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2010 Proved Tough Year for Environment

Massive flooding, widespread forest fires, glacier melt, coral death

Electricity pylons in Beijing. China has invested $30 billion to boost energy conservation and curb greenhouse gas emissions in the past five years.
Electricity pylons in Beijing. China has invested $30 billion to boost energy conservation and curb greenhouse gas emissions in the past five years.

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Rosanne Skirble

The world in 2010 was hot. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2010 was on track to be the hottest year since record keeping began in 1880.  Many of the year's notable events were harbingers of global climate change including extreme weather, massive forest fires, widespread flooding, glacier melt and coral bleaching.

People amidst debris of burnt houses in the settlement of Tsibari in Russia's republic of Dagestan in North Caucasus where 80 percent of the village buildings were destroyed by fire.
People amidst debris of burnt houses in the settlement of Tsibari in Russia's republic of Dagestan in North Caucasus where 80 percent of the village buildings were destroyed by fire.

A warming planet was also among the top environmental stories of 2010 for Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. The independent environmental analyst says the combined impact of extreme weather, drought and forest fires in Russia caused a 40-percent drop in the country's grain harvests. "This was a huge disaster, a country that was one of the world's leading wheat exporters last year is this year going to be a net importer of grain, has banned (wheat) exports."

Displaced flood victims in Pakistan carry donated items by passing vehicles ahead of the winter weather.
Displaced flood victims in Pakistan carry donated items by passing vehicles ahead of the winter weather.

1/5 of Pakistan Flooded

Brown also saw some ominous signs on the climate horizon. He says the floods in Pakistan last July were preceded by the hottest temperature ever recorded in Asia, with the mercury climbing to a withering 53 degrees Celsius along the Indus Basin in Southern Pakistan.

"What that meant among other things is that the glaciers in the Himalayas, from which the Indus River tributaries flow, and the Indus River is the lifeline of Pakistan, even before the rains came, the flow of those tributaries was starting to swell from the accelerating ice melting."

China Surpasses the U.S. as Largest Energy Consumer

This was also the year in which China, which had surpassed the United States as the largest greenhouse gas emitter in 2009, surged past the U.S. as the world's largest energy consumer. China also set new energy efficiency targets for local governments, imposed rigorous energy standards on companies and moved ahead with construction of the world's largest high-speed rail network, involving new subways lines and rapid transit systems in dozens of Chinese cities.



U.S. Fails to Pass Climate Law, But Global Climate Negotiations Make a Comeback

World Resources Institute President Jonathan Lash says that, while the United States Congress failed to pass a climate law in 2010, numerous states acted alone or in groups to promote a clean energy agenda. They were joined by large sections of the private sector.

"Leading companies strongly support action and are continuing to invest in new products, new services that they believe necessary in a carbon constrained world and are continuing to make voluntary reductions in their own emissions," says Lash.

He was encouraged by the outcome of the United Nations environment summit held in Cancun, Mexico in late November and early December.  Representatives from 192 countries continued work on a global treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change when that accord expires in 2012. Nations in Cancun formalized commitments to reduce emissions and protect forests. They pledged by 2020 to set aside $100 billion to help poor nations adapt to climate change and a means to transfer green technology. "It was certainly a start a real start on global collective action, and global collective actions is very rare and difficult to achieve." 

The face of a young Spanish girl was one of more than a dozen public art installations across the planet photographed by satellite and aimed at raising awareness about climate change.
The face of a young Spanish girl was one of more than a dozen public art installations across the planet photographed by satellite and aimed at raising awareness about climate change.

Kenneth Green, a resident scholar and policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, advocates policies and institutions that can build economies to help nations - especially the poorer ones - become resilient in the face of climate change.  He doesn't see that happening within a United Nations framework with set emission reduction targets and time tables.

"Those hard targets are simply not materializing," he notes. "I think that there is a good reason for that which is the whole United Nations process is based on the assumption that that the developed countries are just going to suddenly flood money into the developing world, while giving up the technologies that it supposedly going to depend upon for economic growth in coming centuries."

Oil Spill Cripples America's Most Productive Fishery

Another story that captured headlines in 2010 was the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 men, and before it was capped in mid-July, the leaking well released nearly five million barrels of oil into the nation's most productive fishery. Unlike a tanker spill or a broken pipeline, this was an on-going crisis.   As the year drew to a close, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft reported that 9,000 workers were still engaged in clean-up operations with a special emphasis on restoring marshlands and beaches.

"Some of our more persistent oil is in that sand column on both recreational beaches and also on national park shorelines," he said. "In some cases it is either removed manually or we are using heavy equipment."

Extinctions & Protections

Among other environmental milestones in 2010, the blue fin tuna, a heavily-fished species on the brink of extinction, failed to gain international protection. On the other hand, Norway made a $1 billion donation to preserve forests in Indonesia, and in the waning days of 2010, the Chinese Year of the Tiger, global leaders met in St. Petersburg, Russia, agreed on a tiger recovery plan and promised money to fund it.

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