There's no denying that a lot of heartbreak, pain, and injustice was packed into 2021. It's also true that there were so many moments of hope and stories of Helpers to inspire and remind us that progress is possible — and it's happening all the time.
In the face of devastating news from the UN's IPCC report that many of the impacts of human-caused climate change will be unavoidable — countries, governments, activists, scientists, businesses, and more came together to meet the moment and work quickly toward positive environmental change.
Renewable energy sources keep getting cheaper, President Biden revoked the Keystone XL oil pipeline permits for good, scientists are working to solve two major obstacles to wider adoption of renewables: storage and recycling materials. Conservation efforts led to coral reefs coming back to life, people are working to solve our plastic waste problem, and major universities and whole countries stopped investing in fossil fuels.
There was so much good to celebrate in 2021 — scroll through to get inspired and ready to tackle the biggest challenges facing our planet in the new year. And if you want more, check out our entire collection of good news about climate change. Progress is possible.
The Empire State Building and 13 others are now exclusively powered by wind
As of January 1, all 13 buildings owned by the Empire State Realty Trust — including the iconic Empire State Building — are officially being completely powered by wind.
Their 14 buildings have more than 10 million square feet total, and with the purchase of the 3-year contract, the trust is now the largest real estate user of entirely renewable energy in the U.S.
The Empire State Building itself has run on renewables since 2011, and the trust had already cut the skyscraper's emissions by about 40%. By adding all its buildings, they'll avoid producing around 450 million pounds of carbon dioxide. According to reporting from The Washington Post, that's the equivalent of removing all New York City taxis from the road for a year.
Operating buildings is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. — and in New York alone, buildings generate over two-thirds of the city's entire carbon emissions.
We still have a long way to go in cutting emissions in New York City and all over the country, but this is a really big, incredible step in the right direction. We're celebrating the Empire State Realty Trust leading the way for more of the same!
After years of work by activists, the Keystone XL oil pipeline permits were revoked
And it's not just activists — a 2017 Pew Research study found that a majority of Americans oppose the pipeline. It would transport "tar sands" to U.S. oil refineries.
Not only the dirtiest kind of oil, it contains a substance called bitumen, which sinks when spilled in water.
Spills have occurred in Arkansas and Michigan, and according to the National Academy of Sciences is extremely difficult, if not impossible to completely clean up.
Construction on the pipeline has been delayed for years, but yesterday, President Biden signed an executive order revoking the permit needed to continue construction.
This is really good news for a number of reasons: it's proof that the activism of individuals really does make a difference. That when we all learn better, we can do better.
Not to mention, we need to decrease our dependence on oil and fossil fuels if we're to slow, stop, and reverse the adverse impact of climate change on our planet.
The more we spend time and money investing in infrastructure for fossil fuels, the less time and money we have to invest in the long-term, sustainable solutions we need to pursue more immediately.
The price of solar electricity has dropped 89% in 10 years
In 2009, it was 223% more expensive to build a new solar farm than a new coal plant. Now, it's flipped: Based on new 2019 data gathered by Our World In Data, electricity from a new coal plant is 177% more expensive than electricity from new solar panels.
From 2009 to 2019, the price of electricity from solar dropped 89% in 10 years, and the price of onshore wind dropped 70%!
Much of the decline in cost is due to more affordable technology. The first iterations of solar energy capture were extremely expensive, and not scalable. However, in "learning by doing", it created a cycle of progress that lead to the decline in price: solar tech was installed, leading to more research and development, leading to more/better tech and more installations, and so on.
Another benefit of added solar capacity: it gets even cheaper the more capacity there is!
This good data is really good news for the future.
In a historic victory for climate change, a court ordered Shell to cut its carbon emissions by 45% by the year 2030
In a historic, landmark victory for the planet and for climate change, a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut its net carbon emissions by 45% by the year 2030.
“The climate won today,” said Roger Cox, a lawyer for the Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, which was one of the organizations behind the case. “This ruling will change the world. Worldwide, people are in the starting blocks to take legal action against oil companies following our example."
This ruling has been a long time coming. A group of seven environmental and human rights organizations, along with around 1,700 Dutch citizens filed the case back in 2018. And while this case is one in a string of lawsuits filed around the world by climate activists, it's believed to be the first against a multinational corporation.
And the court ruling is really, really good news for the planet!
