Top Five Environmental Achievements of 2015 by Samantha Jakuboski, January 06 2016, 1 Comment

Although we are already a week into the New Year, it is worthwhile to look back at some notable environmental achievements of 2015.

1) June 18: The Tree-Hugging Pope

This past summer, Pope Francis addressed climate change in his encyclical, Laudato si. In this publication, he acknowledges that human activity is a major contributor to climate change and urges the international community to come together and curb greenhouse gas emissions. Given the Pope’s international influence, this progressive encyclical has the power to raise global awareness about climate change and inspire people to live more sustainable lives.

2) September 18: Das Diesel Dupe

German car manufacturer, Volkswagen, was finally busted after eight years of cheating on EPA fuel emissions tests. In September, the company admitted to selling Americans 480,000 two-liter diesel engine cars that were installed with special cheating software. Such software allowed Volkswagen to hide the fact that its cars emit nitrogen oxides (a major class of air pollutants) at quantities exceeding levels set by the EPA by 40%. In November, it was further revealed that Volkswagen also installed cheating software in the three-liter engine cars sold to Americans, thus raising the projected amount of defective cars in the United States to 580,000. Worldwide, over 11 million cars are believed to contain this software, and investigations into the company are being launched around the world.

On January 4, the United States filed a complaint against Volkswagen, Audi, and Porsche. Volkswagen Group faces fines upward of $18 billion.

3) November 6: President Proscribes the Pipeline Proposal

President Obama rejected TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline Proposal, citing concerns over climate change among other reasons. The proposal, which has been deliberated for more than six years, planned for the construction of a 1,179-mile pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. This pipeline would have been the last phase of the already established Keystone Pipeline—which transports oil from Alberta, Canada to Gulf Coast refineries—and would have permitted American crude oil producers to use the pipeline for transportation and increase the amount of Canadian oil transported to the Gulf Coast to 830,000 barrels a day.

One point that many environmentalists took issue with was the fact that the oil extracted in Canada comes from oil sands, also known as tar sands. Since these sands are made up of clay and a black tarry substance called bitumen, more energy is required to extract the oil than is needed to extract conventional crude oil. More energy use means the release of more greenhouse gases and the intensification of climate change. Likewise, since the pipeline would have allowed for easier oil transportation to the Gulf, more manufacturers would have been swayed to enter the tar sand oil extraction industry, thus further increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Lastly, the location of the pipeline was an issue, since it would have passed near the highly coveted Nebraska Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer. People worried that in the event of an oil leak, these prized landmarks would be devastated.

Obama’s rejection of the Keystone Pipeline was a very symbolic gesture to climate change, since Canada still transports oil through the Keystone Pipeline and can find other ways to transport additional oil, if it desires. In rejecting the proposal, Obama took a stand against the burning of dirty fossil fuels and supported his repeated affirmation that America must transition into the clean-energy sector in order to reduce its carbon footprint and stop the acceleration of climate change.

4) November 30-December 14: We’ll Always Have Paris….

to thank for hosting the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), a turning point in international relations with regard to climate change. This was the first time that world leaders from every nation met and settled upon an agreement (see picture above). According to the adopted Paris Agreement, every country in the world pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, with the long-term goal of releasing zero emissions by 2050 and preventing the rise in global temperature from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. Through plans called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, each country will be given the responsibility to come up with its own carbon reducing targets and strategies.

The Paris Agreement will become official once 55 countries ratify it. The deadline is April 22, 2016—also Earth Day. How fitting!

5) December 28, 2015: Obama Bans your Favorite Pink Grapefruit Face Wash

Do you use a face wash, shower gel, or body scrub that contains little exfoliating oh-so-good-on-your-skin beads, called microbeads? Well, if I were you, I’d start stocking up now*, because President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, banning the cosmetic use of these heavenly beads. Starting on July 1, 2017, the manufacturing of microbeads will be prohibited, and starting July 1, 2018, so will the sale of products containing them.

*Just kidding, don’t stock up on these products! They are terrible for the environment! Although all waste flushed down the drain enters treatment plants, these tiny beads (which are made of plastic!) somehow bypass the filtration process and end up accumulating in aquatic habitats, as well as in animals and fish that ingest them. A study published in Environmental Science and Technology estimates that one percent, or around eight trillion, of the beads used daily in the United States pass through the treatment filters and enter aquatic habitats. The 99% of the remaining beads (around 800 trillion) in the filtered waste, called sludge, also seem to make their way to waterways. Since they don't disintegrate, the microbeads can enter lakes, oceans, streams and ponds, via runoff when the sludge is used as fertilizer. Hence, it seems like the only way to cut back on microbead water pollution is to ban their use.

With this said, if you want eco-friendly exfoliation that feels just as nice as microbeads, try making your own products using sugar, sea-salt or oatmeal. Or, check out the scrubs from Zosimos Botanicals, which are made with Dead Sea Salt from Israel and Turbinado sugar as the main ingredients. Who ever said that saving the planet requires the sacrifice of beauty and comfort!? Divas can be environmentalists too!

While the accomplishments above are great advances in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation, it is important to note two issues that have made headlines and provoked protests around the country in 2015, but have yet to be resolved: the drought and fracking.

The Golden State Turns Brown

2015 marked California’s fourth year of one hella extreme drought, with 97.3% of the state suffering from abnormal lack of rain and depletion of groundwater sources. According to the Los Angeles Times, reservoirs held only about 54% of their pre-drought average, and in May, close to 2,000 wells were reported to be sucked dry. As if a lack of rain was not enough for these poor Californians, the effects of the drought were acerbated due to record high temperatures; the average temperature in California of 58.4 degrees Fahrenheit was the highest average temperature in 120 years—more than three degrees above average. Fortunately, heavy rain and snow are forecasted to fall in the state this week and throughout the winter due to El Niño. Let’s hope this precipitation will be enough to help fill up reservoirs without causing any mudslides or flash floods.

Note: It is also important to mention that other states in the southwest, such as Kansas, are also experiencing drought and scarcity of water, as are some countries in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

America’s Fracking Frenzy

The United States continued to make a name for itself as the leading producer of natural gas and crude oil in the world. Since 2008, oil production in America has risen close to 90%, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, fracking was responsible for 49% of oil production and 54% of natural gas in February 2015. Fracking consists of drilling vertical and horizontal holes deep into the earth and injecting fracking fluid into these holes at very high pressures. This bombardment of water widens cracks in rock, most notably shale rock, releasing natural gas and oil trapped within.

Although fracking is decreasing American dependence on foreign markets, and despite the fact that natural gas burns cleaner than coal does, fracking poses some serious threats to the environment:

  • Fracking releases methane from underground, a greenhouse gas responsible for climate change
  • The fracking fluid contains chemicals that contribute to water pollution. With over 40,000 gallons of chemicals used per fracturing, this poses a threat to aquatic life
  • The chemicals used are also volatile, contributing to air pollution
  • Californians, skip over this bullet point: fracking can require up to eight million gallons of water per fracturing
  • The mechanism of pumping water underground at high pressure has even caused earthquakes

As we enter the New Year, let us hope that advancements continue to progress on the environmental front, especially in regard to conserving water and utilizing cleaner sources of energy.

Picture Credit: United Nations (via Flickr) and available for use under the CC License.

Author Bio:

Samantha is a sophomore at Barnard College, Columbia University. She hopes that through blogging, she can help change the way people view their actions in relation to the earth, encouraging them to lead more eco-friendly lives. Samantha also maintains the environmental science blog, Green Science, on Nature Journal’s Scitable blogging network.