, and outward into other industries,” Roybal says. “Companies like Dow Chemical have power-purchasing agreements with wind plants.” Roybal think that as more shifts to renewables happen at the corporate and local levels–Georgetown, Texas became 100% powered by renewable energy this year–the more momentum will swing toward abandoning fossil fuels. “There’s so much more that has to be done for our planet as a whole,” she says.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.