Also see our Top 10 HAPPY environmental stories of 2013.
Elephant in South Africa. The poaching crisis in Africa is number six on our annual top ten list. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
For the first time since our appearance on Earth, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere hit 400 parts per million. The last time concentrations were this high for a sustained period was 4-5 million years ago when temperatures were 10 degrees Celsius higher. Meanwhile, in the slow-moving effort to curb carbon emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) crafted a global carbon budget showing that most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must be left untouched if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.
As China’s environmental crisis worsens, the government has begun to unveil a series of new initiatives to curb record pollution and cut greenhouse emissions. The world’s largest consumer of coal, China’s growth in emissions is finally slowing and some experts believe the nation’s emissions could peak within the decade. If China’s emissions begin to fall, so too could the world’s.
On September 19th, the Russian military stormed the Arctic Sunrise, a Greenpeace vessel that was in the Russian Arctic to protest oil drilling. All 30 people on the ship—including a videographer and a journalist—were held in prison for two months before being released on bail. Now known as the “Arctic 30,” they have been charged with hooliganism, and face up to seven years in prison.
Rainforest in Sumatra. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Two major commodity producers in Asia announced zero deforestation pacts, while several buyers also established safeguards for commodity sourcing. Both Asia Pulp & Paper, a paper products giant widely condemned by environmentalists for its destructive forest practices, and Wilmar, a Singapore-based agribusiness giant that accounts for 45 percent of global palm oil production, committed to progressive forest policies that exclude conversion of forests with more than 35 tons of above ground biomass, peatlands, and habitats with high conservation value.
The tropical storm that hit the Philippines in November—Typhoon Haiyan—was the largest storm to make landfall on record. Killing over 5,000 people in the country, it was also the Philippines’ deadliest. While the links between tropical storms and climate change remain complex, scientists believe rising global temperatures will make storms like Haiyan more common and, coupled with rising seas, more devastating. Coming at the open of the UN Climate Summit in Warsaw, the typhoon overshadowed what was largely an unambitious meeting.
Large numbers of elephants and endangered rhinos continued to be slaughtered for their ivory and horns. South Africa reported record losses of rhinos in its protected areas, while several high profile poaching events made international headlines. In response, NGOs and the U.S. announced a major new initiative to combat poaching.
A Greenpeace activist bears witness to forest destruction in Riau Province, Indonesia. © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace.
Air pollution from peat fires in Sumatra returned with a vengeance to Singapore and Malaysia. Air pollution indexes reached record-high levels in several cities, sparking a row between Indonesia, which had failed to ratify a transboundary haze agreement, and its neighbors, whose companies played a major role in the burning. Analysis by World Resources Institute (WRI), an NGO, found that nearly half of fires occurred in timber and oil palm concessions. Only 5 percent of fires burned in protected areas and selective logging concessions.
Many of the world’s biggest financial players are turning against carbon-heavy coal. This year, the World Bank, the U.S., the U.K., and several Scandinavian countries have all pledged to no longer fund traditional coal plants abroad, representing a sea change in energy financing. Meanwhile, Christiana Figueres, the head of climate change at the UN, told a global coal summit that the industry would have to undergo drastic changes if it’s to maintain a role in the future of energy.
As expected, Brazil announced that deforestation in its part of the Amazon rainforest increased significantly over last year’s record-low levels. Preliminary data suggest a 28 percent rise to 5,843 square kilometers (2,256 sq miles). More than three-fifths of deforestation occurred in Pará (41 percent) and Mato Grosso (20 percent). Environmentalists blamed last year’s changes to the country’s code for the increase, but other analysts pointed to other factors including a weakening real, lack of incentives for farmers and ranchers to curb deforestation, and rising commodity prices. Deforestation in 2013 was nonetheless more than 80 percent below the 2004 peak.
A team of researchers unveiled a long-awaited map of the world’s forests. Powered by Google, the map shows change in forest cover between 2000 and 2012, including large-scale forest loss in Russia, Brazil, United States, Canada, and Indonesia. The highest deforestation rate during the period occurred in Malaysia. While some critics immediately denounced the map for counting tree plantations as forests, others recognized the value of the map in providing a foundation for more powerful applications to come, including global high-resolution deforestation tracking.
Arguably the most potentially world-transforming story of the year was a hamburger. Grown in a laboratory from cow stem cells, the hamburger was a major step forward in producing meat without the corresponding environmental toll. Animal rights activists cheered the fact that this was a burger that was truly cruelty-free, while environmentalists saw the potential to make meat without the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy consumption, and massive land-use demands. But the hamburger—which was eaten by food critics—still has a way to go before it reaches our stores: for one thing, the cost (researchers spent around $330,000 on this burger alone) must be significantly reduced.
Poison dart frog (Ameerega bilinguis) in Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
In August, the Ecuadoran government announced it was dropping a bold proposal to keep oil drilling out of Yasuni National Park’s ITT blocs. The South American country has said it would forgo oil exploitation if the international community pledged half the revenue of the suspected oil returns ($3.6 billion). Although lauded by some as an innovative plan, Ecuador said funds were coming in too slowly. However, critics labeled the approach as “extortion,” while others doubted that Ecuador’s political leaders would honor the commitment. Sitting in the Western Amazon, Yasuni National Park is viewed as possibly the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet. Only a national referendum in Ecuador could save the remote region from oil drilling now.
In July, TEPCO finally admitted that the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant was leaking radioactively-contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. No one knows exactly how much radioactive pollution has entered the ocean, but most experts say it should be rapidly diluted once it spreads out into the Pacific and fish caught outside the immediate area would pose little health concern. Though that could change if the situation escalates.
With the election of Tony Abbott as the new prime minister in Australia, the country has taken a U-turn on climate change policy. Running on a campaign to demolish Australia’s fledgling carbon tax, Abbott has not only pledged to kill the tax, but has also cut funding for renewable energy and shuttered its climate council. At the most recent UN Climate Summit in Warsaw, Australia was largely viewed as obstructing progress and belittling the process.
Jairo Mora Sandoval walking on the beach where he died after releasing over a hundred turtle hatchlings in 2012. Photo by: Carlyn Samuel.
On May 23rd, 26-year-old Jairo Mora Sandoval was brutally murdered on a beach in Costa Rica. A longtime activist for nesting marine turtles, authorities believe Sandoval was killed for working to protect the animals against local criminal gangs that make money off raiding turtle egg nests. Sandoval’s brutal death brought the issue of turtle egg poaching (and its little-known link to the drug trade) to a global audience, and forced Costa Rica to take a look at holes in its environmental policies. The country is now considering turning the turtle beach into a protected area.
In January, the New York Times announced it was dismantling its environmental desk; a few months later it said it was killing its well-known Green Blog. The paper pledged the changes wouldn’t affect its environmental coverage, but a recent analysis by Times’ editor Margaret Sullivan found that climate change coverage dropped by nearly a third, while front-page stories on climate fell from nine to three over the first six months.