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Top 10 Environmental Stories of 2014

The most important environmental and wildlife stories from the last year


Also see our Top 10 HAPPY Environmental Stories of 2014


1. The Year of Zero Deforestation Pledges:



In 2014, the unimaginable happened: companies representing the majority of palm oil production and trade agreed to stop cutting down rainforests and draining peatlands for new oil palm plantations. After years of intense campaigning by environmentalists and dire warnings from scientists, nearly two dozen major producers, traders, and buyers established zero deforestation policies that include environmental, social, and labor safeguards. And it wasn’t just the palm oil sector: following the lead of Wilmar, agribusiness giant Cargill extended the policy across its entire $135 billion commodity supply chain. Meanwhile early adopters of zero deforestation policies, including Indonesia’s Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) and Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), continued to make progress on their commitments, with GAR extending the policy to all palm oil it processes and trades, and APP pledging to support conservation and restoration of an area equivalent to its concessions: one million hectares. Still while there was positive progress toward eliminating deforestation from key supply chains, some companies continued to destroy forests. Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL) came under heavy criticism for continuing to source fiber at the expense of peat forests. The company claimed the deep peat Greenpeace documented it clearing didn’t breach its sustainability policy. Rhett Butler


2. China and the U.S. Pledge Joint Action on Global Warming:



In what was widely seen as a possible breakthrough in the battle to coordinate some kind of response to global warming, China and the U.S. announced joint actions this year. On November 12th, the world’s two most powerful countries surprised pretty much everyone by announcing that they would work together to tackle the crisis. The U.S. committed to reduce its carbon emissions 26-28 percent by 2025, based on 2005 levels. Meanwhile, China said that its emissions would peak by 2030 (or sooner) and 20 percent of its energy would come from clean sources. While these commitments are no-where near what’s needed to avoid catastrophic climate–not even combined with the EU’s pledge to cut emission 40 percent by 2030–they signaled that both the U.S. and China were finally on board in the more than 25-year endeavor to deal with climate change on a global scale. The optimism that followed didn’t produce much progress at the Climate Summit in Lima months later—though it’s impossible to know what would have happened without the commitments—but the real test will be Paris next year and beyond. Jeremy Hance







How Ebola moves from wild animals to people. Graph courtesy of the CDC. Click to enlarge.



3. The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa:



It’s impossible to measure the impact of an epidemic that has officially killed more than 7,000 (and likely many more unrecorded) and has brought three countries to their knees. The human, social, and community impact is unimaginable—and ongoing. For those who have lost loved ones, the impact will last a lifetime. Yet the impacts—and issues—related to the environment are more opaque. Experts say the most likely cause of the disease was the consumption of bushmeat, very likely a fruit bat. In light of this, the FAO has recommended that people in affected regions avoiding hunting bats. Meanwhile, some conservationists and experts have speculated that there may be a link between deforestation in Western Africa and the rise of Ebola there, i.e. increasing contact between people and animals in degraded forest may have increased the chances of the current outbreak. Past research has also found a possible link between worsening Ebola outbreaks and global warming. Yet, more research on such connections are needed. In the meantime, the destruction of lives and communities should not be forgotten. Jeremy Hance



4. Indigenous Leaders Murdered over Activism:



Remember these names: Edwin Chota Valera, José Isidro Tendetza Antún, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quinticima Melendez, and Francisco Pinedo. Each of these Amazonian indigenous leaders were murdered for their long-standing efforts to protect their forest lands. Now, their names are added to a long, long list of indigenous environmental activists who have been assassinated for speaking out against the destruction of their lands. In many of the world’s countries indigenous groups struggle for legal recognition of their land, resulting in conflict with industries such as logging, mining, agriculture, hydroelectric power, and fossil fuels. At the same time, new research is increasingly showing that the best protectors of forests are not governments, but indigenous people. This year, a stunning report found that 908 environmental activists have been murdered for their work since 2002—and the report wasn’t even able to include a number of conflict countries due to a paucity of data. It may be that nature’s best protectors are being killed off one-by-one. Jeremy Hance



Annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, 1988-2014. Click image to enlarge.



