The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: These are the top climate stories of 2020

with Dino Grandoni

A presidential election. A national reckoning over race and justice in America. A worldwide pandemic that ground economies to a halt. 

2020 was a momentous year. Yet looming over each of those events is climate change, which has pushed global temperatures to about 1 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels, a threshold that has already led to rising seas, a thawing Arctic and devastating droughts.

Here are some of the top stories on climate change in 2020: 

1. With Joe Biden’s victory, the United States is set for an about-face on climate change policy.

The contrast between President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden on climate change could not be starker. While Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, Biden has promised to reenter it on his first day in office. Trump has questioned the science behind climate change and rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations. Biden has endorsed a $2 trillion climate plan, committed to at least 10 executive actions to protect the climate on Day 1 and vowed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

But many of Biden’s most ambitious climate plans are likely to be sharply curtailed by the political realities of working with Congress. Control of the Senate is yet to be decided by two runoff races in Georgia, but the best outcome Democrats can hope for is 50 members in the chamber, which would allow then-Vice President Kamala D. Harris to cast tie-breaking votes but provide little margin for ambitious legislation.

With much of Biden’s influence over climate likely constrained to trade agreements and executive actions, some environmentalists are pushing the incoming administration to declare climate change an “emergency.” That designation could give Biden broader powers to take executive actions, such as funneling military money toward renewable energy. In recent remarks, however, the president-elect signaled that he doubts the feasibility of some of the more ambitious executive actions touted by liberals.

2. The coronavirus caused a temporary drop in emissions and devastated oil companies.

The pandemic caused travel to grind to a halt and production to falter, leading U.S. emissions to plummet by 9.2 percent to their lowest levels in three decades, inadvertently putting the United States back on track to meet its commitments under the Paris accord.

Still, the decreased emissions were partially offset by the carbon released from wildfires, and greenhouse gas production is likely to pick up again next year. Meanwhile, the blip of declining emissions is not enough to register in overall atmospheric CO2 levels, which have built up over decades. 

The stalled economy also caused demand for oil to plummet, at one point pushing the price into negative territory, as producers scrambled to offload a glut of excess oil in offshore tankers.

Although demand has recovered somewhat since the spring, the recovery has been slow. The decline in demand, along with a race to adopt electric vehicles and shifting political winds around climate change, has led a spate of energy analysts to speculate the world may have already reached its peak oil demand. 

Big Oil is simply not as big as it once was. ExxonMobil was kicked off the Dow Jones industrial average this year and saw its market share briefly eclipsed by renewable energy giant NextEra. The pandemic also forced the company to scale back capital projects and investments in exploration, although those decisions may not have been all good for the climate. When push came to shove, the oil company opted to scrap a carbon capture project, while still spending $9 billion to expand crude operations off the coast of Guyana.

3. Climate changed fueled extreme weather in the United States.

The impacts of climate change hit home for many U.S. families, as wildfires in the West and hurricanes on the Gulf and East coasts destroyed homes, shut down power grids and forced a record number of Americans into emergency shelters. 

Fires burned 9.5 million U.S. acres, nearly 3 million more than the 10-year average, and killed more than 40 people. The intensity of the blazes produced virtually unprecedented fire behavior, including thunderstorms of smoke and ash soaring 10 miles high, multiple blazes that advanced more than 25 miles a day and powerful twisters made of smoke and flame.

Scientists worry the West is approaching a new normal, as climate change leads to hotter and drier conditions. California’s frequency of fall days with extreme-fire weather has doubled since the 1980s. 

Still, when California leaders raised the issue of climate change with Trump, the president, who has repeatedly blamed the fires on poor forest management rather than climate change, quipped: “It will start getting cooler.” 

Climate scientists say it won’t. The past six years are likely to be the six warmest on record, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization climate report, and there’s a chance that once December data is incorporated, some agencies will rank 2020 as the warmest year ever recorded.

A confluence of climate change, fire suppression and poor fuels management led to one of the worst fire seasons on the West Coast in recent memory. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ringo Chiu, Reuters/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard grappled with the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record. This year saw 30 named storms, compared with an annual average of 12, as well as the most U.S. landfalls on record. 

The jury is still out on whether climate change contributes to increased frequency of storms, but scientists are fairly confident that warming oceans make the storms bigger and quicker to intensify. This is what happened in August with Hurricane Laura, which rocketed from a Category 1 storm to a Category 4 monster in 24 hours, battering Lake Charles, La., with 150 mph winds. Proving just how active the Atlantic was this year, the same area was pummeled a second time by Hurricane Delta just six weeks later.

