DENVER -- While the COVID-19 pandemic cast a tragic shadow across the United States in 2020, environmental advocates at the national, state and municipal levels were still able to effect change this past year. Highlights included helping to enhance our country’s commitment to conserving land and wildlife, advancing renewable energy usage, decreasing plastic waste and creating cleaner transportation and water.
“By all accounts, 2020 has been a trying year, but we must take hope from the fact that so many Americans -- and their leaders -- have persevered on the environmental front and delivered concrete progress to make the planet cleaner and safer,” said Wendy Wendlandt, acting president of Environment America, a nonpartisan national advocacy group. “From Congress passing the landmark Great American Outdoors Act, to states and cities across the country doubling down on reducing single-use plastics and increasing commitments to electric vehicles and a future powered by clean energy, America is moving in the right direction on so many vital environmental issues.”
Here is a list of 2020 national and state-level environmental highlights, including work done by Environment America and its state-based affiliates from coast to coast:
Increasing Conservation: Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act. The new law permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900 million and provides $9.5 billion over five years to fix maintenance problems plaguing America’s public lands.The victory came following a series of efforts by Environment America, including mailing out LWCF face masks to lawmakers; creating lawn signs and banners; writing a steady series of op-eds; and serving as a continual presence on Capitol Hill and in congressional districts.
At the state level, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring his state to protect “30 by 30,” conserving 30 percent of its land and coastal waters by 2030. In the Austin, Texas, area, voters in Hays County overwhelmingly passed Proposition A, known as the “Hays 2020 Parks Bond” in November. It earmarked $75 million to create and expand parks to meet recreational demands and protect natural areas threatened by development.
Some corporations and financial institutions also made strides in addressing conservation issues, with pressure from Environment America and its partners. At Procter & Gamble’s annual general meeting, shareholders embraced a proposal from Green Century Fund and voted to ask P&G to report on its efforts to reduce deforestation and forest degradation in its supply chains. And, when the Trump administration announced plans to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil extraction, at least a half-dozen major banks, including Bank of America, pledged not to finance drilling in the iconic natural space.
Committing to 100% Renewable Energy: Virginia and Rhode Island both committed to 100 percent renewable energy in 2020. As the seventh state to make this pledge, Virginia became first in the South to pass a law committing to providing 100 percent carbon-free electricity to its citizens by mid-century. Later in the year, the state backed up its renewable pledge by joining Maryland and North Carolina in a meaningful offshore wind generation partnership.
The momentum didn’t stop there. Maine released an ambitious roadmap to achieve the goal of moving to 100 percent renewable energy. Also, spurred by lobbying from Environment New Jersey and other advocates, New Jersey became the first state to commit to constructing an interconnected transmission system between wind farms, helping to lower the costs of transferring the power generated offshore to the people who use it back on land. The Garden State also increased its investment in clean, renewable energy options by incorporating solar and battery storage into powering its proposed Transitgrid microgrid.
Aided by the advocacy work of Environment America’s state affiliates and campus partners, municipalities and college campuses continued to be leaders on this issue as well. Houston, Sacramento, Calif., Ann Arbor, Mich., and Savannah, Ga., were among the cities that made new or expanded commitments to 100 percent renewable energy. Institutions for higher education -- ranging from Vanderbilt University to the Austin (Texas) Community College -- also took key steps toward a cleaner, renewable future.
All told, by year’s end, with seven states and more than 150 cities pledging to power themselves with clean energy, one-third of Americans now live in a place committed to 100 percent clean or renewable energy by 2050 or sooner.
Attaining Global Warming Solutions by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions: In July, Virginia officially became the first southern state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a consortium of Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states that has worked together for more than a decade to successfully cut pollution from power plants. Elsewhere, with the support of Environment Michigan and other advocates, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer committed her state to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and, in Nevada, Environment Nevada was part of a focus group convened by the governor's climate team to help develop the state's new official climate strategy. In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards also signed an executive order setting a statewide goal for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The order represents the first commitment for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and establishes a new Climate Emissions Task Force within the Office of the Governor to develop plans to achieve the new target.
Along with those commitments, voters across the country spoke clearly about their desire to prioritize climate action. At least 88 of the 117 candidates who Environment America supported won elections in 2020, including U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who has long been one of the leading champions in DC in the fight against global warming.
Then, the December federal budget negotiations yielded a welcome year-end present in the form of meaningful climate legislation. This included increased funding for renewable and energy efficiency programs, and a landmark deal to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are especially potent greenhouse gases.