5. Deforestation Drops in Brazil:



After a one-year uptick in deforestation, forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon resumed its downward trend, falling 18 percent for the 12 months ended July 31, 2014. The decline surprised many environmentalists who feared that a controversial revision to the country’s Forest Code might spur increased deforestation. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is now roughly 80 percent below the 2004 peak. A combination of law enforcement, government policies, new protected areas, forest monitoring, pressure from environmental groups, and private sector commitments—including a moratorium on deforestation for soy production, which was unexpectedly renewed for another 18 months in late November—are credited for the decline. Yet there remain concerns that the gains in the Amazon may not hold with Brazil’s economy flagging and ambitious plans to expand infrastructure in the region. Furthermore, the drop in deforestation in the Amazon hasn’t been matched in Brazil’s other ecosystems like the Atlantic forest and the cerrado. And deforestation isn’t slowing outside the Brazilian Amazon. Rhett Butler


6. Nicaragua Approves the Gran Canal:



Let’s be honest: this came out of no-where and is still little reported. But, according to the Nicaraguan government, work will start on December 24th on one the world’s largest industrial projects—and one of the least transparent. Before an Environment Impact Assessment is even released, Nicaragua has approved a $40 billion (at least), 278-kilometer-long canal that will be bigger and deeper than the Panama Canal. The Gran Canal or Interoceanic Canal will cut along the borders of several protected areas, force the removal of hundreds of villages, and plow through the largest freshwater body in Central America: Lake Nicaragua. It will be built not by locals, but by a newly-formed Chinese company headed by a telecommunications billionaire. Some locals say they may take up arms against the project. Concerned scientists warn about massive environmental impacts, displaced peoples, a total lack of transparency, and a project—they fear—will only serve the wealthy and foreigners. But the Nicaraguan government says it will transform the nation’s economy overnight; Paul Oquist, an advisor to Nicaragua’s president went so far as to dub the canal “a big Christmas present” for the Nicaraguan people. But no one really knows what’s under the wrapping paper. Jeremy Hance





Adult elephant and calf in Namibia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.


7. California, Brazil, and Central America Face Crippling Droughts:



For large swaths of the Americas, 2014 was a year of remarkable drought—followed in some cases by record storms. California suffered its third year in largely extreme drought conditions, with one study finding it was the state’s worst drought in at least 1,200 years. Even a massive storm this month across much of California, couldn’t unlock most of the state from drought conditions. Drought has proved extreme further south as well. In the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, drought left millions hungry after crops failed. Massive drought also hit southwestern Brazil, including the country’s largest city São Paulo, home to over 20 million people. Some have pointed to deforestation across the Amazon as possibly linked, and likely exacerbating, drought in Brazil. Scientists have been warning for decades that worsening global warming will likely increase the chance of droughts in many parts of the world—and exacerbate them when they hit. Jeremy Hance


8. Africa has Lost a Fifth of its Elephants and Another Record Year for Rhino Poaching:



The poaching crisis continued largely unabated this year in Africa—and afar. A remarkable study this year estimated that Africa lost a fifth of its elephants from 2010-2012, leaving a total of 100,000 elephants dead. Meanwhile, in South Africa, rhino poaching hit another grim record: as of last month 1,020 rhinos were butchered for their horns in South Africa, which houses the bulk of the world’s rhinos. There were a few bright spots, however: a number of countries burned their ivory—including China—and rhino horn stockpiles, the U.S. government introduced new measures to help tackle the crisis, and media coverage of the crisis appeared to rise, albeit slightly. The illegal wildlife trade—which impacts far more species than elephants and rhinos—is estimated at $19 billion and has been linked to other illicit activities such as terrorism, drug trade, weapons trafficking, and human trafficking. Jeremy Hance




Global Forest Watch, an online mapping platform with data on forests, has an agricultural suitability layer that incorporates information about forests, peatlands, and biodiversity to suggest areas that should be off-limits for forest-friendly agricultural expansion. Click image to enlarge.



