You cannot be faulted for failing to notice the long list of environmental wins that occurred in 2021. Good news stories do not have the sensationalistic allure of dramatic prophecies of doom, but once you get past the dire headlines, there is a litany of overlooked achievements that tangibly illustrate progress. Environmental successes are easily overlooked in a world ravaged by climate change, biodiversity loss, an ongoing global pandemic and attacks against democracy. We are bombarded with apocalyptic predictions that seem to celebrate defeatism, however, contrary to the prognostications of the ubiquitous prophets of doom, we still have time to act. This does not mean that our predicament is benign. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are fueling persistent warming and this is driving extreme weather disasters (hurricanes, heatwaves, fires, and floods). To make matters worse the latest Emissions Gap report reveals that we are not doing anywhere near enough to stave off disaster.
Both COVID-19 and the rise of authoritarianism have exposed vulnerabilities in our economic system and our democratic structures. Although COVID-19 has infected almost 300,000,000 people and killed more than 5,000,000, it has also exposed the fault lines of a fractured civilization. As such it offers many valuable, albeit painful lessons. We have already seen how COVID has increased our science literacy and when all the dust has settled, history may show that the pandemic was a paradigm-changing social tipping point.
The fight to defend facts and democracy
Despite sensationalistic press coverage, the Omicron outbreak may expedite the end of this seemingly endless pandemic and facts may serve as catalysts that motivate us to act. As the old cliche goes, the truth will set us free. The dystopian legacy of the former president is becoming increasingly clear to all but the willfully ignorant as is his politicization of climate change and COVID. A House report confirmed that the former administration’s disinformation actively undermined the nation’s Covid response. According to a CNN analysis in December, the risk of dying from Covid-19 is more than 50 percent higher in states that voted for the former president.
Americans are also increasingly aware of the brazen attempts of the former president and Republican lawmakers to subvert democracy. The authoritarian ambitions of the GOP prompted one political scientist to say the U.S. could soon be a right-wing dictatorship. Mother Jones’ CEO Monika Bauerlein, called this a “moment of peril”. Authoritarianism is on the rise in Russia, Brazil, China, Turkey, Belarus, Hungary, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, El Salvador, Mexico, and the U.S. Like the former president and many GOP lawmakers, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonary has indicated that the only electoral outcome he will accept is one where he wins. “I will not accept any election results that do not declare me the winner. My mind is made up,” Bolsonaro said.
Despite unnerving headlines, democracy is far from dead. As reported by CNN’s Matt Rivers, moving into 2022, democracy is better positioned to fend off right-ring authoritarianism than you might think. As 2021 drew to a close s 35-year-old leftist and former student leader Gabriel Boric, defeated his right-wing opponent to become president of Chile. A month earlier left-leaning Xiomara Castro won a landslide victory to become president of Honduras 12 years after her husband was ousted in a right-wing coup.
“You see the democratic muscle working, you see that we have some sort of institutional support,” David Altman, a professor of political science at the Catholic University of Chile, told CNN. “I think that we should be optimistic. There are warning signs but at the same time, I think that Latin Americans have learned how to use democratic tools to defend ourselves.”
Many are understandably concerned about the GOP’s gerrymandering, one of the most egregious assaults on democracy is the strategic placement of partisan election officials. These are people who appear eager to overturn electoral outcomes if they don’t like the results. Although Republicans are all in on voter suppression, more than two-thirds of Americans (70%) want expanded voting rights. Efforts to subvert democracy are also being countered by election reform bills and the efforts of organizations like the Environmental Voters Project.
While support for the Republicans’ Big Lie gets a lot of press, this support is dwindling. Less than a third of Americans (31%) currently believe there was widespread fraud in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, We rarely hear about the more than two-thirds (69%) of Americans that don’t buy the Big Lie. The FOX network’s polarization of the issues may have helped to push America to the brinkis watched by only 0.5 percent of the nation.
Almost a year after an attempted coup and failed insurrection, the former president is fading, crowds are not turning out for his speaking tour and his attempts to primary those who dare to dissent are falling short. People are being sentenced to multi-year prison terms for their involvement in the insurrection and the January 6th Committee has unearthed evidence that implicates the former president, his administration, and Republican members of Congress.
U.S. Climate Action
The U.S. is rising anew under President Joe Biden’s leadership. “Between the landmark bipartisan infrastructure bill and several key rollbacks of misguided policies, we made clear progress in 2021 toward improving the health of our planet and those who live on it,” said Wendy Wendlandt, president of Environment America, a nonpartisan national advocacy group.