The court didn't give Shell any specific directions for how to achieve this, giving it “complete freedom in how it meets its reduction obligation and in shaping the Shell group’s corporate policy.”
Time to get to work, Shell.
A woman in Kenya opened a factory that turns plastic waste into bricks that are even stronger than concrete
Materials engineer Nzambi Matee was "tired of being on the sidelines of seeing plastic." In her home city, she said Nairobi generates around 500 metric tons (about 1.1 million pounds) of plastic waste per day — and only a fraction of it is actually recycled.
Plastic waste is also a worldwide problem. Globally, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, and up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year.
“Plastic is a material that is misused and misunderstood. The potential is enormous, but its after life can be disastrous," Matee told the UN Environmental Program.
So, Nzambi Matee got to work creating a solution. She founded Gjenge Makers, which turns plastic waste into building products. They take plastic waste that can no longer be recycled by other factories, mix it with sand, and create bricks that are 5-7 times stronger than concrete. They're also really lightweight, which reduces both transportation and installation costs, too.
Currently, they make about 1,000-1,500 paver bricks per day, and are hoping to expand their operation into building bricks, too. So far, they've recycled 20 metric tons (about 44,000 pounds) of plastic waste. She also wants to start making building blocks — and scale their operation throughout Africa (just to start)!
“The negative impact we are having on the environment is huge. It’s up to us to make this reality better. Start with whatever local solution you can find and be consistent with it. The results will be amazing," Matee said.
Because of their durability and affordability, the paver bricks are used primarily at schools, on playgrounds and pathways between classrooms — where students would normally walk on dirt paths.
Five years after they were destroyed by a tropical cyclone, coral reefs off of Fiji are alive again, filled with vibrant colors and fish
In February 2016, one of the worst tropical cyclones to ever hit the southern hemisphere devastated coral reefs across the Namena reserve and Vatu-i-Ra conservation park off of Fiji.
The reefs are once again vibrant with colors and filled will fish and marine life.
In a recent dive expedition led by the Wildlife Conservation Society, scientists found the coral had recovered beyond their expectations.
“I was surprised at how quick the recovery has been, especially at the Namena reserve,” Sangeeta Mangubhai, director of WCS Fiji, told the Guardian.
Mangubhai credited the quick recovery of the reef to their health before the cyclone hit — they were well managed, healthier, and can then recover much faster.
Coral reefs are critical and essential to healthy oceans (and by extension, a healthy planet).
“Healthy reefs are important given how dependent coastal communities are on coral reefs for food, livelihoods and cultural practice,” Mangubhai said. “They are also critical for coastal protection against future storms.”
This is really good news for our oceans, and our planet — we need to keep advocating for protection of our coral reefs. So when natural disasters do strike, they can recover much quicker.
Greenland has officially stopped all new oil and gas exploration to fight climate change
Greenland announced it would suspend all new oil and gas exploration to fight climate change and focus on sustainable energy development.
Greenland's government, Naalakkersuisut, said it will no longer issue new licenses for oil and gas exploration. This is hugely significant because Greenland is thought to have a large amount of undiscovered oil deposits. Estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey say it could hold more than 17 billion barrels of oil.
Despite this, the government said that the country has stopped future exploration because the “price of oil extraction is too high.”
“Naalakkersuisut takes climate change seriously. We can see the consequences in our country every day, and we are ready to contribute to global solutions to counter climate change,” said Kalistat Lund, Minister for Agriculture, Self-sufficiency, Energy, and Environment, in the announcement.
“The decision to stop new exploration for oil will contribute to place Greenland as the country where sustainable investments are taken seriously,” Lund added.
Greenland also has a lot at stake from the negative impacts of climate change. Warming temperatures are accelerating the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, the second-largest ice sheet in the world (the first is the Antarctic ice sheet) which covers about 80% of the country’s surface.
In 2019 alone, the ice sheet lost around 600 billion tons of ice, more than double Greenland's 2002-2019 yearly average. The ice loss also caused global sea levels to rise by 2.2 millimeters, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Scientists know, governments know, climate refugees know, and each of us know what's at stake. It gives us hope to see countries like Greenland making decisions that will forever (and for better) alter the course of climate change.
Harvard University announced it will completely stop investing in fossil fuels
Last week, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow announced that as of June, Harvard Management Company (HMC) no longer had direct investments in fossil fuels, and that they would not make future investments in fossil fuels.
