Eye on Earth: 2009 Year in Review

Worldwatch looks back at this year in environmental news, picking the most notable stories posted to Eye on Earth over the past 12 months.


Climate: Ocean acidification, "the other CO2 problem," receives wider attention as more than 150 marine scientists from 26 countries urge world leaders to take action. Australian scientists announce that the Great Barrier Reef is growing at its slowest rate in 400 years, one of several marine ecosystems threatened by acidification.

Read more: Scientists Sound Alarm on Ocean Acidification

Energy: The International Renewable Energy Agency, the first multi-governmental body to focus exclusively on the global development of renewable energy sources, is formed. Delegates choose Abu Dhabi as the agency's headquarters and French diplomat Hélène Pelosse as its director general.

Read more: 75 Countries Sign onto New Clean Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi Chosen to Host IRENA, IRENA Politics May "Taint" Agency, Advocates Say, and Interviews with IRENA Director General Nominees Hélène Pelosse, Arthouros Zervos, and Hans Jǿrgen Koch


Economy: The United States passes its economic recovery bill, a $787 billion program labeled as the largest energy bill ever created due to its support for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and "smart" electric grids. China, the European Union, South Korea, and Japan also include various "green job" measures in their stimulus packages. Altogether, some $436 billion, or 15.6 percent, of recovery funds help to mitigate climate change, according to the bank HSBC.

Read more: Countries Turn to Green Jobs for Economic Growth, OPINION: U.S. Climate Funds Increase, Future Levels in Doubt, and Worldwatch Report: Green Jobs: Working for People and the Environment

Pollution: The United Nations Environment Programme's Governing Council agrees to initiate negotiations on an international treaty to reduce global supplies of mercury, a neurotoxin increasingly prevalent in human populations.

Read more: Global Mercury Negotiations Commence

Climate: Activists descend on the U.S. capital for the largest collection of climate change rallies and protests in United States history. The protestors called for the United States to pass climate legislation and forge a legally binding international climate treaty.

Read more: Climate Change Activists Pour into D.C., Climate Protests Escalate Worldwide


Biodiversity: The United Nations forms the Global Industry Alliance with major shipping industries to limit the number of invasive species transferred in ballast water, the leading cause of marine alien species introduction.

Read more: Alliance Formed to Limit Invasive Species

Climate: Some 2,500 climate scientists from 80 countries meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, to update the science of global warming ahead of December's major U.N. summit. The scientists' conclusion, that many of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's worst-case scenarios are being observed already, is reiterated in a United Nations Environment Programme report in September.

Read more: Climate Change Outpaces Predictions, State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World

Population: The U.N.'s biennial report on world population raises its optimistic "low" projection to 117 million more people worldwide in 2050. The "most likely" estimate predicts a world with 9.2 billion people by mid-century, up from nearly 6.8 billion today.

Read more: U.N. Raises "Low" Population Projection for 2050, United Nations Population Fund's State of World Population


Climate: The United States welcomes leaders from the world's largest economies to a Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in Washington, D.C. Leaders from the industrialized and developing worlds discuss climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as technology transfer and finance, at four meetings held throughout the year.

Read more: OPINION: Climate Forecast Bright for Major Economies Meeting


Pollution: The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) bans an additional nine harmful chemicals, such as agricultural pesticide lindane. Activists warn that exemptions may allow health concerns to persist for generations.

Read more: Chemical Treaty Covers Additional Pollutants

Biofuels: The United States, the world's leading producer of biofuels, proposes to ensure that the fuels benefit climate by measuring lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with production. The Environmental Protection Agency meanwhile considers whether to allow more ethanol blended with nationwide gasoline stocks-a decision to be announced in mid-2010.  

Read more: United States Considers Biofuel Emissions, United States Considers Ethanol Blend Increase, and Worldwatch Report: Red,White, and Green: Transforming U.S. Biofuels


Climate: The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passes a cap-and-trade bill to lower greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The legislation later moves to the Senate, where it stalls amid a drawn-out healthcare debate.

Read more: Trade Concerns Raised in U.S. Climate Debate, Climate Debate Overlooks Small Businesses, Expanded Coalitions Support U.S. Climate Bill, OPINION: Turn up the Heat in the Climate Battle, and As U.S. Climate Bill Stalls, Global Treaty Languishes

Pollution: A strict Chinese limit on ultra-thin plastic bags significantly reduces bag-related pollution nationwide and enables the country to avoid the use of 40 billion bags, according to government estimates.

