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Which environmental stories in 2014 were actually important?

Icebergs, Paradise Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica.
Icebergs, Paradise Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica.
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Year-end lists can be tricky. It's simple enough to pick five stories about energy and the environment that dominated headlines in 2014. There was the global plunge in oil prices. Squabbles over the Keystone XL pipeline. A big UN climate change conference. New York unexpectedly banned fracking.

But which of these stories were actually important? Which will have long-lasting consequences? And which ones will turn out to be meaningless blips?

Figuring that out can be especially difficult when it comes to energy and environmental issues. Both areas tend to unfold sluggishly. A big technological breakthrough can take years to have an impact. Few experts predicted that shale drilling in North Dakota would wreak havoc on Russia's economy in 2014. And headline-grabbing controversies of the moment are usually less important than boring, slow-moving trends. The Keystone XL pipeline gets lots of attention in the US, but rural electrification in India may ultimately have a bigger impact on climate change.

So in that spirit, here are five big environmental stories from 2014 that seem — to me, at least — to have important long-term implications. Some of these picks will end up being wrong. And I'll undoubtedly miss other important trends that unfolded this year. But this is a best guess for now.

1) The plunge in oil prices could upend energy policies

(Joss Fong/Vox)

Oil markets are notoriously hard to predict, and few people expected oil prices to crash in the latter half of 2014. So it's quite possible that the current low oil prices won't last long. But assuming low prices do persist — that is, global oil demand stays weak, the US shale boom keeps chugging along, and there are no flare-ups in the Middle East — this price plunge could have major ramifications.

There are the geopolitics, of course: Russia and Venezuela's economies are struggling mightily, while countries like Saudi Arabia may one day have to scale back some of the social spending they used to keep the peace after the Arab Spring (for now, at least, the Saudis are holding steady). There's the technological fallout: Cheap oil could slow the adoption of electric cars in the US, for instance. And economics: Cheap oil could bolster growth for net oil importers like the United States or China.

One big wild card is whether low oil prices might have broader policy consequences, too. The world's nations currently spend about $550 billion per year on fossil-fuel subsidies, mostly to underwrite gasoline purchases. That has all sorts of distorting effects on the economy and even carbon-dioxide emissions. But low oil prices now appear to be giving countries like India room to cut or reform these subsidies. Will that catch on?

2) The world is taking a fresh approach to global warming

Lima Climate Action High Level Session, taken December 11, 2014. (Ministerio del Ambiente/Flickr)

The old model for tackling climate change went something like this: First, figure out how much warming was too much (at the UN, this has been defined as 2°C of global warming). Second, figure out how much greenhouse-gas emissions need to fall to stay below that goal (roughly 72 percent by 2050). Third, divvy up those cuts among countries. Fourth, draw up a binding treaty.

But that old approach kept failing. Countries couldn't ever agree on steps #3 and #4, and emissions kept rising and rising each year. Carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere rose at a record pace in 2014.

So, at this year's UN talks in Lima, Peru, a new approach emerged. Over the next year, every country will put forward voluntary pledges on how much they plan to rein in its emissions. Some countries might even make side deals with each other — as the US and China did in November. The hope is that every country will come to the table and, over time, cooperation on tackling global warming will flourish from the bottom-up. (See this interview with David Victor for a relatively optimistic take.)

Now, it's quite possible this new approach won't work at all and the world will end up doing very little about global warming. Indeed, if you add up all the voluntary pledges made so far, we're still pace for at least 3.1°C of warming — well beyond what UN negotiators consider "dangerous." But if these talks do lead to progress, this year's subtle shift in negotiations might turn out to have been pivotal.

3) Melting ice in Antarctica and Greenland will reshape our coastlines

Iceberg floating off the western Antarctic peninsula, Antarctica, Southern Ocean. (Steven Kazlowski / Barcroft Media / Getty Images)

The flip side to the climate talks, of course, is that nature is following its own timetable. Back in May, scientists reported that we've already loaded enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to make the eventual collapse of West Antarctica's glaciers "unstoppable." If so, that will lead to an additional 4 to 13 feet of sea-level rise over the coming centuries. The massive ice sheet atop Greenland also now appears to be melting faster than expected.