On Earth Day, President Biden pledged to reduce global warming emissions by 50 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. On November 15th he signed the US Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This law will help America to reduce energy waste, and improve resiliency. The $1.2 trillion bipartisan package will see $5 billion go towards zero and low-emission buses and ferries. More than $65 billion will go towards rebuilding the electric grid and expanding renewable energy. More than $20 billion is going towards cleaning up Superfund and brownfield sites, reclaiming abandoned mine land, and capping orphaned gas wells.
Biden’s climate plan is ambitious but it is far from certain that he can get the support he needs in the Senate to pass his agenda. Although 57 percent of Americans support Biden’s social agenda, the Build Back Better spending package does not have the support of Republicans and two corrupt Democrats in the Senate.
National climate efforts and international cooperation
The U.S. is not the only country investing in climate mitigation and adaptation. In 2021 Germany’s new government announced that it would invest $68 billion in climate change, Sweden announced that it was doubling climate finance to $1.75 billion and Canada added $30 billion in new funding for the climate. A December 16 mandate letter from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to his minister of the environment puts a cap on oil and gas emissions. The letter also seeks a net-zero electricity grid by 2035, a 50 percent target for electric vehicle sales by 2030, and a renewed commitment to international climate finance.
Despite geopolitical tensions, China has shown climate leadership that includes ending financing for new coal projects abroad. As the world’s biggest emitter and second-largest economy, China has an important role to play. Both the US and China have agreed to work together to increase their climate ambitions. The Dutch government has advanced governance arrangements that emphasize partnerships between national and local governments, the private and the financial sectors, civil society organizations, knowledge institutions, and young people. These are hopeful signs of progress in the all-important domain of international cooperation on sustainability issues.
International cooperation is the goal of the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) and despite being dismissed as a failure, the final agreement at COP26 emphasized the importance of nature and ecosystems, including protecting forests and biodiversity. Forty-five governments pledged urgent action and investment to protect nature and shift to more sustainable ways of farming to slash emissions and help make our food system more sustainable. The pact urges countries to make good on their pledge to provide US$100 billion per year for five years to developing countries vulnerable to climate damage. The final agreement requests parties to come to COP27 next year in Egypt with updated plans on how to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Under the Paris Agreement, countries were only obliged to update their goals by 2025.
Negotiators closed a deal setting rules for carbon markets potentially unlocking trillions of dollars for protecting forests, building renewable energy facilities, and other projects to combat climate change. This includes an agreement to prevent double-counting by the vendor and the purchaser. For the first time ever, both the United States and Canada pledged to contribute billions to the Adaptation Fund.
Also for the first time ever, nations are working together to create public policy that connects maritime borders. As reported by Euro News, a mega marine protected area (MPA) was created by Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica in 2021. The Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR) covers more than 500,000 sq km and it will benefit many species including sea turtles, whales, sharks, and rays. The Galápagos Islands are being restored as part of a cooperative partnership between conservation groups, local communities, and the Galápagos National Park Directorate.
The decline of the fossil fuel industry and efforts to combat disinformation
The fossil fuel industry is the leading cause of climate change and the pollution it generates is killing millions every year. Artificial intelligence is providing better models to help us predict and manage air pollution and there are clear signs that we are moving towards cleaner energy. According to a Harvard study, reductions in vehicle emissions have saved tens of thousands of lives.
The fossil fuels divestment movement continues to grow and as indicated in a recent report by DivestInvest, 1,500 investment institutions, responsible for $39.2 trillion in assets, have committed to divest. Student divestment movements have succeeded in removing fossil fuels from a number of universities in 2021. This includes Boston University, Wellesley University, and Harvard University which at $42bn is the largest university endowment in the world. Towards the end of the year, Lancaster University became the 92nd university in the UK to remove investments from fossil fuel companies.
One of the biggest success stories of 2021 was the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline. The largest gas project ever proposed in Quebec was also canceled in 2021. In the UK, Shell pulled out of Cambo North Sea oil field, west of Shetland. Delaware permanently banned fracking in its river basins.
Both new and existing coal plants were in retreat in 2021. A recent report shows that plans for 75 percent of new coal plants were halted or ditched altogether since the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed. A group of 20 countries, including the US, the UK, Canada, and Italy, have committed to ending new investment in fossil fuel projects by 2023.
At COP26 the world took a step back from fossil fuels for the first time. Over 40 countries agreed to phase out coal and the final agreement called for accelerating the phasing out of “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. California banned new fracking beyond 2024 and called for an end to oil production by 2045.
The fossil fuel industry is also increasingly being exposed for its decades-long campaign of disinformation and political corruption. In light of the fact that conservative disinformation has succeeded in slowing climate action, countering such deception may be the most pressing sustainability issue in the world today. Thankfully we are amassing a huge arsenal of strategies to combat disinformation. This includes both education and governance arrangements.
Climate action buoyed by the courts and new legal instruments
The courts posed significant challenges to the fossil fuel industry in 2021. Shell lost a landmark court case in May when Dutch courts ruled that the oil giant is responsible for its own carbon emissions and that of its suppliers. Judges in The Hague ordered the company to cut its carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030, saying Shell had endangered human lives and violated the country’s civil codes. Milieudefensie voor Veranderaars (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) began assembling the case in 2018, together with other charities and more than 17,000 co-plaintiffs. Milieudefensie released a DIY manual entitled “How we defeated Shell” to encourage others to take on some of the biggest companies in the world.
People are also turning to the courts to force their governments to act on climate change. Six youth climate activists in Brazil sued their government for violating its obligations under the Paris Agreement. In a first-of-its-kind lawsuit in the U.S., 16 young plaintiffs sued Montana alleging that the state contribution to the climate crisis violates their constitutional rights. As of July 2021, there were over 1,800 climate change court cases filed around the world with more than 1,300 in the US.
Australian courts established a duty of care to protect people from climate harm after Anjali took the Australian government to court. Courts in the UK, are considering a suit from ‘Paid to Pollute’ campaigners that accuses the UK government of illegally subsidizing fossil fuel producers through tax incentives that undermine its climate goals.
In Indonesia, an environmental group won its lawsuit against PT Mantimin Coal Mining. The Central District Court of Jakarta ordered President Joko Widodo as well as the Governor of Jakarta to address the air pollution problem. In France, the courts ordered the French government to take additional measures to increase emissions reductions. This follows similar rulings in the Netherlands in 2019 and Ireland in 2020. In New Zealand, the Supreme Court stopped seabed mining operations, protecting a coral reef, pygmy blue whales, māui dolphins, and blue penguins.
According to the Dutch government, there is a clear trend towards more stringent and cohesive legal instruments in many countries worldwide. Jurisdictions around the world are enshrining people’s right to clean air, clean water, and a healthful environment into law. In November, New Yorkers voted to add clean air and water to the Bill of Rights in the state Constitution. New York joins Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, which all have adopted similar constitutional provisions. Chile’s new constitution prominently features climate change.
In 2021 nature gained legal rights affording greater protections to rivers, lakes, and mountains In February, Muteshekau-shipu (Quebec’s Magpie River) became the first natural space in Canada to gain legal personhood. The First Nation band, Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, worked with local authorities to establish nine rights for the river – including the right to flow, the right to be safe from pollution, and the right to sue. For the first time, ‘ecocide’ was defined in legal terms in 2021 and this may prove to be a critical legal framework to address climate change and a range of environmental insults.
The ongoing rise of renewable energy
Renewable energy generation achieved all-time highs making 2021 the latest in a string of record-setting years. The International Energy Agency (IEA), reported that renewables accounted for 95 percent of the increase in global power generation capacity in 2021, According to the IEA, the world added 290 gigawatts of renewable power production capacity in 2021. Renewables are expected to overtake fossil fuels and account for 90 percent of new electricity generation in the next five years. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2021 not only showed evidence of global progress in clean energy production it suggested we are flattening emissions which makes the high future emissions scenarios increasingly unlikely. This is due in part to the fact that we are increasingly electrifying the transportation sector (cars, trains, planes, boats, and bikes).
A future powered by clean energy is in view as demonstrated by Scotland and Paraguay which generated all of their electricity from renewable sources in 2021. In the U.S., the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure act will see $65 billion go towards rebuilding the electric grid and expanding renewable energy. Oregon and Illinois committed to 100 percent clean electricity in 2021 adding to the seven states that have already set concrete energy transition timelines. Massachusetts passed a climate bill that will reduce energy waste and ensure that at least 40 percent of its electricity comes from renewable sources by 2030. As part of its climate bill, Massachusetts increased its offshore wind commitments by an additional 2,400 MW for a target of 5,600 MW of installed capacity by 2027.