Currently, he said HMC has indirect investments through private equity funds making up less than 2% of the endowment that "are in runoff mode and will end as these partnerships are liquidated."
Harvard has the country's largest academic endowment, most recently totaling $41.9 billion, according to reporting from NPR.
"Given the need to decarbonize the economy and our responsibility as fiduciaries to make long-term investment decisions that support our teaching and research mission, we do not believe such investments are prudent," Bacow wrote in an announcement posted to the university's website. He also called climate change "the most consequential threat facing humanity."
This is good news in and of itself — but even better news are the helpers and activists who have been fighting for it behind the scenes for years.
One activist group, Divest Harvard wrote on Twitter that the move was "a massive victory for our community, the climate movement, and the world — and a strike against the power of the fossil fuel industry."
When it comes to climate change and decarbonizing the world and our economies, we know that change needs to happen swiftly. We also know that the best, most meaningful change usually doesn't happen as swiftly as we'd like — or in this case, *need* — it to. But that can't mean we stop fighting.
We're celebrating this moment of progress with Harvard, and all the activists that have long been fighting for this necessary change!
New reflective streets in Los Angeles are helping cool down neighborhoods, reduce emissions, and keep people healthy
When the scientists aboard the International Space Station direct their thermal camera at Los Angeles, standing out from the sweltering red and orange blob is a crescent of cool, blueish white deep in the San Fernando Valley.
Greg Spotts, Chief Sustainability Officer of the City’s Bureau of Street Services (Streets LA), is proud of these wintry-looking pixels — not many people can say their work is visible from space. In this area, the center of the Valley’s Winnetka neighborhood, the pavement has been painted with a special reflective coating.
The satellite thermal camera is significant because it shows that the special cooling pavement not only lowers the temperature on the road, but “produces a cooler neighborhood” in general, Spotts says.
For the first time, electric and hybrid vehicles outsold diesel vehicles in Europe
For the first time in Europe's history, people bought more electric and hybrid vehicles than diesel vehicles in September 2021.
According to data from JATO Dynamics, demand for gas and diesel cars saw a double-digit drop over September 2019, while demand for electrified vehicles increased by 139%. September also marked the second time that electric vehicles accounted for more than 20% of new vehicle registrations in Europe.
The top-seller is still petrol-powered vehicles, but sales of those are trending down as well. Up until about 2016-2017, diesel-powered vehicles were the most-purchased in Europe, when they were overtaken by petrol-powered cars.
This is really encouraging news as the world makes the transition away from fossil fuels in our transportation!
YouTubers are raising $30 million to remove 30 million pounds of trash from the ocean
YouTubers all across the digital realm are banding together for a good cause: saving our oceans. #TeamSeas — an initiative by the popular YouTube account Mr. Beast asks content creators to use their influence to raise awareness about the current state of our oceans.
Their ambitious goal is to raise $30 million dollars by the end of the year to take 30 million pounds of trash out of the waters and partnering with popular YouTubers to spread the word.
According to their research, even $1 will take out 1 pound of trash in the ocean. To reach their 30 million pound goal, they're partnering with with the Ocean Conservancy to organize beach and in-ocean cleanups, and with The Ocean Cleanup, to focus on the rivers that contribute the 80% of trash that reach the oceans.
Over 325 million people worldwide pledged to go plastic-free for the month of July
#PlasticFreeJuly began on July 1st. In 177 countries around the world, more than 325 million people took Plastic Free July’s pledge to go plastic-free for the month of July.
From refusing all single-use plastics, to refusing the top 4 plastic items (bags, bottles, straws, and coffee cups), to going completely plastic-free for the entire month, Plastic Free July is a great way to raise awareness about our daily plastic consumption, practice making sustainable swaps, and form new, better, long-term habits that are healthier for the planet!
Because it's such a durable, cheap (except for the environmental cost) material to make, plastic has found its way into so many areas of our daily lives. It's extremely difficult to recycle, lasts forever, are made with chemicals that come from fossil fuels, microplastics are extremely harmful to waterways and marine life, and much more. There are rare cases where plastic can be a useful material, but our daily use of it has far exceeded its value.
The good news: there are so many other options. Many coffee shops are accepting reusable containers again, you can bring your own bags to the grocery store, opt for non-plastic-packaged food items, choose soda in a can instead of a bottle, and much more.
If these stories left you feeling inspired to join in and take action — here are three resources we've created to help you get involved in climate action: