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2017 Year in Review

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As we look back on the most noteworthy environmental stories of 2017, one cannot help but start with the extreme weather that has caused so much destruction to so many around the globe. And with that, the year brought heightened concern for protecting our planet with focused attention on issues like renewable energy, electric vehicles and plastic pollution. And while 2017 was also marked by challenges with the U.S. pulling out of the Paris agreement and making other questionable environmental policy changes, we all enter a new year with the ability to make positive change.


1. Extreme Weather on the Rise

The 2017 hurricane season was one of the most catastrophic in decades. In August, Hurricane Harvey caused major damage in Houston, Texas. Then Hurricane Irma followed as the most powerful Caribbean storm on record. And on Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria swept over Puerto Rico, killing 64 people, destroying the power grid to such an extent that half the island is still without power, and causing billions of dollars in damage. In addition to the hurricane season, wildfires stretched across the west with the Jones and Whitewater fires in Oregon, the Pyette Wilderness fires in Idaho, and the Reef fire in Montana. Several more fires continued to blaze through the end of the year, with the most notable being the Thomas Fire, the largest blaze in California in history, which began burning in early December and will likely continue into 2018. Earthquakes also shook the world in unprecedented numbers. A 6.7 magnitude earthquake in the Philippines in February displaced more than 3,000 families. And in December, a 6.5 magnitude quake in Cipatujah, Indonesia could be felt from 190 miles away. The U.S. also experienced several small earthquakes, including eight quakes in August in Oklahoma and a few more recently in Santa Clara County and San Jose, California.

Roosevelt Skerrit / Flickr

2. The U.S. Withdraws From the Paris Agreement

On June 1, President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement, spurring backlash from nation leaders worldwide. Emmanuel Macron, President of France, started a campaign called "Make Earth Great Again," and announced that he would be giving away $70 million in multi-year grants to climate scientists who want to continue their research in France. The U.S. now stands as the only country in the UN that does not support the agreement.

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3. Continuing Rise of Renewables

Despite the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement, many cities and States made huge progress in 2017. Oregon and Washington joined a global alliance in November, promising to phase out coal by 2030. In May, Madison, Wisconsin committed to 100% renewable energy and net-zero carbon emissions and Abita Springs, Louisiana voted to go all renewables by 2030.

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4. New U.S. Leadership Steps up to Fill the Void

The U.S. also had major corporations and private and public leaders step up to the challenge in the wake of President Trump's withdrawal. At COP23 in Germany, 20 companies promised to phase out coal including BT, Engie, Kering, Diageo, Marks & Spencer, Orsted and Storebrand. In October, New York City's former Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged $64 million to shut down coal plants in the U.S. And in June, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a nonbinding agreement with China to cooperate on renewable energy technology, including zero-emissions vehicles and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

California Gov. Jerry Brown and President Xi JinpingAaron Berkovich

5. China Takes Huge Steps in Renewables

In possibly the most unexpected scenario, China, which topped the charts with nearly double the carbon emissions of the U.S., made drastic changes to their consumption. In January, the country announced a $361 Billion Renewable Energy Investment by 2020 and started work right away. They installed 35GW in just seven months—more than twice as much as installed by any other country in all of 2016—increasing their solar PV capacity to 112GW total. They've also temporarily shut down thousands of factories to cut down on the deadly air pollution and the city of Shenzen has almost completely electrified their bus fleet. China's new perspective on climate action has already changed the lives of the more than 1.3 billion of its people and will no doubt be making the planet healthier for all of us in the future.

A 40-megawatt floating solar farm in China's coal-rich Anhui provinceSungrow Power Supply Co., Ltd.

6. Pruitt Undermines the EPA

On Feb. 17, Scott Pruitt was sworn in as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) administrator. Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, sued the EPA more than a dozen times before taking leadership of the agency. Pruitt has made an effort to dismantle the EPA by dismissing several scientists from its Board of Scientific Counselors, supporting the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement, and lifting federal regulations on the oil and gas industry. Then, after a six month review, on Oct. 9 Pruitt signed a measure to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from electric power generated by coal-burning power plants by 32 percent by 2030, relative to 2005 levels.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt visited the USS Lead Superfund in East Chicago, Indiana. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency / YouTube

7. Zinke Shrinks National Monuments

While Pruitt undermines the EPA, Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke has reduced precious regulations on U.S. protected lands. With Zinke's support, on Dec. 4, Trump announced huge reductions to two national monuments in Utah—the Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante—rolling back two million acres of federally protected land and potentially opening it up to oil drilling and logging. Zinke also urged unspecified reductions in Nevada's Gold Butte National Monument and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which straddles the California-Oregon border. The report also urges the president to consider changing the boundaries of two marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean: Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll. And in December, Zinke auctioned off 700,000 acres of public lands for fracking.

Bears Ears National Monument Valley of the GodsBob Wick / BLM

8. President Trump Signs Executive Order on DAPL and Keystone XL

On Jan. 24, President Trump signed an executive order to move the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines forward. Just one day later, on Jan. 25, a diesel pipeline in Northern Iowa spilled 138,600 gallons from a leaked system. It was also reported on Jan. 23, that 52,830 gallons of crude oil spilled onto an aboriginal land in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Water protectors and state security personnel faced off across a fence near the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site. Rob Wilson / Facebook

9. Oceans Littered With Plastic

A number of studies were released in 2017 that opened the lid on plastic pollution in the world's oceans. In June, it was reported that microplastic particles have infiltrated the pristine Antarctic, and the levels are five times higher than previously estimated. In November, it was found that deep sea creatures who live seven miles below the surface were consuming plastics. And there were several instances were whales, birds and other marine life were found dead with stomachs full of plastic. Fortunately, there were many who stepped up to start cleaning beaches and find innovative ways to clean the sea.

Greenpeace Philippines sent a strong message about plastic pollution with a giant "Dead Whale" art exhibit.Vince Cinches

10. Electric Vehicles Change the Game

Electric vehicle sales surged 63 percent in 2017, with China topping the market. Several car brands also announced their own inexpensive electric models including Volvo and Volkswagen, making them more affordable and accessible than ever. In addition to the surge, Tesla installed huge supercharger stations in California, making it ever more possible to get from point A to point B without fear of the batteries running out.

The 40-stall "Mega" Supercharger station in Kettleman City, CaliforniaTesla

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The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about donations to the Amazon Fund. LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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