Pennsylvania made the U.S.’s largest governmental solar commitment to date in 2021. The state plans to get half its electricity from seven new solar arrays. California announced it will require solar panels and battery storage on new commercial buildings and high-rise dwellings. California passed a bill that will create a plan for the development of utility-scale offshore wind projects. California also banned food from landfills and is turning the diverted food waste into energy. Maine’s state legislature passed a bill that will help offshore wind, they also kickstarted the development of a new wind research array. Maine’s Governor Tom Murphy also signed an executive order to cut climate pollutants in half by 2030.
Clean water & clean cars
Three-quarters of a billion people lack basic access to clean and safe drinking water but organizations like the Waterkeepers Alliance are defending and restoring water systems around the world. Among the water-related success stories in 2021 was the rejuvenation of degraded sources of freshwater in Kenya.
Clean water is a global problem that even affects the world’s wealthiest nation. To address this problem in the U.S., President Biden repealed the former administration’s ”Dirty Water Rule,” which threatened clean waters across the country. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) committed to establishing new limits on discharges into rivers and streams.
Like Mark Rutt, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, President Biden has prioritized water management. Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure act includes $15 billion to replace lead pipes and $200 million for schools to get the lead out of their drinking water. The bill also curbs sewage overflows and runoff pollution. The Biden-Harris Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan involves guidance from the EPA and 15 actions across 10 federal agencies.
Actions are also being taken on the state level. The Washington state legislature joined New York and Maryland with the passage of a law that limits lead in school drinking water. In 2021 New Jersey became the first state in the union to call for the replacement of all lead service lines within 10 years. Pennsylvania finally settled a nine-year-long Clean Water Act lawsuit against PPG which will require the company to have a pollution permit, treat its water and contribute $250,000 to a Pennsylvania nonprofit water research center.
Support for electric vehicles was also apparent in 2021. The UK announced that they will make electric car chargers compulsory in new buildings starting in 2022. Volkswagen announced that it would more than double its network of electric vehicle charging stations by 2025. The bipartisan legislation in the U.S. will invest more than $7.5 billion in a nationwide network of plug-in electric vehicle chargers. More than three dozen countries in conjunction with automakers (Ford, GM, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar Land Rover) have agreed to go all-electric by 2040. While the US hasn’t joined the declaration, several states have, including California, New York, and Washington.
The EPA also finalized a federal clean cars rule, which will result in more than 3.1 billion tons of avoided GHG emissions through 2050. Virginia, Minnesota, Nevada, and Washington all adopted the advanced clean cars program, 17 states have adopted the low-emission vehicle (LEV) program and 15 have adopted the zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) program.
Plastic waste management and a circular economy
In many respects the environmental problems we face come down to how we generate and manage our waste. The most abundant solid waste is plastic. The problem of waste generation and management is tied to the flaws in our economic system. To address these concerns we are beginning to factor the life cycles of the products we manufacture. The Netherlands is among those who support a circular economy this not only addresses the problem of solid waste it manages carbon holistically. A circular economy is an inclusive approach to sustainable environmental governance that seeks systemic change in energy, water management, and food production.
As reported by Environment America, Maine passed a first-in-the-nation bill that makes producers
responsible for the full life cycle of their packaging. Virginia passed a statewide ban on single-use foam cups, take-out containers, balloon releases, and an executive order that phases out all single-use plastics in state agencies as well as at public colleges and universities. The city of Savannah enacted a city ordinance phasing out municipal single-use plastics and Colorado banned plastic bags and foam cups. Washington state passed the strongest polystyrene foam ban in the country, and Oregon announced reforms to its recycling system and established the country’s second “producer responsibility” program, requiring manufacturers to bear the financial burden for packaging and paper products.
Canada added plastic manufactured items to the toxic list under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and proposed a ban on six single-use plastic items. We are also removing plastic from the oceans (63,000 pounds of trash was removed from the great Pacific garbage patch in 2021). In addition to banning single-use plastics, we have seen progress in efforts to keep plastic microfibers from entering the ocean. France has mandated that all washing machines be fitted to filters as of 2025 and as reported by the Guardian, companies are working to reduce the number of plastic microfibers they generate.
Businesses, banks, and investors
Corporations are making their supply chains and operations more sustainable as part of transformative changes taking place across business sectors. This growing interest in sustainability is being supported by green business influencers that are proliferating around the world. Corporations are also taking moral stands against multiple forms of injustice. In the U.S., corporate America opposed the GOP’s voter suppression efforts and they repeatedly condemned the former president and the Republican party. This includes corporations like Patagonia which is leading by example and modeling a better way of doing business. Recently, the world’s biggest record companies as well as independent labels signed the Music Climate Pact that supports climate action including science-based emissions reduction targets.
