Two of these you've no doubt already seen on Scientific American's annual Top 10 list:
I'll add them here, because they are important, but with a few new thoughts:
(1) Global Warming
Could be the top energy and environment story of every year since the Industrial Revolution, but 2014 was the best of times for climate change:
and the worst of times for climate change:
2015 is going to be another big year to see whether the world is serious about curbing global warming. And then there's the polar vortex, epic droughts and other weird weather to look forward to this year.
(2) Synthetic Chromosome
Yeast is nice and all. I mean who doesn't like beer and bread? But what I really want to see from CRISPR or some of the other latest synthetic biology techniques is souped-up photosynthesis or, even better, plants that fix their own nitrogen out of the air like the legumes. Honestly, the fact that Monsanto hasn't done this and that there doesn't seem to be much research funded in this area suggests to me it's either really hard or chemical companies that make fertilizer are working to make sure this doesn't happen. It's probably both. When it does happen, our yield growth problems may be over permanently, though there could be downsides too.
(3) Solar War
South Carolina just became the 44th state to give homeowners credit for any electricity generated on their rooftops by the sun. Solar at home has spread from traditional enclaves like California, Hawaii and Arizona to less predictable places like Georgia. Utilities, fearing dwindling revenue, have launched a counterattack, enlisting some Republicans as allies. But libertarians and liberals have banded together to fight back, in Georgia under the banner of the "Green Tea Coalition."
(4) Coal Still Dirty
Coal is nasty stuff, but the chemicals used to wash it may be even worse.
This past January, residents of West Virginia were reminded of that when MCMH spilled into the water supply. Redolent of licorice, the chemical discolored water for 300,000 residents of the state capital, Charleston, and forced officials to suggest not using tap water for more than a week.
Elsewhere, the toxic residue left over after coal is burned—coal ash—leaked from an impoundment pond and into the Dan River in North Carolina. Just two more reminders this year of the dirty business of coal.
(5) Algae Attack Toledo
A bloom of toxic algae poisoned the water supply of Toledo, Ohio this past summer, a disaster years in the making. Runoff from surrounding farms prompt such blooms every summer, and this year the blooms found their way into the city's water supply, forcing a shutdown of the taps.
(6) Frack Attack
New York State became the first major gas-producing state to ban fracking—the controversial technique of blasting shale rock with high-pressure, chemically treated water to free natural gas trapped inside. Citing unknown health risks, the New York State Department of Health recommended against lifting the de facto moratorium in place since 2008.
But this year China launched an all out attempt to bring fracking to its shale in a bid to cut the country's reliance on coal, which has produced choking smog:
And, yes, more global warming:
(7) Population Fight
The human population will peak this century. No, next one. Now statisticians suggest the world should prepare for 11 billion people by 2050. That's because birth rates in the poorer countries of Africa have not fallen as far or as fast as anticipated by previous projections.
(8) Wilderness: the Next 50 Years
This year was the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Wilderness Act, signed into law on Sept. 3. 1964. The act legislated against the American people themselves, looking to keep us out of certain places that were thought to be unspoiled. Of course, some of those places, like Yosemite, had a long human history and, in an era where human influence knows no bounds, wilderness may need a redefinition.
(9) Electric Racing
To accelerate the adoption of electric cars, Formula E roared to life in Beijing on Sept. 13. The sound of the electric racing cars is more like Star Wars pod racers than Formula 1. It takes two of them to complete a full race thanks to the same thing that has always held back electric cars: batteries.
(10) A Bit of Fusion
And last, but not least, a tiny bit of fusion was reported this year (though it actually happened first in September 2013). The 192 lasers of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory blasted a tiny golden tin can. The hydrogen fuel inside collapsed on itself, fused and released more energy than it absorbed from the laser blast—a first in laser fusion history. Of course, the tiny burst of energy from fusing hydrogen atoms was a fraction of the amount of energy fed into the lasers. Who knows, in a few decades fusion may become a real energy source here on Earth. Fortunately for us, there is a working fusion reactor located at a comfortable remove already. It's called the Sun.
I'll stop there with a nice, even ten. Looking ahead, the falling price of oil is one to watch, since it has impacts both bad (more oil burning) and good (less drilling in the Arctic or mining for tar sands in Canada). And lest you think that oil is somehow the environmentally benign fossil fuel: there's an oil spill currently fouling the Sundarbans in Bangladesh, one of the last refuges of dwindling tigers.
Now: what did I overlook?