9. Launch of Global Forest Watch:



In one of the most significant developments for forest monitoring since the launch of Landsat more than 40 years ago, the World Resources Institute (WRI) in February unveiled the Global Forest Watch, an online platform that maps a wealth of forest data. Critically, Global Forest Watch extends a near-real time deforestation alert system worldwide, enabling authorities and environmentalists to potentially take action on large-scale forest clearing as it occurs. A similar system in Brazil has been credited with more than 60 percent of the drop in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon between 2007 and 2011. Global Forest Watch also aggregates data on concessions, fires, and agricultural suitability in an effort to guide future agricultural expansion away from wildlife-rich and carbon-dense forests. The launch of Global Forest Watch led Mongabay to develop a reporting program to tell the stories behind the data. Rhett Butler



10. Oil Price Collapse:



A slumping global economy combined with increased output triggered a sharp decline in oil prices. Benchmark oil prices plunged 50 percent between mid-2014 and the end of the year, crushing marginal forms of energy production, ranging from shale oil and tar sands to renewables like solar. There was speculation that OPEC, which chose not to cut output despite falling prices, is intent on driving some of its competitors out of business, including surging North American drillers. Some wryly noted that OPEC, rather than environmentalists, could ultimately be responsible for killing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline with the low oil price undercutting the project’s viability. Rhett Butler



RUNNER UPS



1. Election of Jokowi:

For the first time, Indonesians elected a president who is not part of the old order. Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, rose to political prominence on his clean and effective approach to governing as mayor of Solo and the Jakarta. As he entered office, civil society groups had high hopes that Jokowi would expand on outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s environmental commitments. Jokowi didn’t disappoint, visiting fire-plagued areas in Riau and announcing a new moratorium on all logging permits and a plan to audit licenses of companies found to be clearing peatlands. In a shakeup, the new president merged the powerful Ministry of Forestry with the weaker Ministry of Environment and appointed a civil servant as its head. Rhett Butler





Mareeba rock-wallaby in Australia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.


2. Australia Goes Rogue on the Environment:



So, this will require a list. In 2014, Australia abolished its two-year-old—and already effective—carbon tax, attempted to strip forests of UNESCO World Heritage Status (it failed), planned to dump five million tonnes of dredged sediment into the Great Barrier Reef (cancelled), dropped a host of laws and regulations to protect native wildlife, refused to give any money to the Green Climate Fund (eventually relented), declared a moratorium on any new national parks, mulled banning environmental boycotts, and held a somewhat bizarre, hugely controversial, and largely ineffective shark culling program (they caught few target species, but hundreds of non-target ones) to safeguard beach-goers. With the election of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, the land down under has taken a massive U-turn on environmental policy—both at home and on the international stage. Do Australians need to ask: what would Steve Irwin do? Jeremy Hance



3. 2014 Will Very Likely be the Warmest on Record:



At this point, it’s practically a certainty: 2014 will be the warmest year since detailed record keeping began in the 1880s. What makes this fact really remarkable—after all the world is warming—is that 2014 has not turned out to be an El Nino year. Most past record breakers are El Nino years—where warm ocean waters in the Pacific drive heat and extreme weather worldwide. So how could a non-El Nino year top El Nino ones? Well, for one thing the oceans were remarkably warm over several months of the year, without ever breaking the barrier the El Nino threshold. It turns of global warming, however, this year doesn’t change much, actually. The trend over the last few decades has been warming—despite uninformed arguments that claim global warming has stopped (it hasn’t). What it could mean, though, is that global temperatures may be set to rise quickly again, after a few years of more moderate warming. Either way, the world continues to heat up because of burning fossil fuels—and global society continues to burn them at record levels. Jeremy Hance




Malayan tiger in captivity. The subspecies is nearly extinct in the wild. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.


4. Vaquita down to just 97 animals, Sumatran rhino down to less than 100, West African lions down to 250, Malayan tigers down to 250-340, and northern white rhino down to 5:



Maybe the long title says it all, but really the point is that the world’s wildlife continues to decline, in some cases precipitously. The fact that even charismatic species with devoted conservation plans—like vaquitas, sumatran rhinos, lions, tigers, and northern white rhinos—are not improving, and in some cases on the verge of vanishing, implies that many lesser-known species that lack wholly targeted conservation efforts could well be worse off. In fact, WWF’s Living Report Index this year found that populations of the world’s vertebrates have fallen by more than HALF (52 percent) since 1970. Obviously, to avoid ongoing plummeting—and eventually mass extinction—the world must drastically boost conservation efforts. If not, our children will inherit a less rich, lonelier, and more ecologically unstable world. Jeremy Hance