Speaking at COP 26’s largest business dinner, CBI Director-General Tony Danker told delegates that “this is a moment in history where every firm needs to step up and lead…Regardless of political progress, we in business are ready, willing, and able to deliver a net-zero world…I don’t believe any of you have come to Glasgow to give the job to someone else. This job is on us.” At the summit, 95 high-profile companies from a range of sectors committed to being ‘Nature Positive’, agreeing to work towards halting and reversing the decline of nature by 2030.
As Forbes reported, financial firms are getting greener. and banks are moving away from fossil fuels and biodiversity loss. A historic number of banks and asset managers who manage holdings in excess of 130 trillion have pledged to adopt science-based climate targets. The European Central Bank agreed to prioritize climate risks and Brazil’s National Development Bank abandoned coal.
A paradigm-changing shareholder rebellion occurred in 2021 in which activist investors leveraged their collective power to put climate change onto Big Oil’s agendas. Hedge fund activists Engine No 1 succeeded in electing 3 directors to Exxon’s board and Chevron faced a shareholder revolt that forced the company to implement tougher emissions targets. These are tangible illustrations of the trend away from coal, oil, and gas, however, the transition is not taking place fast enough to prevent us from surpassing tipping points from which we may not be able to recover.
Carbon dioxide and methane removal
We urgently need to draw down atmospheric emissions and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) may be the most impactful approach we have. Whether we are talking about natural climate solutions (NCS) or man-made technologies like direct air capture (DAC) and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), are capable of directly and immediately reducing climate change causing atmospheric carbon. In 2021, interest in CDR has increased substantially as have both private and public investments. We saw a spate of research assessing the technologies and the companies leading the field. We are looking at evaluation criteria and assessing both cost and scalability. A raft of promising research directions has emerged as well as suggestions for future research. We are exploring the factors contributing to and detracting from the uptake of CDR with the goal of crafting a master plan that will help us to scale CDR quickly. Geological sequestration has emerged as the most effective long-term approach to carbon storage. Using this approach in combination with DAC, Climework’s Climate Pioneers program gives people the power to siphon carbon directly out of the atmosphere and permanently remove it.
While these efforts are focused on carbon, methane got more attention in 2021. While methane only comprises 2 parts per million in the atmosphere (CO2 is more than 410), it traps 85 percent more heat than carbon over 20 years.. Around 100 nations and parties signed on to the Global Methane Pledge to cut methane emissions by 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030. The U.S. EPA proposed the Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan, which will decrease methane emissions by 41 million tons through 2035. Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau instructed his minister of the environment to reduce methane emission by 75 percent this decade.
As discussed at COP 26, there are also technologies that address the problem of atmospheric methane. Using an approach known as methane oxidation, methane is broken down into smaller particles of CO2, which have 1/44th the heat-trapping capacity of methane.
Species back from the brink of extinction
In 2020, we documented a host of positive biodiversity stories and in 2021 these the good news included the Monarch butterfly which increased 4,900 percent compared to 2020. After years of observing the death of the Great Barrier Reef, there was a massive coral spawning event in 2021. Humpback whales, Iberian lynx, eastern barred bandicoots, and red kites are among the species that bounced back from the brink of extinction last year.
Kenya’s national wildlife census recorded an increase in animals including both elephants and rhinos. Gorillas are rebounding in sub-Saharan Africa, jaguars are returning to Colombia, endangered gharials have been observed in the Ganges River, wolves are back in Europe, and an endangered mountain gazelle made a comeback on the war-torn border of Turkey and Syria. Nepal is on track to double its wild tiger population and the population of endangered monkeys in Vietnam has quadrupled.
China is creating a national park to guard giant pandas, which have been removed from the endangered species list, and seven Tasmanian devil babies were born in semi-wild conditions for the first time in 3,000 years. A jaguar corridor is under development in the Amazon and efforts to remove invasive predators from a French Polynesian island allowed endangered birds to recover. Finally, a restored island in the US became a breeding ground for various threatened bird species
Record-breaking conservation efforts
Conservation is critical to species recovery and supporting the health of existing species. Nature is the substrate of everything including our economy. According to WWF’s Natural Planet Index, natural resources contribute $125 trillion to the global economy annually. Our economy and our very lives depend on nature, without nature there is no economy and no life.
