The Noughties will go down in history as the decade we spent avoiding our biggest challenge.
The headlines of the decade were the terror attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. Meanwhile, we started and ended the Noughties with a stock-market collapse and recession – the dotcom crash of early 2000 and the global financial crisis of late 2008. Understandably, this all consumed a vast amount of our attention and energy.
Yet when historians look back on this era, it’s likely they will rate our inaction over the mounting global environmental crisis as the defining storyline.
Read on for the decade’s biggest green stories.
1. Techno waste. When the dotcom stock-market bubble burst in March 2000, many people thought the web would go away. Instead, in the decade that followed, the internet went on to deliver on all the promises made in the heady 90s.
From the vantage point of late 2009, it looks like print media could soon become an endangered species. Newspaper circulations are falling, magazines are closing, and millions of people consume all their news online. This should be good news, but there’s a glitch: paper consumption has not gone down a corresponding amount, the internet and computers require electricity, and there is the growing problem of techno waste.
What happens to all those dead mobile phones, computers and cables? Ideally, our electronic waste would be recycled under safe conditions. Right now, though, it is often dumped, especially in developing countries such as Ghana, where it causes health problems for local people and wildlife.
2. Boom in budget air travel. Despite fears over terrorism, the Noughties were boom years for aviation. The increased competition hurt individual airlines’ bottom lines, but consumers lapped up the cheap fares and the skies were busier than ever before.
The 2000s were an era when you could nab a ticket from London to Rome for £10 plus tax – and many people did. And although aviation currently represents only 3% of humans’ contribution to climate change, it is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse pollution.
As a result, policy makers in Britain are talking about increasing passenger taxes to try to curb our seemingly insatiable appetite for air travel. Meanwhile, the economy has caused some natural dips in supply and demand, with budget airline RyanAir posting its first loss last year and India’s aviation industry going from boom to bust.
3. Murray-Darling basin – a cautionary tale. The Murray-Darling river system irrigates some of the most fertile farming land in Australia and also provides drinking water for several towns. But the Murray-Darling basin is drying up, the result of severe drought and over a century of mismanagement.
The river system has the misfortune to flow through three states – New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria – and successive state governments have over-allocated the water, with any attempts to fix the obviously broken situation foiled by bickering and finger pointing.
In parts the once mighty Darling River has been reduced to a series of stagnating pools, while tracts of wetland at the mouth of the Murray are now as corrosive as battery acid. This should be a cautionary tale for all states and nations around the world, given that the wars of the 21st and 22nd centuries could be fought over water rather than oil or ideology. With California in its third year of drought and the problem of over-allocation in the Central Valley, policy makers in California are watching the Australian situation closely and will hopefully make wise choices.
4. Over-fishing. Who ate all the fish? Throughout the Noughties governments permitted commercial fishing fleets to wreak havoc on our oceans. We kept hauling fish out of the oceans in defiance of all scientific advice and common sense.
The decline in fish stocks is now extremely serious and so far global reductions in fishing quotas for the most threatened species such as bluefin tuna and pollock have been wholly inadequate. As if that weren’t enough, species that spawn upstream such as Pacific salmon are facing a tougher time due to pollution, damming and low flows of breeding rivers. If we don’t act fast, we could face a future with no ocean foods but seaweed and jelly fish.
5. Rainforest logging. I was a child in the 1980s when I first heard about the destruction of the Amazon jungle, which represents half the world’s remaining tropical rainforests. Even then we knew this was foolish – tropical rainforests contain a huge proportion of the world’s biodiversity, with many species as yet uncatalogued and unnamed, and also act as vital carbon sinks to offset global warming.
Sadly, the situation has only worsened since then – logging continued unabated throughout the 1990s and accelerated in the early part of the 2000s with the construction of highways through the heart of the Amazon, making it easier to access. Rainforest destruction was also rampant in other parts of the world such as Indonesia and Malaysia in South-East Asia and the Congo in Africa. (And let’s not forget that logging of old-growth forests still goes on in places like Australia, Canada and the US, as well).