It's hard not to see this as hugely significant. We can speed up or slow down the pace of this melt depending on how much additional carbon we put into the atmosphere going forward and how much the planet heats up. But we've already committed to reshaping the world's coastlines for centuries to come.

Some of those consequences could be felt surprisingly soon: a recent NOAA report predicted a sharp rise in "nuisance flooding" around the United States by 2050. But other impacts — like the fact that we may eventually have to abandon chunks of Miami — may be left for future generations.

4) 1.2 billion people still don't have electricity

Air pollution from indoor cook fires are becoming a leading cause of death worldwide. (Engineering for Change/Flickr)

This isn't really a "news story," per se. But it's still true that some 1.2 billion people around the world don't have electricity, including 600 million or so in Africa and another 400 million or so in India.

It's a massive problem. Lack of electricity is a major contributor to poverty, for one. It also means lots of households in Asia and Africa end up burning wood or charcoal indoors — and indoor air pollution now kills 4 million people per year.

Electrification in these areas (and other regions that are energy-poor) will have a huge impact on human development — and, potentially, the world's future climate. As an International Energy Agency report on Africa found, fossil fuels are still the cheapest way to bring power to grid-connected areas, coal plants and gas turbines costing just one-third of what solar panels do. (Although in rural areas far from the grid, it's a closer call, and wind and solar power are quickly becoming competitive.)

Unless or until clean energy gets significantly cheaper, fossil fuel use is likely to rise significantly as electrification proceeds a pace. Figuring out how to tackle both energy poverty and climate change will be one of the major challenges of the coming century.

5) Solar power keeps getting cheaper and cheaper

solar price plummet

(Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

The US energy story that hogged all the headlines in 2014 was the Obama administration's EPA proposal to crack down on carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

And fair enough. Assuming the rules get finalized — and the next US president maintains them — they could prove to be quite significant in spurring states to adopt cleaner energy and efficiency measures. According to one analysis, the EPA's carbon rules can play a big role in helping the US cut emissions 17 percent between 2005 and 2020. (Though they won't be enough on their own.)

But over the long-term, I often wonder if the rapid rise of solar power might prove to be even more significant. True, it doesn't look that way right now. Solar panel provides just 0.4 percent of America's electricity, a minuscule amount.

But solar is also growing at a furious pace — with new rooftop panels now being installed every four minutes in the US. Companies like SolarCity have been experimenting with innovative financing techniques (like letting homeowners install panels for no upfront cost). In some states, solar power is growing so fast that it's cutting into electricity sales from traditional utilities and upending their business models. There's even evidence that solar power is contagious — when you install panels on your roof, it increases the chance that your neighbors do too.

It's hard to say, exactly, where this all leads next. A key federal tax credit for solar is set to expire at the end of 2016, so possibly the solar boom will fizzle after that. But possibly not. Perhaps one of these much-hyped breakthroughs in solar-panel efficiency will cause costs to tumble further. Or perhaps the combination of solar panels and electric cars will catch on in the US suburbs, upending traditional environmental politics (as this recent NBER paper suggested). Some companies are now experimenting with solar panel and energy storage combos.

Granted, there are some wild-eyed predictions out there. Thomson Reuters recently predicted that solar will be the dominant energy source by 2025. That may not necessarily pan out — read Vaclav Smil on why energy transitions tend to be sluggish. But solar could be an important story even if it doesn't conquer the world that quickly.

Other contenders?

The fact that the world's population is now projected to hit 11 billion is a big deal. New York's ban on fracking could be an aberration — or a sign of a shift in natural gas politics. The rapid acidification of the oceans deserves a mention. Self-driving cars might someday revolutionize transportation. The apparent slowdown in China's coal use, if it pans out, might make a big difference for both US coal exports and climate change.

What about overrated stories? 2014 will be the warmest year on record — a sign of a warming planet, but it's not clear this milestone, on its own, will transform the climate debate in any big way. And the Keystone XL pipeline is looking less and less important in an era of falling oil prices.

What else did I miss?

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