Read more: China Reports 66-Percent Drop in Plastic Bag Use, Plastic Bag Ban Trumps Market and Consumer Efforts, and New Bans on Plastic Bags May Help Protect Marine Life


Diplomacy: Delegates at a meeting of the G8, the industrialized world's eight largest economies, agree to provide $20 billion for international food security and to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above 1900 levels.

Read more: OPINION: Obama Says Teach a Man to Fish, OPINION: Climate Wake-Up Call In Italy

Business: Walmart, the world's largest retailer, announces that global suppliers must evaluate and disclose the full environmental costs of their products. The information may be used to develop the first global sustainability labeling scheme.

Read more: Wal-Mart Scrutinizes Supply-Chain Sustainability, More Corporations Are "Greening" Supply Chains


Energy: India reveals plans to expand solar energy from 3 megawatts currently to 20 gigawatts by 2020 and 200 gigawatts by 2050. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the sun will occupy "center stage" in India's climate strategy.

Read more: India Announces Groundbreaking Solar Plan, India Launches Solar Mission, Seeks International Support, and India Steps Up Climate Change Efforts

Climate: Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd struggles to gain support for his national climate change policy. Competing interests from fossil fuel industries, environmentally minded legislators, and economic conservatives lead the Senate to defeat cap-and-trade legislation in August and again in December. Rudd is expected to make his third attempt in February 2010.

Read more: Climate Change Politics Floods Australian Parliament

Energy: The United States approves a crude oil pipeline to connect refineries in the state of Wisconsin with oil sand operations in Alberta, Canada. Environmentalists raise concerns that the energy source threatens boreal forests and releases three times as much greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional oil.

Read more: Oil Sands Could Threaten Millions of Migratory Birds


Climate: More than 100 national leaders gather at a United Nations climate change summit, including U.S. president Barack Obama and Chinese president Hu Jintao, but the speeches provide little clarity about what the major polluters will offer at December's climate negotiations.

Read more: World Leaders Short on Details at Climate Summit

Climate: North American countries support Micronesia's proposal that all nations reduce the consumption and production of HFCs, chemicals that had been favored in efforts to heal the ozone layer but that also contribute to climate change.

Read more: Momentum Grows to Limit Climate-Warming Chemicals


Biodiversity: Following a military coup in Madagascar, lawlessness coupled with a decline in foreign aid leads to increased deforestation that threatens some of the island's most unique ecosystems.

Read more: Political Unrest Portends Ecological Ruin in Madagascar


Biodiversity: The 2009 update of the Red List of Threatened Species reports that 17,291 species are threatened with extinction and an additional 11 species are now extinct outside of captivity.

Read more: Degraded Habitats Push More Species to Extinction

Climate: Months of negotiations between the United States and China yield a joint clean energy research facility and an agreement that China will inventory its greenhouse gas emissions with U.S. help. Weeks later, the world's two largest emitters announce emission reduction goals for December's climate summit: the United States will cut emission 17 percent below 2005 levels (or 5.5 percent below 1990) and China will lower carbon emissions 45 percent relative to the growth of its economy by 2020.

Read more: Report Outlines U.S.-China Climate Opportunities, China Gradually Improves Environmental Transparency


Climate: India announces a voluntary plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20-25 percent relative to economic growth (carbon intensity) compared to 2005 levels, if the country receives international support. The pledge follows announcements that India will increase solar energy and provide energy-efficient biomass stoves to rural residents.

Read more: India Announces Improved Cook Stove Program, India Launches Solar Mission, Seeks International Support

Climate: World leaders gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, in an effort to forge a climate change agreement that would succeed the Kyoto Protocol and put the world on a low-carbon development plan. The resulting political agreement, which "notes" that efforts should be made to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, is widely recognized as a disappointment. In addition, government leaders agree to provide $100 billion by 2020 to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to climate-related damages.

Read more: Finance Disagreements Loom Over Copenhagen Summit, Climate Negotiators Push for "Solution" Rather Than Treaty, Climate Negotiators Discuss "Hierarchy" of Survival, World's First Climate Change Hearing Staged in Copenhagen, OPINION: Escape from Copenhagen, and Despite Disappointment, Climate Summit Marks High Point for Activist Movement