Mongabay Features

Top 10 environmental news stories of 2020

2020 is a year that many people would like to forget. Here’s a look at 10 of the biggest environmental storylines to remember.

The COVID-19 pandemic

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic transcended virtually everything in 2020, including the environment, from canceled summits on climate and biodiversity to a temporary dip in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, to greater awareness of the link between human health and planetary health.

2020 was supposed to be a landmark year for international meetings that would set the climate and conservation agendas for the next decade. But the pandemic led to many of those being canceled or postponed. Nonetheless, many companies and governments moved forward on establishing commitments to reduce carbon emissions, while researchers and NGOs published a spate of reports on how climate change is already affecting us, and what society needs to do to address the challenge.

The pandemic caused shocks to social and economic systems around the world. Lockdowns in March and April triggered a sharp retrenchment in travel and industrial activities, leading to a decline in associated emissions and some of the clearest skies in living memory. Stock markets and the price of many commodities dropped sharply, before roaring back in subsequent months.

There was a lot of talk of the pandemic affording an opportunity to accelerate a transition toward greener development, but stimulus resources in many countries went toward emissions-intensive sectors, including fossil fuel production, heavy industry, and agribusiness.

Conservation efforts in tropical countries were especially hard hit by the pandemic. Sustainable development models and conservation projects dependent on ecotourism and research suffered from border closures, while governments in countries like Brazil and Indonesia relaxed environmental regulations and law enforcement, unleashing a spasm of illegal loggingminingland invasions, and forest clearing. Deforestation in Brazil hit the highest level since 2008.

Zacambu river and an oxbow lake in the Peruvian Amazon
The Amazon rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Energy transition

Stimulus money aside, the pandemic accelerated the global energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Interest in electric cars, solar and wind energy, and smart grids surged, while demand for legacy fossil fuels, especially coal, plunged. Governments from the U.K. to California announced plans to ban sales of new gasoline-powered cars in the next 10-15 years.

ExxonMobil lost its place on the Dow Jones industrial Average after 92 years on the index.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.