We have done tremendous damage to the planet but major conservation efforts are underway around the world. In Monteverde, Costa Rica, conservationists are seeking to “preserve, conserve, and rehabilitate tropical ecosystems and their biodiversity”. Conservation was a priority issue in the U.S. in 2021. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $2 million per year for pollinator habitats along roadways and $350 million for wildlife highway crossings. At the state level, Florida is investing $300 million of federal stimulus money to build wildlife corridors in priority areas of the state. Maine passed the toughest state-level “save the bees” law and Massachusetts took steps to save bees by adopting new rules that banned the retail sale of neonicotinoids.
On the national level, Canada announced $2.3 billion for conservation, the US is spending tens of billions on conservation, and China committed a fresh $232 million to biodiversity. Last year was a record-setting year for private donations to conservation and biodiversity. In 2021 private sources gave more money to biodiversity conservation than ever before. The Rob and Melani Walton Foundation gave $100 million to parks in Africa and Jeff Bezos pledged $2 billion to global conservation efforts. Five billion dollars was promised by nine different organizations as part of a plan called the “Protect Our Planet Challenge.” which seeks to protect and conserve 30 percent of the planet’s land and ocean area by 2030.
Ever increasing protected areas
Protecting wild spaces is of fundamental importance and as of 2021, we have made tremendous strides as measured by AICHI target 11 and the IUCN. The IUCN advocates for “clearly defined geographical spaces, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”. In September, the IUCN World Conservation Congress voted in favor of an Indigenous-led measure calling to protect 80 percent of the Amazon Basin by 2025. The vote received the approval of 61 governments and 600 NGOs and Indigenous organizations.
The goal of Aichi target 11 of the Convention on Biodiversity is the protection of 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas (protecting just 10 percent of our oceans protects half of marine species while protecting 17 percent of the land will support 64 percent of species). According to the Protected Planet report 2020, 16.6 percent of terrestrial habitats are protected and 7.74 percent of oceans enjoy protection. In the last decade, 21 million km have been protected, which is an area larger than Russia, the biggest country on earth.
Governments are ratcheting up their ambitions with the aim of protecting almost one-third of land and sea. On day one of his presidency Biden launched America the Beautiful initiative, which aims to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and oceans by 2030. In so doing the United States joined more than 100 countries that have pledged to protect 30 percent of land and marine spaces by 2030. Colombia is committed to reaching this goal in 2022, and efforts are underway to increase the global protection to 50 percent of the planet.
President Biden overturned his predecessor’s weakening of the Endangered Species Act. and restored protections to three national monuments (Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off the coast of New England). that had been removed by the former president. Federal regulators are also working on creating Chumash Heritage National Marine Monument off the Northern California coast and President Biden has reestablished safeguards for the Tongass National Forest.
The Australian government announced two Indian Ocean reserves that will protect 740,000 square kilometers (286,000 square miles) of the ocean and a new national park in the state of South Australia which added nearly 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) of protected land. Panama tripled its Marine Protected Area, and Ecuador announced that it will expand the Galápagos Marine Reserve by 60,000 square kilometers (23,200 square miles). As mentioned above, Panama, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Colombia linked their marine protected areas.
Guayana established a law that will protect 1,426 square kilometers (550 square miles) of forested land, and Mozambique created a massive new national park. Romania is creating a national park that is meant to rival Yellowstone and Brazil is now paying citizens to protect the Amazon rainforest.
Restoration and reforestation around the world
In 2021 habitat restoration garnered attention as never before. We are not only conserving and protecting land and marine areas we are also restoring these areas. The United Nations officially declared the 2020s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration with the goal of restoring 1 billion hectares (2.5 billion acres) of degraded land. The Bonn Challenge has secured commitments to restore more than 230 million hectares (568 million acres) of land and through his Re:wild organization, Leonardo DiCaprio raised $43 million to restore the Galápagos Islands. The government of Canada also announced that it was investing $200 million to restore carbon-rich ecosystems through nature-based solutions.
In the last 20 years, we have seen the rewilding of 58.9 million hectares, (146 million acres)*. The trees grown could potentially sequester more than 5.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide (equivalent to the annual emissions of the U.S.).
A COP26 side deal saw 133 countries agree to end deforestation and land degradation by 2030. The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use will have access to more than $19 billion in public and private funds.to protect lands and forests. This declaration seeks to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation.” In total, the countries that have signed on account for around 90 percent of global forest cover.