Often, the timber is a secondary concern and the real goal is to access the land underneath – for mining operations, to run cattle for beef and shoe leather, grow soy beans for cattle or human consumption or plant palm oil plantations of palm trees. Although millions of hectares of rainforest were destroyed over the past decade, all is not lost – 80% of the original Amazon remains and in 2009 there were a few glimmers of hope for the wider protection of rainforests. This included major reforms in the Brazilian cattle industry and Unilever dropping an unsustainable palm oil supplier in South-East Asia, both as a result of Greenpeace reports.
6. Rise of China. One of the biggest stories of the decade has been the rise of China. In 2007, China overtook the United States to win the dubious honour of being the world’s largest polluter.
China consumes a staggering quantity of coal and oil and gas and steel and timber and other materials and its factories belch out heavy smog and toxic water, creating an environmental nightmare for the people of China.
The melamine contamination found in baby formula and pet food in 2008, and resulting deaths, was just one example of the corners being cut in the name of economic progress and profit.
At the end of the decade it seems that China flexed its new-found power at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit to ensure a weak international deal on climate change. But there’s no room to kid ourselves. All this is fueled by our demand for cheap “made in China” consumer goods. The West has effectively outsourced its production of plastic toys, cheap clothing and gadgets to the Far East and China’s carbon emissions are really ours, too.
7. Ethical shopping. The Noughties were the decade that a consumer conscience became mainstream. Sales of organic food in the US grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $20 billion by 2007, according to the Organic Trade Association. Sales of free-range eggs were due to hit two billion eggs a year in 2009 in the UK, matching a decline in battery egg sales, while from next year eggs from battery hens will no longer be sold in German supermarkets.
The 2000s also saw the rise of the Fair Trade movement, the prominence of the issue of food miles, and the growing popularity of farmers’ markets all over North America, the UK and Australia. (In the rest of the world, they never really went out of fashion in the first place).
All this was driven by heightened consciousness of the dangers of pesticides and factory farming, as books such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation flew off the shelves and movies such as Food Inc caught the zeitgeist. Ethical shopping still doesn’t count for anything close to the majority of consumer purchases, but could this be the seed of something much bigger?
8. Green cars. Environmentally friendly cars are finally here. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger has given up his Hummer. You don’t have to look very hard to find lists rating cars by how green they are – and we’re not talking about a paint job. But US consumers, who are accustomed to cheap gas and are suffering through the worst economy in generations, are still not buying them. Fortunately, policy makers are raising the emission standards of all cars.
9. Climate change. Climate change caused by human pollution was the biggest environmental story of the decade, with growing awareness helped by the success of Al Gore’s 2006 movie An Inconvenient Truth.
While computer modelling can’t predict individual weather events or even any great detail of predicted climate trends on a regional level, scientists say that in global terms the climate of the 21st century is likely to be hotter and drier on average, while the weather will also be more unpredictable. It could increase the intensity (though not the frequency) of tropical storms like Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
Attempts to solve the problem of climate change through international diplomacy, from the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 (which came into effect in 2005) to this year’s Copenhagen Accord, have fizzled. On the bright side, there have been leaps and bounds in renewable energy technology, though NIMBY-ism still prevents many wind and solar farm developments.
10. Global population. If consumption is one side of the environmental equation, population is the other. The number of humans living on the planet shot past 6 billion in 1999 and is on track to reach 7 billion by 2011, with most of the growth in developing countries. However, the global birth rate is declining as a result of the spread of female education and the availability of contraception.
The nature of a top-10 list means I’ve omitted many important environmental stories – from the puzzling collapse of bee colonies to the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin and the environmental and social devastation caused by Shell in the Niger Delta. I’d like to hear from you in the comments about the stories I’ve chosen to highlight and what other important environmental news stories, good or bad, from the past decade you think I’ve missed.
Read our list of the top 10 environmental stories of 2009 from yesterday.