5. Oil spill in the Sundarbans—a sign of things to come?



On December 9th, a tanker collided with another ship on the Shela River in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. The collision released 75,000 gallons (350,000 liters) of oil into the hugely-delicate ecosystem. However, the disaster could have been largely mitigated, if not for government incompetence and ambivalence. The injured tanker wasn’t even towed out of their forest until two days after the spill as government agencies squabbled about who was in charge—allowing its total oil load to leak out. For days, clean-up was left to locals, including many children, armed with kitchen utensils and sponges—no protective gear or training. Environmentalists warn that this is just a taste of what’s to come for the Sundarbans, home to tigers, rare dolphins, and many other threatened species as well as . Since 2011, Bangladesh drastically opened up the Sundarbans’ waterways to increased traffic. And now the country is constructing two large coal plants on the edge of the forest, which critics contend will further increase traffic—including of toxic coal products—and could spell the end of the Sundarbans already pressured ecological integrity. Jeremy Hance





Landsat image of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. Photo by: NASA.







Related articles


Children ‘clean’ oil spill with kitchen utensils in the Sundarbans

(12/15/2014) On December 9th, a tanker slammed into another vessel along the Shela River in the world’s largest mangrove forest: the Sundarbans in Bangladesh. The tanker sank, spilling an estimated 75,000 gallons (350,000 liters) of fuel oil into waterways that are a part of a reserve for threatened Ganges river dolphins and Irrawaddy dolphins.

New film highlights local resistance to Nicaragua’s canal

(12/11/2014) This fall, filmmakers Tom Miller and Nuin-Tara Key with Pretty Good Productions found themselves in Nicaragua where they heard about a stunning project: the Gran Canal. Approved last year, the canal is meant to compete with the Panama Canal to the south. Built by a Chinese company, it will cut through 278 kilometers, destroying forests and driving through the largest freshwater body in Central America.

To collect or not to collect? Experts debate the need for specimens

(12/10/2014) In 1912, a group of intrepid explorers led by Rollo and Ida Beck, widely acknowledged to be the foremost marine bird collectors of their time, embarked on a most remarkable effort to catalogue South America’s oceanic birds. Museums of the day held opportunistically collected specimens from scattered sources, but rarely did these include ocean-bound birds that spent little time near the coast.

Huge swath of forest in Indonesian Borneo slated for clearing by ‘sustainable’ company

(12/10/2014) A major wood fiber concession has moved ahead on developing a sizable chunk of forest in one of Indonesia’s most vulnerable provinces before a formal conservation assessment of the land could be completed, Greenomics Indonesia reports.

Indigenous leader murdered before he could attend Climate Summit

(12/08/2014) Days before José Isidro Tendetza Antún was supposed to travel to the UN Climate Summit in Lima to publicly file a complaint against a massive mining operation, he went missing. Now, the Guardian reports that the body of the Shuar indigenous leader has been found, bound and buried in an unmarked grave on the banks of the Zamora River.

New survey finds surprisingly large population of endangered owl

(12/03/2014) The Anjouan scops owl—an elusive owl found only on its tiny eponymous island—was once considered among the world’s most endangered owls, and even the most threatened birds. However, the first in-depth survey of the owls on the island finds that, in fact, the population is far larger than initially estimated.

New calendar celebrates primates and raises money for their survival

(11/26/2014) Humans, or Homo sapiens sapiens, are really just upright apes with big brains. We may have traded actual jungles for gleaming concrete and steel ones, but we are still primates, merely one member of an order consisting of sixteen families. We may have removed ourselves from our wilder beginnings, but our extant relatives—the world’s wonderful primates—serve as a gentle living reminder of those days.

Meet the world’s rarest chameleon: Chapman’s pygmy

(11/25/2014) In just two forest patches may dwell a tiny, little-known chameleon that researchers have dubbed the world’s most endangered. Chapman’s pygmy chameleon from Malawi hasn’t been seen in 16 years. In that time, its habitat has been whittled down to an area about the size of just 100 American football fields.

Reeling in religious messages: how faith impacts fisheries in Fiji

(11/25/2014) Marrying religion and conservation could be key to making Fiji’s fisheries sustainable. Fijians have strong religious beliefs, which were primarily introduced by Christian missionaries in the 1835, and today profoundly guide their daily lives. Fijians primarily depend on fisheries close to shore for their survival, which is the case for most small Pacific island countries.