Recalibrating the transportation sector to arrive at “Destination: Zero Carbon”: Environment America’s national and state staff continued to gain traction in their efforts to promote electric vehicles (EVs). In New Jersey, for example, Environment New Jersey was involved in getting the state to enact a sweeping EV bill that mandates: meeting obligations under the Advanced Clean Cars Program; building a statewide high-speed EV charging network on major roadways and in downtowns; providing EV buyers rebates of up to $5,000; and having NJ Transit purchase only electric buses by 2032.
California remained a leader in the EV revolution on a number of fronts. In September, Gov. Newsom signed an executive order calling for all new cars and passenger trucks sold in California to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035. To increase necessary EV infrastructure, the governor also signed a bill into law that, among other energy efficiency measures, increased the number of charging stations statewide. (California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program, which sets important emissions standards, also welcomed a new state member to its fold. Washington became the 12th state to adopt the ZEV program. With this new law, Washington joins the rest of theWest Coast as part of this critical program to get more electric cars on the road.
Other positive developments that dovetailed with Environment America’s advocacy work included: a first-of-its-kind agreement between 15 states for zero-emission trucks that sets targets for achieving full electrification of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles by 2050; General Motors’ decision to launch 30 new electric car models by 2025 and withdraw from litigation supporting the Trump administration’s effort to block states from setting their own tough tailpipe emissions standards; and multistate utility Xcel Energy announcing plans to drastically increase the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road in the coming decade by, among other things, investing $300 million in Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota and Wisconsin with the goal of increasing overall EV totals to 1.5 million by 2030.
In the final days of the year, three states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut) and Washington, D.C., signed the landmark Transportation and Climate Initiative Program (TCI-P). The regional program, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, will invest in clean transportation projects, including zero emission electric vehicles, expanded public transit options and walking/biking infrastructure.
Banning single-use plastics as part of a commitment to choose “Wildlife Over Waste”: From states to universities, the march to minimize single-use plastics made progress this year. In a win for wildlife and waterways, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed the strongest single-use plastics ban in the nation into law in November. The new standard, which will go into effect in the spring of 2022, prohibits single-use plastic bags and polystyrene, restricts straws to by-request only, and phases out paper bags at larger grocery stores. In the West, Washington also enacted a consequential law in this space, becoming the eighth state to ban single-use plastic bags.
In Maryland, the state’s ban on polystyrene foam cups and containers, which was passed in March, went into effect this October. While Maryland initiated new restrictions, MASSPIRG, a sister group to Environment America, fought to reinstate an old one. In March, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker made an emergency order suspending a plastic ban bag as part of the state’s COVID-19 protocol. But, when it was clear that the ban did not offer any additional COVID-19 protection, a coalition of advocates was able to get the commonwealth to lift the suspension.
At the municipal level, Baltimore banned plastic grocery bags and Tampa, Fla., passed an ordinance prohibiting polystyrene foam sales on public property. The University of California, spurred by CalPIRG Students, another sister group of Environment America’s, also took a big step in the right direction on this issue. The college system announced in August that it is phasing out single-use plastics on all campuses and expects to complete the process by 2030.
Ensuring clean water by closing loopholes, stopping ‘forever chemicals’ and making sure we “Get the Lead Out”: When the Environmental Protection Agency announced in March that it would no longer enforce key provisions of environmental laws during the coronavirus pandemic, Environment America launched a campaign to close this pandemic polluter loophole. After considerable public outcry, EPA ended the policy on Aug. 31. Clean water also earned a win in New Jersey in April, when the state announced it would apply one of its strongest clean water protections to 600 miles of rivers and streams.
As part of its No Toxics on Tap campaign, Environment America and its affiliates also fought to end the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are often dubbed ‘forever chemicals’ and persistently impact our health and environment through tainted water. In Massachusetts, state officials announced new regulations in September to minimize the use of toxic PFAS. In Michigan, Environment Michigan’s Nathan Murphy testified at a public hearing in support of emergency PFAS rules, which went into effect in August. That same month, the California State Legislature passed a landmark bill, which would require phasing out the sales of PFAS-laden firefighting foam to local fire departments, chemical plants and oil refineries.
The fight to get lead out of drinking water also continued nationwide in 2020, with our efforts often leading to tangible change. At the federal level, John Rumpler, who is Environment America’s clean water campaign senior director, testified before Congress on this issue. In Minnesota, a coalition that included Environment Minnesota successfully pressed for the biggest investment in water infrastructure via bonding in years. Elsewhere, our network convinced the San Diego Unified School District to adopt an ambitious plan in February to prevent lead contamination by replacing water fountains with 2,000 new water stations, installing filters, with a goal of keeping lead below levels recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Environment America and its state affiliates in more than two dozen states will keep fighting in 2021 for clean air, clean water, clean energy, wildlife and open spaces. We are devising our plans for the new year and will share those with you next week.