2015 was a breakthrough year for the environment. Here's why.

Fred Krupp

While data suggests that 2015 will likely go down as the hottest year on record, this has also been a year when we’ve made extraordinary environmental progress in five key areas. We have the numbers to prove it.

1. Most Americans now want climate action – and they’re being heard

Clean Power Plan, finalized this year, puts the first-ever national limits on pollution from United States power plants – our single largest source of greenhouse gases.

The numbers show the plan is a win on multiple fronts, and another data set offers further encouragement: An October poll found that 76 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening, including 59 percent of Republicans. That’s up from 47 percent among Republicans as recently as March.

As my colleague Keith Gaby noted recently, the fight over climate change or the Clean Power Plan isn’t over. But with the changing attitudes among Americans everywhere, the shift in the political landscape is clear.

We’re finally moving in the right direction.

2. Nations step up to the plate to cut emissions

When it comes to sheer numbers, it’s hard to top China, with the world’s largest population and the most greenhouse gas emissions of any nation.

Seven carbon trading pilots are now underway in five cities and two provinces in China, covering 250 million people and a quarter of China’s gross domestic product. These markets are giving the nation’s top leadership the experience and confidence it needs to launch a national carbon market in 2017.

Getting the emissions numbers right is key to viable markets, however, and in 2015 we saw China taking important steps to verify this crucial data. The country also standardized calculations of greenhouse gas emissions from 10 major industries.  

Data will also be the foundation of a successful climate agreement in Paris – and what comes after Paris. Today, we’re seeing countries prioritizing good baseline emissions data in a way they haven’t before, all with the goal of meeting their climate targets.

3. A new era between the U.S. and Cuba brings relief for troubled ocean

The normalization of political relations between the U.S. and Cuba began to yield another data boon as our countries embarked on a project to map and inventory marine life in the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico.

With new and high-quality data, scientists from both countries are able to better manage fish populations and critical habitats in a collaborative way. Boosting marine science in our shared waters is of vital interest to both countries. 

4. Sensor technology shows the way

In 2015, a new generation of electronic sensors continued to make what used to be invisible, visible – resulting in some remarkable developments.

Last spring, I was among 28 people who wore a special wristband for a week to detect chemicals in my environment. The results were troubling. For example, 24 of the wristbands detected various types of toxic flame retardants, seven kinds in all.

Sensor technology such as these simple wristbands could be powerful and actionable, particularly when combined with the best chance in a generation to update our toxic chemicals policy.

5. Methane data inspires change, business growth

Five years ago, there was a critical lack of data on emissions of methane, a potent and rapidly growing greenhouse gas. So my colleague Steven Hamburg organized a massive collaboration with more than 100 academic institutions, think tanks and energy companies to conduct a series of 16 research projects.

The data that surfaced led last year to Colorado’s first-in-a-nation rules to slash methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by more than 30 percent.

This and other state efforts, in turn, prompted the Obama administration in early 2015 to set a goal to reduce U.S. methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, which was followed by a proposal for the first-ever national rules to directly regulate this potent pollution.  

A burgeoning methane mitigation industry is now turning methane data into high-paying jobs.

Just the beginning

We want to attach a data-driven market cost to climate pollution, clear the thicket of regulations to open markets to clean energy entrepreneurs, and get the incentives right so that the market rewards farmers and fishermen who become stewards of land and water.

Such stewards include not only the farmers on 750,000 acres in 12 states who have cut fertilizer loss by an average 25 percent over the past decade, but also several international food companies that stepped up efforts in 2015 to improve growing practices for their products.  

In all, these companies have pledged to cut fertilizer runoff and soil loss on 23 million acres across the continent by 2020, which will improve water quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

2015 was a year data helped drive progress in all these areas. What’s in store for 2016?