The top 10 enviro stories of 2014

It may have been the hottest year on record weather-wise, but 2014 will also go down as a year in which hope for a greener future took to the streets

1. Canada remains best at being the worst

Sadly, the federal government generally sucked as hard as it can possibly suck on all environmental fronts. In 2014 we learned Canada is the world’s worst when it comes to fragmenting pristine natural forests. Canada was also deemed a bottom scraper when it comes to protecting marine areas from development, finishing behind China. The only area where we slipped to second-worst among industrialized countries was climate action. Australia now has that dishonour after its new conservative government spent the year reversing climate change policies. Still, we seem destined to reclaim that dubious mantle: it looks like we’ll miss our 2020 climate targets by a good 20 per cent.

2. Bee-killers get stung

The year started out with grim news from Canadian apiarists: nearly 60 per cent of Ontario bees died over the winter. But Ontario stepped up last month, becoming the first jurisdiction in North America to commit to regulating neonicotinoid pesticides, fingered as one of the biggest culprits in the collapse of bee populations. Health Canada also agreed that neonic use is “unsustainable,” but went on to approve a handful of new neonic and neonic-related pesticides anyway. Meanwhile, fed-up Canadian beekeepers filed a $450 million class action suit in September against pesticide makers Bayer Inc. and Syngenta International AG to help recoup their losses. The suit claims the companies have been negligent in their duty to inform farmers of the potential harms of the pesticides.

3. Divestment tide rising

Desmond Tutu, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and World Bank head Jim Yong Kim all threw their support behind fossil fuel divestment in 2014. Also this year, Stanford University announced it would dump all coal investments. Glasgow University became the first European school to ditch such investments. Then, just last month, Montreal’s Concordia U said it would give divestment a try, starting with a $5 million fund for ethical investments. The biggest boost, though, came this fall when more than 800 big-bucks investors, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the World Council of Churches, announced they would be pulling a jaw-dropping $50 billion out of fossil fuel investments over the next five years.

4. GMO food fight gets messy

The past 12 months have been an intense David and Goliath battle for advocates of GMO labelling. Big Food managed to crush labelling laws in Colorado and Oregon with pricey ads claiming the change would cost consumers hundreds of dollars a year more in grocery bills. Funny, they never mentioned the health or environmental risks of GMOs. On the bright side, Maui brought in a ban on GMO farming on the Hawaiian isle. And Vermont became the first U.S. state to approve labelling. In response, four food trade groups are now suing Vermont, and Monsanto just launched its own suit against Maui.

5. Suzuki’s last big push

On what was touted as his last national tour, David Suzuki managed to convince a growing number of towns that we need to legally enshrine our right to clean air, water and soil if we want long term access to a healthy environment. So far Vancouver, Richmond and Yellowknife have signed municipal declarations on the issue and 30 other communities are pushing for similar pledges. The long-game is to have Canada join the 110 nations that have already constitutionialized the right to a healthy environment.

6. Palm oil’s rainforest-friendly revolution

What a difference a year makes. Big-name food and beauty brands have, one after another, pledged to clean up their act on rainforest-clearing, peat-bog-destroying, orangutan-killing, human-rights-violating palm oil. Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Colgate-Palmolive and Mars, as well as most major palm suppliers, have pledged to use deforestation-free palm oil in their products. Even donut makers and the president of Indonesia have jumped on board. Now a whopping 96 per cent of the world’s palm oil production is covered by one no-deforestation policy or another. But not all are equally rigorous – or kick in any time soon – so don’t assume palm oil is now an über-eco ingredient in your soap or snack foods.

7. Bad news for butterflies, cows and tuna

It was an emotional roller coaster of a year for animal lovers. The number of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico hit record lows. Canada successfully lobbied to up international fishing quotas for endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna. And on the farm, undercover video footage from Canada’s largest dairy producer revealed appalling conditions, sparking a Saputo boycott. The good news: Ontario and Quebec’s veal industries pledged to phase out veal crates by 2018. Major grocers like Loblaw, Sobeys and Costco have all signed on. And more than 100 countries agreed to beef up protections for 31 migratory species, including polar bears and sharks.

8. Great Lakes highs and lows

Two invisible pollutants made headlines for mucking up the Great Lakes in 2014: endocrine-disrupting antibacterial triclosan and the fish-damaging plastic microbeads found in face washes and body scrubs. In 2014, Minnesota became the first U.S. state to ban triclosan from soaps and cleaners, and Illinois became the first to ban microbeads. But while the U.S. is getting ready to eliminate triclosan from products by 2016 and a federal bill there hopes to oust microbeads nation-wide, we haven’t heard a peep from Health Canada or Environment Canada on either pollutant in an awfully long time. Thankfully, vital research on the impact of chemicals on freshwater was brought back from the dead, reviving northwestern Ontario’s world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area.

9. The tar sands’ very bad year and the rise of pipeline resistance

As the price of oil takes a dramatic nosedive, so does Stephen Harper’s oil-centred economic action plan, making his re-election bid more slippery. Trying to pipe the sticky stuff across the country with bigger pipeline projects has only bred a whole new generation of activist resistance. Enbridge’s Northern Gateway has hit a wall of First Nations and community opposition Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion plans, chased out of Burnaby, BC, are in doubt and TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline dreams are entangled in delays and bad PR. The premiers of Ontario and Quebec seem to be backing away from climate-related conditions they placed earlier this year on Energy East approval. But it may not matter. Harper’s oil or nothing agenda is tanking. 

10. The long march to a global climate deal

On the climate front, 2014 was all about whipping up political momentum and laying the groundwork for next year’s global climate talks in Paris, our big shot at staving off a disastrous 2° Celsius rise in global temps. The fall crackled with hope as hundreds of thousands flocked to NYC to crank up the heat on leaders at the New York Climate Summit. Then came the “game changer,” the U.S.-China climate pact, which was supposed to be a shot in the arm to the next round of climate negotiations in Lima. Sadly, that didn’t materialize, and little of substance came out of those just-concluded talks. Expect a blowout battle for hearts and minds in 2015. | @ecoholicnation

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