Five environmental bright moments from an otherwise abysmal year

In August, we received our first holiday card of 2020. It came from our brilliant and goofy friends who took pictures of themselves, their kids and their dog wearing elf hats in their summer garden cheerfully wishing this abysmal year would end already.

Good news

Yes, there has been some good news on planet Earth in 2020

In August, we received our first holiday card of 2020. It came from our brilliant and goofy friends who took pictures of themselves, their kids and their dog wearing elf hats in their summer garden cheerfully wishing this abysmal year would end already. 

Photo credit: Brian Yellen

There’s no denying 2020 that has been tough. A global pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of Americans dead from COVID-19, many of them unnecessarily. Inspirational leaders of both the civil rights movement (Rep. John Lewis) and women’s movement (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) passing on. 

Finding good news during the COVID-19 pandemic can seem like a tough task, but amidst all the bad there was some incredibly inspiring good. And so, in the spirit of that early holiday card, here’s my round-up of five environmental bright moments in 2020.

Coal is becoming a thing of the past: After weeks of lockdowns, which included non-essential industries shut down and very limited interstate travel, many people noticed an unexpected silver lining: improved air quality in their communities. Thankfully, as shelter-in-place mandates ended, progress continued to ensure that cleaner air will be part of our future. Announcements of imminent coal plant closures came from all across the globe. In Georgia, Arizona and Colorado, the owners of coal plants set closing dates, with shutdowns in Colorado coming years ahead of schedule. The United Kingdom, which is the birthplace of modern coal power, set a 2024 deadline to phase out the polluting fuel. South Korea announced on Sept. 8 that it plans to close 30 of its coal-fired power plants by 2034.

A historic conservation bill was signed into law: The Great American Outdoors Act passed through Congress and was signed into law this August. The historic conservation bill guarantees permanent full funding of $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and $9.5 billion over five years to fix maintenance problems plaguing America’s public lands. For years, Environment America has prioritized LWCF, which is America’s best conservation and recreation program thanks to its role in supporting every type of outdoor space from national parks to local ballfields. To urge lawmakers to invest in America’s great outdoors, Environment America passed out LWCF face masks to lawmakers; created lawn signs and banners; wrote a steady series of op-eds; and served as a continual presence on Capitol Hill and in congressional districts.

Congressman Mike Levin sports the LWCF mask that Environment America gave him to show his support for the Great American Outdoors Act. (Photo Credit: Mike Levin)

One-third of Americans live in a community committed to 100 percent renewable energy: Rhode Island and Virginia joined the ranks of states committed to repowering themselves with 100 percent clean energy this year. As a result, fully one-in-three Americans now live in a community committed to phasing out fossil fuels and other polluting sources of energy.

America’s most populous state commits to phasing out new gas-powered cars by 2035: On Sept. 23, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that his state will adopt the most ambitious climate action policy in America: A requirement that all new cars and passenger trucks sold in California by 2035 be zero-emission vehicles. After 2045, the same requirement will apply to trucks and buses. 

California has more registered cars than any other state, so action taken on vehicles there impacts America’s total emissions and the broader electric vehicle (EV) market. The California announcement is likely to have an even greater ripple effect because nine states, along with California, which represent 27 percent of the country’s population — have adopted zero-emission vehicle standards that are linked to what California does. Imagine: If one-in-four Americans live in a state where new gas-powered cars will be banned by 2035, the transition to all-electric cars could accelerate overnight. 

In 2014, Environment California’s advocate Michele Kinman (pictured here) led a coalition in launching the Charge Ahead California campaign to put 5 million electric vehicles on California roads, paving the way to Newsom’s historic announcement (photo credit: Jonathen Davis)

Congress worked to get the lead out: Two significant events happened in the U.S. House of Representatives this summer to fix the problem of lead in our drinking water. In early July, the House passed an amendment to the Moving Forward Act. This change would provide $22.5 billion to replace lead service lines, which is the single worst source of lead contamination in drinking water. The bill is now waiting for a vote in the U.S. Senate. Later in July, the House introduced the Get the Lead Out Act, which sets a 10-year deadline to replace lead service lines. If enacted, both pieces of legislation have the potential to remove millions of toxic lead pipes.

Combating climate change, protecting our public lands and ensuring a sustainable future are all things that can’t be put on hold — even in the face of a global health crisis. When I send out my holiday cards this year, I plan to include a thank you to all the advocates, lawmakers and community members across the country who have worked tirelessly to ensure that when we come out on the other side of the pandemic, we will be a greener and healthier society. 

Looking for more good news? Check out Environment America’s weekly Good as News newsletter


Johanna Neumann

Senior Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Johanna directs strategy and staff for Environment America's energy campaigns at the local, state and national level. In her prior positions, she led the campaign to ban smoking in all Maryland workplaces, helped stop the construction of a new nuclear reactor on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and helped build the support necessary to pass the EmPOWER Maryland Act, which set a goal of reducing the state’s per capita electricity use by 15 percent. She also currently serves on the board of Community Action Works. Johanna lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family, where she enjoys growing dahlias, biking and the occasional game of goaltimate. 

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