Welcome to 2017. Pollution is going to be a big topic this year, particularly of the air and sea. Air pollution is the world's biggest environmental health risk, costing the lives of 7 million people every year. On sea pollution, more countries are taking action against marine litter that is clogging ecosystems and endangering food chains. To keep these urgent issues high on national agendas, pollution is the focus of this year’s UN Environment Assembly in December. Other major issues that are poised to make headlines: oceans, endangered species, sustainable finance and green economy, and renewable energy.
Global action ramps up against invisible killer
The weeks leading up to 2017 saw hazy air make headlines in major cities in China, Iran and Europe. These cities are experiencing more frequent spikes in high levels of air pollution at a time when more people are moving into cities every year. Not only is air pollution the world's biggest killer, it is also a rising economic liability, as visibility in iconic cities plummets more frequently.
More than 80 per cent of people living in cities are exposed to air quality levels that exceed World Health Organization (WHO) limits. In October last year, UNICEF found that air pollution killed 600,000 children under the age of five each year and sickened millions more.
But governments, cities and ordinary citizens are fighting back against the silent killer. Last year, the mayors of Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens committed to banning all diesel-powered cars and trucks by the middle of the next decade. And just last month, the governments of five West African countries agreed to introduce strict diesel fuel and vehicle emissions standards that could improve the lives of 250 million people. Expect more similar action in the future.
Catch the launch of UN Environment’s #BreatheLife campaign this year. Be on the look-out for crucial decisions on air pollution at the December UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi.
Reclaim the beaches and ditch the microbeads
Dramatic photos from last year’s Versova Beach cleanup in Mumbai, showing more plastic than sand, shocked the extent of the marine litter problem into popular consciousness. Every year, massive volumes of plastic find their way to the oceans, where they remain for hundreds of years, wreaking havoc on fisheries and ecosystems.
Expect more bans on plastic microbeads. Commonly found in body scrubs and toothpaste, these bits of plastic between the size of a virus and an ant linger in the ocean and eventually find their way into our food chain.
The momentum is likely to continue in 2017, with microbeads to be completely banned in the United States, and likely in the United Kingdom.
Look out for UN Environment campaign on #CleanSeas against plastic pollution driving this surge of action and awareness.
Oceans are going to be BIG in 2017
This year, we’re expecting more announcements on new marine protected areas, as ocean ecosystems come under increasing stress from climate change, population growth and plastic waste.
There is comprehensive scientific evidence that shows marine protected areas are good for marine biodiversity and fish stocks— which is welcome news, considering that 90 per cent of fish stocks are either overfished or fully-fished and a growing number of coral reefs, the cradle of life in the ocean, are bleaching due to environmental pressure.
Even more wins for vulnerable species
As we stand on the brink of what scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction event, this time driven by humans, governments are fighting to protect vulnerable species: 2016 saw firm action against the killing and trafficking of endangered species, and 2017 is likely to see this work ramp up.
Last year closed on the news that China was banning its ivory trade and moving against elephant poaching. In 2017, international meetings in Bonn and Manila are expected to yield key decisions by governments to protect migratory species.
The 2017 World Environment Day will focus on connecting people to nature and helping them appreciate the variety of life on our planet.
Here comes the sun: solar powers to new heights
Back in 2015, Deutsche Bank predicted that solar energy would reach the same price or be cheaper than fossil fuel energy in 80 per cent of the global market by 2017. It remains to be seen if that prediction was right, but one thing's certain – solar is making some remarkable strides despite low oil prices.
2015 was the first year in history in which developing countries installed more renewable energy than developed ones; investment in fossil fuels was just half of that in renewables. The latest Bloomberg New Energy Finance research showed that solar became the cheapest source of new energy in 58 developing countries, and the World Economic Forum estimated recently that solar should reach grid parity in the next few years in around two thirds of the world.
Expect more good news on the renewable energy front in the first half of the year, when UN Environment releases the 2017 edition of its Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment report.
New leaders responsible for global climate action
Newly-elected governments in several major economies will be responsible for climate action now and up to 2020. What happens during this period is crucial —the extent of action taken will have a significant impact on the feasibility of staying below the 2°C ceiling of the Paris Agreement and, just as importantly, on the cost of action beyond 2020.
Adding to the many eyes that will be trained on climate change during this important period, UN Environment’s annual Emission Gap Report and Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment Report will track the world’s ability to meet the Paris Agreement targets.
Green economy and sustainable finance
Sustainability in business and finance remains an emerging issue, but 2016 has shown encouraging signs that attitudes are changing and investments are being channelled into sustainable growth— among them, the record volume of green bonds issued: 81 billion dollars’ worth, twice the 2015 number.
Sustainable finance and green economy were put firmly on the G20 agenda last year by China, and the bloc's green finance push will likely continue under this year’s German presidency.