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This Year Was the Beginning of a Green Transition

Elections this year also set the stage for further policies that move the global energy system away from fossil fuels. After devastating wildfires over the past few years that killed or displaced three billion wild animals and destroyed thousands of homes, the toll of climate inaction became clear to more and more Australians. In May, Australian voters booted from office a party whose approach to climate change was to deny and delay. The victorious Labor Party put climate change at the center of its platform, and independents defeated incumbent politicians in previously safe seats by running aggressive climate campaigns.

The Australian Labor government is now considering what kind of energy system it wants to build. It will have to make a particularly tough choice to turn away from coal if it wants to follow through on its climate commitments.

In October the Brazilian people chose Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as their next president, rejecting the anti-environment Jair Bolsonaro regime. After Mr. Bolsonaro came to power in 2019, there was a 50 percent increase in deforestation within six months. His policies led to an area of forest larger than Belgium being devastated in under three years.

Last month at the U.N. climate conference, Mr. Lula said he would “do whatever it takes” to achieve zero deforestation and that “climate change will have the highest priority” in his government.

But the environmental enforcement mechanisms that Mr. Bolsonaro dismantled can’t be rebuilt overnight. Even if the new president is wildly successful, these gains will be harder to lock in than changes to energy infrastructure.

The global energy disruption had its share of bad news, too. Globally, coal consumption reached an all-time high this year, as some countries searched desperately for lower-cost energy in the short term. Yet the rapid growth in renewables has almost outweighed this shift toward coal, at least in terms of carbon pollution.

This year, climate progress has been a dance. Rather than two steps forward, one step back, it’s unpredictable and improvisational. A tyrant invades a sovereign country, fossil fuels spike in price, rogue actors blow up pipelines, and heat pumps have their breakthrough moment.

It’s hard to say how things will play out. But my bet is clean energy wins the day.

Leah C. Stokes (@leahstokes) is the Anton Vonk associate professor at U.C. Santa Barbara, an adviser to Rewiring America and a host of the podcast “A Matter of Degrees.”

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