Last September, a clock began counting down in New York’s Union Square.

It read 7 years 103 days and 15 hours, the time left until the world will have emitted enough carbon to blow its surest chance of keeping global average temperature rise below 1.5 C.

It was a reminder of how agonizingly short we are on time.

And so the last 12 months were always going to be important. But events occurred this year that may have made 2020 the most pivotal year ever in the effort to achieve that all-important temperature target.

A green recovery, a White House recovered

If there was any silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is in the way it might have given the world new hope on the climate crisis.

The lockdowns did not themselves significantly add time to address the climate crisis; annual emissions look set to fall 7 per cent this year — an unprecedented drop, and one approaching what will need to occur every year this decade, but not enough if there is simply a rebound to previous levels.

What the pandemic did, however, was to shake up the generation-long neoliberal taboo against state spending. The need to restimulate the global economy means that austerity is no longer an option. And that has created an opportunity to align the need to address the climate crisis with the need to restimulate economies, what so many have called a “once in a generation” moment to turn things around with a green recovery.

Of course, none of that is guaranteed. Globally, as of Dec. 30, public funding for energy in recovery packages favours fossil fuel (US$269 billion) over clean energy (USD $177 billion) according to Energy Policy Tracker. Despite everything this year, new oil and gas discoveries continued. And it isn’t clear yet whether the pandemic will reverse banks’ longstanding support for fossil fuel projects. And none of the oil and gas majors have plans to bring their operations in line with the 1.5 C target.

The pandemic was also a factor in the electoral defeat of Donald Trump, whose animosity towards science and whose general callousness towards others meant he would never be able to manage the disaster.

Though incoming president Joe Biden is a standard Democrat centrist, his platform features important inclusions from progressives thanks to tremendous grassroots organizing, and a coalition of U.S. climate, environmental, racial, and worker justice groups has already begun putting pressure on Biden to ensure he carries out his climate promises; among the key priorities is the cancellation of the Line 3 and Keystone XL tar sands pipelines, the push being led by Indigenous groups.

If this works, and if Republican intransigence in the Senate can somehow be overcome, the world’s dominant political power and largest economy could for the next four very crucial years finally be getting in the climate game.

Fossil fuel exodus

And that will occur in the context of countries setting more solid long-term goals.

In 2020, China, the world’s leading annual emitter, announced a target of carbon neutrality before 2060. The EU agreed to raise its climate ambitions, announcing it will reduce emissions by 55 per cent (instead of the previous target of 40) relative to 1990 levels by 2030 on its way to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Japan and South Korea announced they are also aiming for that mid-century date. By one estimate, these targets could set the world on the path to 2.1 C of warming, within striking distance of that crucial 1.5 C goal, though critics have pointed out that what really matters right now is what we do for 2030 (the actual policies in place throughout the world has us on the path to 3 C).

And other major players also announced they will be exiting the fossil fuel game.

The UK’s largest pension fund began divesting from companies involved in coal, tar sands, and arctic drilling. Lloyd’s, the world’s largest insurance market, will stop insuring fossil fuel projects by 2030. (Indigenous groups in the U.S. are leading efforts to see the same happen there.) New York State’s US$226-billion pension fund is also divesting from the riskiest fossil fuels by 2025 and will decarbonize by 2040. This year also saw BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager announce it will be making sustainability a factor in its decisions (though its post-announcement record remains spotty).

A world at stake

The climate is not waiting for us to get all of that right.

The year began with Australia ablaze in its worst fire season on record. In the summer, Siberia and the U.S. west coast experienced their own terrifying infernos, as we enter an age of megafires.

Every September, arctic sea ice reaches its minimum extent for the year. In 2020 it reached its second-lowest extent on record after 2012. But unlike then, the ice was extremely sluggish, resulting in October setting a new record low, “the largest departure from average conditions seen in any month thus far in the satellite record.”

Every year, each Atlantic storm is named with a letter from A to W. This year’s record-breaking 30 storms exceeded the number that naming convention can cover for just the second time in history. October’s Hurricane Zeta became the strongest to reach U.S. land so late in the year. Gati, the strongest cyclone ever measured in the northern Indian Ocean, made landfall in Somalia in November, the first time on record the country experienced a hurricane-strength storm. It drove thousands from their homes and potentially exacerbated the plague of locusts that has been worsening food security in east Africa.

All over the world temperature records were broken, and 2020 could possibly tie 2016 for hottest year on record (and the period from July 2019 to June 2020 is now the hottest 12-month period on record).

But there are things happening that are still harder to describe. Sometimes we need to turn to new words. Inuk journalist Ossie Michelin wrote a great piece this October about the phenomenon of “solastalgia,” a feeling of homesickness despite not having left home due to the environment having so drastically changed, an experience Indigenous communities in particular are on the front lines of.

And then there are things that are hard to give names to at all, like the mass die-off of birds mid-flight in the U.S. southwest due to starvation driven, it seems, by the climate crisis.

‘More Canadian energy’ or ‘Oil is dead’

COVID-19 intensified the clash between two political projects here in Canada.

Let’s name the first project “The world needs more Canadian energy” after the slogan Canada’s oil industry and its allies have used to push a narrative that goes like this. Since the world is still going to need fossil fuels for a long time to come and since they have to come from somewhere, it ought to be Canada (even in a world that fails disastrously in meeting its climate change targets).

The second story, meanwhile, we might call “Oil is dead” after for-some-reason controversial remarks made back in May by former Green Party leader Elizabeth May (and seconded by Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet).

And it goes like this. Policy aimed at propping up Big Oil in Canada is no longer morally tenable in the context of the climate crisis, and we should have begun a just transition away from it a long time ago. But in the context of COVID and the prospect of a green global recovery, it would also be a waste of public money because the sector has no long-term future, particularly with the incoming Biden administration and a world shifting towards net-zero targets. And it would probably come at the expense of some vital services. Alberta premier Jason Kenney demonstrated just this when he found $1.5 billion in government money (and found billions more for loan guarantees) to shore up the Keystone XL pipeline while laying off healthcare workers and teachers.

Which of these projects will win out remains to be seen. The Trudeau government has committed Canada to carbon neutrality by 2050. It has also announced a plan to extend the annual carbon-price increase (reaching $170 per tonne 10 years from now) in order to meet its 2030 emission reduction goals, along with $15 billion in new climate spending.

This means the country has something like a serious climate plan.

But there is still a ways to go. The 2030 target was always insufficient as part of Canada’s fair contribution to achieving the 1.5 C goal, and the government’s continued commitment to the Keystone XL, Line 3, and Trans Mountain tar sands pipelines remains in place. Meanwhile, the Conservatives remain deeply opposed to carbon pricing and are a threat to the climate plan if ever in power.

In the meantime, that climate clock keeps ticking.