Reforestation initiatives are taking root all around the world including Tucson’s ambitious plan to plant a million trees in the semi-arid desert and the replanting of a clear-cut forest in Borneo. The Atlantic Forest in Brazil is on track to regenerate 1.5 million hectares of land (3.7 million acres).
The most ambitious reforestation initiative is known as the Trillion Tree Campaign (1t.org). This organization is working to conserve, restore, and grow 1 trillion trees by 2030, a move that could increase forest cover by one-third; In 2021 Jane Goodall pledged her support through an organization called Trees for Jane which is a partner of 1t.org and German NGO Plant-for-the-Planet. Mongabay also launched an online database (The Mongabay Reforestation Directory) of tree-planting projects to increase transparency for potential donors.
Indigenous voices are being heard
Indigenous groups and organizations celebrated major victories in 2021. We saw increased recognition of Indigenous peoples’ land rights and stewardship. Increasingly, Indigenous voices are being heard and Indigenous solutions are informing environmental efforts worldwide.
Indigenous efforts have resulted in some of the most serious commitments to protect tropical forests that we have seen to date. Amazon deforestation is a serious problem but Guyana is among the countries that are doing something about it. As reported by Mongabay, at COP 26 there was a historic acknowledgment of the key climate role of Indigenous groups. Throughout 2021 progress continued on Indigenous rights. The Peruvian government established a long-awaited 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) reserve for “uncontacted” Indigenous peoples in the department of Loreto near the border with Brazil. The Indigenous-led Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative calls for protecting 80 percent (35 million hectares, or 86 million acres) of the Amazon in Peru and Ecuador by 2025. In Peru, part of the Alto Mayo forest was turned over to 70 Indigenous women for protection and management. Since then, the women have cultivated dozens of edible plants and medicinal herbs from the forest and have begun to raise revenue over the past year by selling special teas.
In the U.S. Indigenous groups secured the return of stolen lands in 2021. As reported by The Guardian, with the financial support of the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Passamaquoddy Tribe reacquired 150 acres of land in eastern Maine that was stolen in the late 19th century by settler-colonists. In Minnesota, the state returned 120 acres of land stolen from the Lower Sioux Indian Community.
Countries committed $1.7 billion to Indigenous communities at COP26. These are victories for both Indigenous groups and environmental stewardship. These actions reflect an increasing sense of responsibility for centuries of injustice.
Communities and the intersection of social and environmental justice
In 2021 we saw successful community-led conservation efforts that included a community-wide effort to protect lemurs in the Ankeniheny-Zahamena wildlife corridor of Madagascar and a community-based protection efforts in support of Sumatran rhinos around Indonesia’s Way Kambas National Park. Community conservation efforts also extend to mangrove restoration projects that have proliferated around the world in 2021 including places like Mombasa, Kenya.
The Guardian reported on several community victories in 2021. A majority-Black neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee, succeeded in stopping the construction of an oil pipeline. A multi-state environmental organization known as the Delaware River Basin Commission formalized a fracking ban and oil and gas drilling projects were stopped in Los Angeles county including Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in the country, which is surrounded by many majority-Black neighborhoods.
In 2021 we began to recognize the intersectionality of environmental and social issues. At COP 26, a speech delivered by Sweden argued that we must be inclusive in our efforts to combat climate change. The UN has repeatedly acknowledged the interrelationships between environmental threats and human rights including workers’ rights and in this regard 2021 was an important year in the U.S. There were more than 100 strikes last year including at least three major victories (John Deere, Nabisco, and Kellogs). The U.S. also made major strides combating poverty. The American Rescue act cut poverty nearly in half compared to pre-pandemic levels. The expanded tax credit kept 3 million children out of poverty helping to drop the child poverty rate by 25 percent.
Taking stock of what we have achieved
We are confronting disinformation, exposing lies, and drawing closer to the facts. This includes exposing the viral deception that it is too late to address climate change. To counter the lies from conservative “news” outlets, most media sources are providing more factual coverage of the climate crisis. Dire predictions that are not supported by the evidence are being exposed. This includes stories that feed dystopian defeatism. One of the best examples is a viral story that falsely proclaimed the Gulf Stream and the Jet Stream are collapsing. We are also seeing through other politically motivated stories like those that blame sustainability issues on population increases.
