The world now has eight billion people, according to the United Nations. The milestone, reached late this year, comes at a time when climate change is increasingly disrupting life on Earth as we know it.
Wildfires and droughts continue to rage in the American West. Floods are destroying towns. Heatwaves are making summers deadly. And the greenhouse gas emissions that worsen these disasters are increasing.
Hope, however, is not lost for all eight billion of us.
Scientists are creating new ways for us to coexist with nature, from hacking the genome of plants to creating marine reserves that protect people and the planet. Politically, the environment also won some major victories this year.
Here are six environmental wins from 2022.
1. Global climate deal addresses a longtime injustice
Some of the countries most affected by climate change have done the least to cause it. That’s why world leaders at a global climate conference—COP27—this past November agreed to a financing system that would help developing nations access financial assistance to adapt to and recover from climate change.
The deal is being hailed as historic recognition of a growing global climate injustice. Countries seeking restitution have seen their claims bolstered by what’s called “attribution science”—the science of linking individual storms, heatwaves, and other weather disasters to global climatic changes.
For example, when Pakistan was hit by deadly, catastrophic floods this summer, research showed the floods were worsened by climate change. Even though Pakistan contributed less than one percent of the world’s carbon emissions that propelled the disaster, the country was on the hook for billions in damages.
2. Protecting nature has surprising benefits for us
Marine protected areas are stretches of ocean that limit human activity to protect animal and plant species. Scientists say these reserves are important for limiting the rapid rate of extinction happening as a result of climate change and human activities like drilling, mining, and shipping.
The world’s largest marine reserve, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawai’i, has shown it not only protects marine life in the park’s boundaries, but also helps the marine life living outside its borders flourish. And, as an added bonus, it helps us, too.
A study on the reserve published this October found that boats fishing for lucrative tuna species outside of the park’s boundaries have been catching more tuna since the park was created. Scientists think these catch rates are a result of the “spillover effect” of marine reserves—meaning when fish populations in the park flourish, they “spill over” into nearby areas.
Evidence that protected areas like these can benefit both people and nature shows that more sustainable ways of doing business are possible.
3. U.S. makes historic investment in fighting climate change
In the U.S., the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was a political win for the planet. Signed into law in August, the IRA invested $369 billion in clean energy projects and incentives for energy-efficient technology such as electric vehicles.
“This is the most consequential piece of U.S. legislation for the climate ever,” Richard Newell, chief executive of Resources for the Future, a nonprofit energy research organization, told National Geographic writer Craig Welch at the time.
Scientific analysis of the bill showed it could help the U.S. more quickly transition to renewable energy. By the end of the decade, 81 percent of the country’s energy could come from sources such as wind and solar power. The bill also quietly introduced the nation’s first-ever fee on a greenhouse gas—methane, a more potent source of planet-warming pollution than carbon dioxide.
4. Hacking into the technological power of plants
As humans pump more carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere, plants—from prairie grasses to rainforest trees—play an essential role in removing that carbon from the air and storing it underground. Using CRISPR gene editing technology, scientists are embarking on an $11 million research project to try to hack photosynthesis to suck carbon out of the air more efficiently.
In addition to carbon storage, scientists are also changing how plants are grown for food. Living on an increasingly populous planet means we’ll need new ways to feed more people nutritious food grown on even less space. To do so, scientists are making strides in food innovation that rival science fiction.
Research published in June showed it was possible to grow some edible plants—including algae, edible yeast, and mushrooms—without photosynthesis. This promising first step to growing food in the dark could be useful for astronauts traveling through space or as an insight into how to make crops grow more efficiently on Earth.
Scientists are also constructing experimental greenhouses at the bottom of the sea to conserve water and energy. Photographer Luca Locatelli’s recently published photographs show an underwater farm in Italy.
5. Cracking down on plastic
Plastic is everywhere—in our water, air, and even our blood. That’s why governments, internationally and at the local level, are trying to curb the amount of plastic flowing into the environment.
In March, 175 United Nations delegates agreed to negotiate a global treaty by 2024 that would curb the flow of plastics. The treaty would legally require countries to clean up their plastic pollution, a framework that is stricter than the voluntary emissions reductions countries make under the Paris Climate Agreement.
And in June, California passed a game-changing plastics law that aims to reduce the amount of plastic in single-use products by a quarter over the next 10 years. Restricting production, instead of improving recyclability, is a significant shift in how governments tackle plastic pollution.
6. Finding ways to protect—and restore—nature
In the tropical coral reefs of Hawai’i, nature is finding a way to adapt to climate change. Two commonly found species of coral may be able to successfully live in warmer ocean temperatures, according to research published in March. This adaptation offers some hope that reefs, which experience massive die-offs during heatwaves, may survive rising temperatures.
Meanwhile, humans are giving nature a large helping hand through the rewilding movement. Rewilding is loosely defined as the process of bringing back lost plant and animal species. Scotland, which is committed to becoming the world’s first “rewilded nation,” is bringing back to life forests that have been lost for centuries.
In California and Louisiana, nature is being allowed to correct its own course. A federal energy agency recently approved a plan to demolish four dams along California’s lower Klamath River to restore critical salmon habitats. Along the Gulf Coast, Louisiana took a major step toward its plan to alter the flow of the Mississippi River delta and divert river sediment downstream—a last-ditch effort to restore the state’s disappearing shoreline.
On our radar for 2023—new regulations for drinking water.
The Environmental Protection Agency has until the end of the year to propose a new drinking water rule to address chemicals called PFAS. Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS is technically a class of chemicals that includes as many as 9,000 different iterations of the substance. They are in everyday household items: raincoats, carpet, curtains, non-stick pans. But studies show most of us have it in our blood, too—and we’re only just starting to learn about the long-term health consequences. The EPA rule would regulate two types of PFAS called PFOS and PFOA.
A drinking water standard would be a major step toward regulating PFAS in our tap water and an environmental win for next year.