From the Amazon to the Arctic, The World’s biggest environmental stories of the year

The World
A group of school children hold signs that read "12 years left"

1. China stopped taking much of the US’s recycling

At the beginning of 2018, China set much stricter purity standards for the recycling it accepts and stopped taking two dozen different types of solid waste entirely. Mountains of recycling that used to be sold to Chinese recycling firms piled up in American cities, and cities and companies worked toward more efficient recycling programs.

A man in a vest stands next to a wall of baled paper products, about 12 feet tall and several hundred feet long.

Ben Harvey of E.L. Harvey & Sons has stored about 3,000 bales of paper in the past month that he’d normally be shipping to China. At $60 a bale, it equals about $180,000 of unsold product, about 10 percent of the company’s revenue. 


Jason Margolis/The World 

2. Cape Town avoided “Day Zero” and the city’s water kept flowing

After three years of drought, residents of Cape Town, South Africa feared the city’s reservoirs would reach such critically low levels that the city would turn off the taps. To avoid reaching “Day Zero,” Cape Town instituted stringent water consumption restrictions that had residents gathering around watering holes to fill up jugs and prompted one local radio journalist to file eight water reports a day. The city’s water-saving campaign worked, and Day Zero was eventually pushed back indefinitely. But the episode was seen as an example of what life might look like in the future as parts of the globe grow increasingly drought-prone.

Cape Town residents gather to collect water at a spring with makshift spigots ear Table Mountain. It's one of dozens of open springs across the city where residents come to collect extra water to add to their meager daily quota of 13 gallons.

Cape Town residents gather to collect water at a spring with makshift spigots near Table Mountain. It's one of dozens of open springs across the city where residents come to collect extra water to add to their meager daily quota of 13 gallons.


Daniella Cheslow/The World

3. The people of the Arctic continued to feel the impacts of climate change most acutely

The 4 million people who live in the Arctic are feeling the effects of rapid climate change more quickly than anywhere else on earth, The World reported in a special series. An Alaskan village is falling into the sea and Arctic permafrost is starting to thaw. But as the landscape around them changes, the people of the arctic are pushing for sustainability and adapting to a new normal as new business opportunities open up at the top of the world.

Students Rosie Leone, Aidan Stansberry and Ian MacDowell  are shown bundled in artic-ready clothing and walking across the ice.

"Team Radar" at work. Students Rosie Leone, Aidan Stansberry and Ian MacDowell spent most of their five days on the ice using radar to map the bed — the rock and soil hundreds of feet below the ice sheet — which can affect the movement of the ice sheet.


Amy Martin/Threshold

4. British and American scientists launched a campaign to understand melting on a massive Antarctic glacier

Science agencies in the US and the UK in April announced they would spend the next five years researching Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier, which is roughly the size of Florida and could contribute up to three feet of sea level rise if it were to collapse completely. Ice melting on Thwaites already contributes about four percent of global sea level rise, an amount that’s nearly doubled since the 1990s.

5. In the US, climate action was driven by cities, states and private businesses 

As the federal government cut regulations aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions, cities, states and private businesses continued to lead the transition to a greener economy. In September, California Governor Jerry Brown convened a global climate summit that attracted heads of state and business leaders from around the world and extracted a slew of new commitments from them, from transitioning to zero-emission vehicles to protecting forests.

Around the world, Starbucks and McDonalds launched an initiative to make their cups fully recyclable and compostable, the nation’s leading coal state looked toward wind, and PepsiCo and Levis are worked to conserve water in their manufacturing processes.

6. One year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico still struggled to recover

The first anniversary of Hurricane Maria arrived in Puerto Rico in September on an island still recovering from the devastating storm. Some residents had just gotten power back in their homes, and even as much of the island’s agricultural sector had rebounded, Puerto Rico’s coffee industry remained devastated. The island’s national forest was re-growing, but Maria highlighted concerns about the ecosystem’s ability to survive increasingly intense storms. Residents and officials recognized that while life on the island had reached a new normal, a year after Maria, Puerto Rico was still not prepared for another big storm.

houses with blue tarp roofs in Puerto Rico

Blue tarp roofs are still common in Barranquitas, in central Puerto Rico.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

7. Concerns mounted for the future of the Brazilian Amazon

As illegal logging and a “tipping point” threaten the Amazon’s ability to capture and store carbon, a new president in Brazil has promised to exploit the rainforest and roll back protections for it. Scientists are warning that as the forests fail, they’re losing their ability to regulate Earth’s climate and protect us from the impacts of rising emissions.

A barechested man wearing beads and body paint sits in a motorboat as it speeds through a muddy river

"Sometimes, when we see the trees cut down, we feel rage," says Guajajara Guardians of the Forest chief Claudio da Silva. "This is why we keep fighting, so this doesn't happen."


Sam Eaton/The World

8. Kids took center stage in the fight against climate change

Young people will feel the biggest impacts of climate change as they grow up in a warming world, and in 2018 they became some of the most visible campaigners for efforts to cut carbon emissions. A lawsuit brought by 21 young people who argue the US government violated their constitutional rights by supporting the continued use of fossil fuels wound its way through the courts. Kids and teenagers staged a massive climate march in Washington in July. And 15-year-old Greta Thunberg was a sensation at the UN climate talks in Poland in December when she told adults they “are not mature enough” to face the climate crisis head-on.

A young girl stands in front of a government building holding a sign in Swedish. Translated, it says: "School strike for the climate"

Greta Thunberg, 15, holds a placard reading "School strike for the climate" during a demonstration about climate change outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, Sweden, on Nov. 30, 2018.


Hanna Franzen/TT News Agency via REUTERS   

9. The world learned just how fast it has to act on climate change

A landmark United Nations report published in October upped the ante and sped up the clock in the fight against climate change. It found that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would significantly reduce risks from drought, extreme heat, heavy rainfall during hurricanes, and sea level rise. Meeting that target, the report found, is still technically feasible but would require “unprecedented” changes in nearly every sector, and a halving of carbon emissions by 2030. Currently, the world is on track to exceed even the 2 degree Celsius target written into the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

10. The Paris climate agreement stayed alive for another year

Delegates at a UN climate summit in Poland in December agreed on a “rulebook” that governs how countries will track and report their carbon emissions under the Paris climate agreement. But to the disappointment of low-lying island nations and developing countries, the US and other oil-rich countries blocked language “welcoming” the UN report outlining the benefits of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Some of the world’s most vulnerable nations worry that means new targets for carbon emission cuts due by 2020 won’t be as ambitious as they’d hoped.

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