It’s not all doom and gloom on the environmental front. These positive tidings may brighten your day — and inspire you to keep doing the little things you can to be part of the solution.
Renewing Energy Sources
In 2020, renewable energy sources became the second-largest generator of electricity in the United States, surpassing nuclear and coal power for the first time, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Among these renewable sources, wind and solar power are growing at the fastest rates.
Wind-generated electricity surged by 14 percent between 2019 and 2020 and has now become our most prevalent source of renewable energy. It currently provides 8.4 percent of total U.S. electricity.
Solar power output increased by 9 percent during the same time period, both because of state legislative mandates requiring utility companies to build more renewable capacity and the rise of small-scale solar installations, such as those on homes and businesses.
The amount of energy generated by burning coal — once by far the largest source of electricity as well as one of the dirtiest — has dropped off consistently since 2007, and many coal-fired power plants have been replaced by natural-gas facilities or other lower-emission sources.
Although the prevalence of coal-fired power has decreased, we still need to take significant steps to reach President Biden’s goal of generating 100 percent carbon-pollution-free electricity by 2035. — Marco Dregni
Nearly 1.8 million electric vehicles (EVs) were registered in the United States in 2020 — a threefold increase over 2016’s numbers. EVs offer a green alternative to diesel- and gas-fueled vehicles, major sources of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. And many EV manufacturers use recycled materials to make certain components.
General Motors, Toyota, and other prominent automakers are transitioning away from internal-combustion engines and have pledged to build only EVs by 2030. Meanwhile, improved battery technology is extending the range between charges, and the number of charging stations continues to grow. Plus, those living in solar-powered homes can recharge some EV models without plugging in to the electrical grid.
Still, the lithium-ion batteries used in EVs (as well as many digital devices) rely on cobalt, a so-called blood metal that’s mined — often with child labor — primarily in Central African countries operating under corrupt governments. Cleaning up cobalt mining will be key to truly green and humane EVs. — Blessing Kasongoma
E-bikes and e-scooters skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic, with their mix of practicality, portability, and fun. U.S. e-bike sales alone grew 145 percent between 2019 and 2020. Electric two-wheelers provide freedom and unlimited options, speeding people to their destination faster than pedaling — and without all the sweat. E-bikes and e-scooters are projected to become a major force in global transportation in coming years.
Skateboards have also gone electric, including one-wheelers. These boosted boards are not made for ramps but are ideal trendy transportation. The e-skateboard market is expected to reach $2.4 billion in sales by 2025. — BK
In 2021, the oil industry was pushed to reduce emissions thanks to pressure not from the government but from shareholders and activists. For instance, Chevron shareholders voted to reduce emissions created by the company’s products, and their counterparts at Exxon elected three new board members focused on reducing the company’s carbon footprint and reliance on nonrenewable energy.
Although it remains to be seen if these votes will manifest as real-world changes, they reflect increased interest in promoting renewable energy, even within the largest oil companies. — MD
Your eco-conscious life can start with the clothes on your back: Manufacturers are turning to fabrics made from recycled plastic, bamboo, and organically grown fibers. In 2019, the global eco-fiber market was valued at $40.5 billion and is expected to grow by 4.6 percent annually in coming years. Choosing clothes made from recyclable materials can indirectly help reduce air, water, and land pollution, creating a more sustainable environment. — BK
Many American cities are adopting curbside composting programs, allowing residents to reduce landfill waste. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of municipal composting programs increased by 65 percent. These programs even help those who compost at home, because they accept items that take much longer to decompose in a nonindustrial setting, such as compostable containers, meat scraps, and egg cartons.
In cities that don’t offer curbside composting, there are still a growing number of initiatives that make it more accessible. Washington, D.C., provides workshops, rebates for home-composting systems, and drop-off locations where residents can bring compostable items. — MD
As urban populations grow, legislators, planners, and residents are confronted with the daunting task of addressing the environmental issues that stem from high-density development. They’re finding many new — and old — methods to improve life in the concrete jungle.
It’s no secret that parks are good for our health and well-being, but they are often scarce in dense urban and lower-income areas. Policymakers in Nashville, Tenn., Montreal, and other cities are addressing the lack of green space by re-naturalizing underutilized areas like alleyways and parking lots. This provides new community gathering spaces and helps reduce retained heat and water runoff.
Even where concrete is being laid for buildings and public-works projects, environmentally minded groups are seeking new opportunities to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. UCLA researchers, for example, have developed new technologies to sequester CO2 in concrete, reducing the material’s carbon footprint by more than 50 percent. — MD
Plants — They’re What’s for Dinner
Raising livestock for meat contributes almost 15 percent of total global greenhouse-gas emissions annually. Plant-based eating has blossomed in recent years as a response to this and other ethical issues, as well as a broader understanding of the health benefits — and this move is happening in homes and restaurants.
Putting a number on the trend is tough, but a 2020 food-retailer consultant’s survey found that veganism “has grown from obscurity to become a mainstream part of the American diet. Since 2004, the number of Americans turning plant-based has reached 9.7 million people, growing from around 290,000 over a period of 15 years.”
And an international restaurant-industry consultant charted a 7 percentage-point increase during the first seven months of 2020 alone in the number of surveyed customers who said that they would switch to a restaurant offering plant-based options.
First promoted during World War I, Meatless Monday is an international campaign that was reintroduced in 2003 to encourage people to reduce meat in their diets to improve their health as well as the overall health of the planet. Even Epicurious, the first website devoted exclusively to recipes, stopped publishing new beef recipes in April 2021.
These trends have inspired restaurateurs to rethink their menus. Chef Daniel Humm reopened the doors of New York City’s world-famous Eleven Madison Park after the pandemic with a menu eschewing meat and seafood. Plant-based meals are even being served in a fast-food restaurant near you: Faux-beef Impossible or Beyond Meat burgers are now on the menu at McDonald’s, Burger King, White Castle, and more. — BK
More Efficient Home Energy
American residential and commercial buildings account for some 76 percent of total electricity use. But there are a variety of ways to reduce usage at home, including replacing inefficient appliances with Energy Star–certified models, adding new insulation, and sealing leaks to stop drafts.
Federal government initiatives, such as the Weatherization Assistance Program, aim to make eco-conscious home improvement more accessible. With the assistance of local organizations and utility companies, these programs help homeowners install energy-efficient upgrades, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and lowering utility costs.
Many homeowners are also installing solar panels to reduce their energy bills and go green. The number of residential solar installations in the first quarter of 2021 was the highest ever, and the cost of installation has dropped by more than 70 percent since 2010. Even in homes unsuitable for solar panels, centralized community solar projects can provide inexpensive renewable energy. — MD
Conventional burials can have a large environmental impact from the wood and metal for caskets, concrete for vaults, and thousands of gallons of formaldehyde and other embalming chemicals. Cremation is less environmentally harmful and has become a popular alternative, but each cremated body still releases about 530 pounds of CO2.
Among the many end-of-life options, natural burials may be the most promising. The number of these eco-friendly burials increased by nearly 50 percent between 2010 and 2015. People embracing the practice are using compostable caskets made of cardboard, wicker, or even mycelium, and they’re forgoing grave liners and embalming.
A few American cemeteries focus solely on natural burials, but the concept is gaining traction in mainstream cemeteries — many are offering natural-burial options alongside conventional ones. — MD