4. Companies and countries promised dramatic cuts to their emissions.

AT&T, Apple, Ford, McDonald’s and Walmart are among companies that announced new net-zero targets this year, amid growing pressure from activists and investors. The Business Roundtable, a lobbying group representing more than 200 companies, endorsed a carbon tax and a goal of an 80 percent emissions reduction by 2050. Even fossil fuel companies got in on the action: Royal Dutch Shell and BP have promised to slash their emissions to net zero by 2050. 

Climate experts welcome these commitments as a sign of cultural and economic changes but caution that the corporate pledges are less than they seem. BP and Shell, for instance, have only pledged to eliminate emissions produced by extracting oil and gas and running their operations. Their net-zero promises don’t extend to whatever happens to the gas later, when, for instance, someone uses it to power their car, releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

Companies weren’t the only ones to make net-zero commitments. 

Governments also set targets for slashing their emissions and ramping up their offsets. The biggest announcement came from China, the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases, which promised to reach net-zero emissions by 2060. The move signals China’s emergence as a climate leader, although some environmentalists say they would like to see more-ambitious near-term targets, too. Conservationists hope to see more countries make ambitious commitments during the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which was pushed to 2021 due to the coronavirus.

5. Financial institutions started to take into account the risks of climate change.

The Federal Reserve called out climate change as a financial risk for the first time this year, warning that floods, hurricanes, wildfires and a rapidly changing climate could threaten the stability of the financial system. The central bank also announced on Tuesday that its board had voted to join an international effort to price climate risk into investments. The Fed’s climate moves have sparked a sharp backlash among some congressional Republicans, who fear they could lead banks to drop financing for oil and gas companies.

The concern over climate risk was also reflected by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which released a report in September with a stark warning: “Climate change poses a major risk to the stability of the U.S. financial system and to its ability to sustain the American economy.”

Financial regulators have already taken a prominent role in climate change decisions in Europe, but the moves by the CFTC and the Fed represented a major U.S. shift and could have ripple effects throughout the economy.

Other investment companies have also taken the cue: BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, has promised to put climate at the center of its investment decisions. BlackRock has signaled that it intends to support more climate-related shareholder resolutions, even though it has sometimes fallen short of its promises. Meanwhile, a separate consortium of investors managing $9 trillion in assets has committed to a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner.

Power plays

Biden will nominate Brenda Mallory to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The role will place Mallory, a longtime expert in environmental law and regulation, in a key position to shape federal environmental and energy policy and ensure that communities have a voice in the construction of pipelines, roads and other potentially polluting projects, our colleague Brady Dennis reports. 

Mallory, who currently serves as the director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center, has a long career trajectory working on environmental issues both inside and outside the government. She served as the general counsel of the Council on Environmental Quality under President Barack Obama and spent years as a top legal official in the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Nancy Pelosi gave her blessing for Haaland to join Biden’s Cabinet.

The House speaker on Wednesday made it clear that she would support Biden nominating Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) for interior secretary, our colleagues Coby Itkowitz, Juliet Eilperin and Make DeBonis report

Biden has already selected two other Democratic lawmakers to join his administration, raising concerns that the nominations could cut into Democrats’ already slim majority in the House, even if just temporarily until special elections could be held.

Haaland remains “the leading contender” for the role, but retiring Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and former deputy secretary Michael L. Connor are also under consideration. 

David Bernhardt tested positive for the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the current interior secretary tested for the virus before he was scheduled to attend a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. He did not attend the session and is now in quarantine, our colleagues Darryl Fears and Eilperin report.  

“Bernhardt’s infection has set off a wave of tests among high-ranking department officials. He has spent the past two days in meetings with political appointees,” Fears and Eilperin write. 

Bernhardt is at least the third top official in the Interior Department to contract the virus since November. Interior’s top attorney, Daniel Jorjani, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith also tested positive for the virus. Employees of the department have been told that a large holiday party scheduled for Thursday has been cancelled.

BP acquired a majority stake in a U.S. forest carbon-offsets company.

The oil giant announced that it had taken a majority stake in Finite Carbon, a U.S.-based company that pays landowners to manage forests, generating carbon credits that businesses can buy to offset pollution. The latest investment expands on a $5 million investment in the company last year, Bloomberg reports.

“The transaction gives BP — one of the world’s biggest carbon-credit traders — control of the largest developer of forest carbon-offset credits in the U.S. It comes at the end of a year that’s seen the oil major step up its commitment to reduce emissions and increase investments in cleaner energy,” Bloomberg writes.

Extra mileage

There has rarely been a better time to feast on lobster in Australia.

Lobster prices have fallen sharply in the country after China imposed an import ban amid rising tensions between the two countries. About 90 percent of Australian lobsters used to go to the Chinese market, but now they have become so inexpensive and abundant in the domestic market that some supermarkets have imposed purchase limits to keep them from flying off the shelves, our colleague Rick Noak reports.