Tackling climate change and the biodiversity crisis may seem impossible, while it may be the most ambitious undertaking in human history, it is not impossible. To appreciate what is possible we should take a look at what we have accomplished in recent years: We have successfully removed DDT and phosphorous and we have succeeded in addressing both acid rain, and the ozone hole. The Montreal Protocol’s CFC ban is working, the ozone layer, which protects the planet from harmful UV rays, is expanding at a rate of 3 percent per decade. This global effort will prevent millions of people from getting skin cancer. Had we not banned CFCs we would already be experiencing the worst-case scenario levels of global warming. Less than two decades after the Montreal Protocol the world came together to sign the Paris Climate Accord, the most significant global agreement the world has ever seen.
In addition to the long list of environmental success stories reviewed above, we saw movement on a number of hopeful signs in 2021 Mexico banned glyphosate and pesticides are being banned in cities around the world. After years of accelerating decline, the minimum sea ice was larger in 2021 than in previous years. After recording the hottest temperature ever recorded in the summer, Canada, recorded temperatures below -51°C for the first time in eight years. After years of drought, California’s Sierra City saw record snowfall in the month of December. According to Central Sierra Snow Lab on Donner Summit 194” (16+ FEET) of snow fell in December 2021, beating the previous December record of 179” set in 1970.
Things are even changing in increasingly authoritarian Russia, where the Norilsk Nickel mining firm paid a record-setting $2 billion fine for spilling oil in the Ambarnaya River in the Arctic. Agriculture, and livestock farming in particular, is a potent source of GHGs, however, the growing interest in plant-based meat and dairy alternatives holds promise. The plant-based food industry is a $7 billion dollar enterprise and it is expected to grow to over $162 billion by 2030. Finally, we are increasingly looking to biomimicry to help us address sustainability challenges. If nothing else, this summary allows us to imagine the possibility of a better world brought about by global efforts to combat climate change and protect biodiversity.
We can do this
It is undeniably daunting but we can do this. We are collectively moving away from fossil fuels and we are rejecting governments who support them. Citizens around the world from more than 100 countries participated in the “Global Day of Climate Action,” and more activists attended COP 26 than any preceding COP. Most of the successes summarized above are due to the efforts of protestors and environmentally concerned organizations. These victories show that when people come together they can make a difference.
We can address the problems that we have created but it will require a society-wide effort. We are seeing increasing involvement of Indigenous people and women and we are beginning to understand the fundamental connection between climate action and social justice. While individual actions are important we are increasingly coming to the realization that we will not succeed without the collective action of governments.
We are coming to terms with eco-grief and eco-anxiety through the realization that hope is achieved through action. As strange as it may seem in the context of the yawning gulf between climate ambitions and action, there is reason to be optimistic. Contrary to the prevailing pessimistic narratives, we may finally do what needs to be done. We know what we have to do, and we may finally do it.
History suggests that change, particularly transformative change, can only come from tumultuous upheaval. We need climate action, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that we must act now. The pandemic has highlighted the flaws of our civilization and the tyranny of authoritarianism has exposed vulnerabilities in our democracies.
As we teeter precariously on the cusp of catastrophe, we need to realize that although these are dangerous and uncertain times, these conditions are calling us to defend democracy, alter our perilous trajectory and end our suicidal genocide against nature. What we have is an opportunity, but make no mistake about it, if we fail to act we will augur the end of civilization. If we fall flat in our efforts to protect and restore nature, if we do not defend democracy, then we are doomed, but if we stand together united under a constellation of social and environmental justice issues, we will prevail.
* BirdLife International, WCS and WWF
- Summary of Positive Biodiversity Stories (2020)
- Hope in the Midst of Despair – A Collection of Environmental Success Stories
- Combatting the Biodiversity Crises and Learning to Live in Harmony with Nature
- Hope for the Holidays: 101 Good Environmental News Stories in 2019
- Canada’s Biodiversity Conservation Efforts
- Conservation Success Stories are Shining Light into the Darkness
- The Ten Best Climate and Sustainability Stories of 2016
- Wildlife Success Stories 2015
- Environmental Success Stories: Mercury, SLCPs and Many More
- Habitat Conservation in 2014 and 2015
- Year-End Review: US Environmental Success Storie (2013)
- Midterms 2014: Five Good News Stories for the Climate and the Environment
- Women are Powering Solar in the Developing World: Five Success Stories
- The Road to Recovery: Courage to Hope for a Better World
- It’s Not Too Late to Stop Global Warming
- The Case for Climate Optimism
- The Most Effective Solutions to Climate Change
- Making Room for Hope Among the Ruins