- The world is finally getting serious about tackling climate change — and that means protecting forests, too.
- Scientists finally documented a "mystery whale" in the wild, as well as a number of other newly discovered species.
- China and the United States announced a joint partnership to end the illegal trade in elephant ivory.
While the top environmental stories of the year include more than a few bummers, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the planet in 2015.
Here we take a look at some of the more positive developments, from the Paris Agreement to the Yellowstone of the Amazon and the “mystery whale” that was finally documented in the wild.
1. The world is finally getting serious about tackling climate change.
In case you missed it somehow, 195 countries reached a historic agreement to address climate change in Paris this December.
The Paris Agreement has its share of critics, many of whom point out that the commitment made by all those countries to keep global temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels is non-binding.
Which means nearly 200 countries basically just promised to try really hard to lower emissions, but not to accept any penalties if they don’t meet their goals — which aren’t actually ambitious enough to limit global warming to 2C anyway.
But, as ClimateProgress pointed out, just because it’s non-binding doesn’t mean the agreement is meaningless. And many climate experts say that, for all the agreement’s shortcomings, they are hopeful about the fact that the nations of the world have finally come together and established a set of shared goals to combat global warming.
“I think this Paris outcome is going to change the world,” Dr. Christopher B. Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, told the New York Times. “We didn’t solve the problem, but we laid the foundation.”
2. The world committed to protecting forests in Paris, too.
The inclusion of the UN’s program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, REDD+, as a standalone article in the Paris Agreement was welcome news indeed.
Stopping deforestation is one of the simplest ways to drastically reduce carbon emissions from human activity and stabilize the global climate — to say nothing of the enormous benefit it would have for wildlife and local forest communities. The world’s tropical forests alone store as much as a quarter of all global carbon and are home to 96 percent of the world’s tree species.
REDD+ is designed to channel funds from rich countries to developing countries, to help them forego clearing forests for agriculture and resource extraction, among other carbon-intensive economic development projects that jeopardize the health of forests.
Various national and sub-national REDD+ schemes have already been in development around the world for a decade now, but large-scale financial flows have yet to materialize. Including REDD+ in the Paris Agreement provides exactly the right signal to both the public and private sectors to get project finance moving, experts say.
But the agreement goes much further than simply acknowledging the key role of protecting forests as part of broader efforts to combat climate change, according to Donald Lehr, a consultant to the REDD+ Safeguards Working Group, a coalition of civil society organizations
So-called REDD+ “safeguards” designed to protect forests, biodiversity and the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities are also included in the agreement.
“Most importantly, it includes a system to report on how those safeguards are addressed and respected,” Lehr added. “This sets a precedent for protecting rights in all climate actions, and for the protection of natural forests.”
3. An Amazon tribe created a 500-page encyclopedia of traditional medicine.
After one of their most renowned elder healers died before his knowledge could be passed on, the Matsés peoples of Brazil and Peru created a 500-page encyclopedia of their traditional medicinal knowledge to guide new shamans.
Compiled by five shamans with assistance from conservation group Acaté, the encyclopedia records every plant used by Matsés medicine for a wide range of ailments — and it’s only printed in the Matsés native language, to prevent their knowledge from being stolen by corporations or researchers as has happened in the past.
“The [Matsés Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia] marks the first time shamans of an Amazonian tribe have created a full and complete transcription of their medicinal knowledge written in their own language and words,” Christopher Herndon, president and co-founder of Acaté, told Mongabay.
4. Peru created the “Yellowstone of the Amazon.”
After more than a decade of discussion and planning, Peru officially designated Sierra del Divisor National Park, a 1.3-million-hectare (3.3 million acre) reserve that’s been compared to Yellowstone National Park for its conservation significance and spectacular geological features.
Sierra del Divisor is home to uncontacted indigenous tribes, endangered wildlife, and one of South America’s wildest landscapes.
Paul Salaman, CEO of Rainforest Trust, one of the groups that worked for years to make the park a reality, said it was “the final link in an immense protected area complex that extends for more than 1,100 miles from the banks of the Amazon in Brazil to the snowy peaks of the Peruvian Andes” and called it “one of the greatest refuges for biodiversity on Earth.”
5. Deforestation is down in the Amazon rainforest.
The deforestation rate in Brazil declined drastically over the past decade, which might save 1,700 lives a year in addition to being good news for wildlife, forest-dependent communities and Earth’s climate.
But an analysis of satellite data earlier this year suggested that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon may have reached a seven-year high, and the country’s government later confirmed that deforestation was pacing much higher in 2015 than in the previous year.
Still, the overall trend is that deforestation is declining across the Amazon rainforest. A study released earlier this year (available in Spanish) found that deforestation fell sharply both inside and outside the Brazilian Amazon between 2010 and 2013.
Average annual deforestation rates in most non-Brazilian Amazon countries — including Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, and Suriname — fell significantly in that time period relative to 2005-2010, the study found.
Only Venezuela and French Guiana saw increases in deforestation — though the trend in Venezuela was particularly troubling, as deforestation has been rising steadily in the country for the past decade and a half.
6. President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline.
Just a month before the crucial climate talks were to begin in Paris, President Barack Obama announced he was rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline. Specifically citing the project’s impact on the global climate, President Obama said the pipeline, meant to transport tar sands crude from Alberta to refineries on the US Gulf Coast, was not in the nation’s interest.
7. Shell aborted its attempts to drill in the Arctic.
When Royal Dutch Shell’s icebreaker Fennica, a ship critical to the company’s Arctic drilling fleet, attempted to leave Portland for the Chukchi Sea, it was delayed by one of the more daring acts of protest in 2015.
Thirteen Greenpeace activists hanging from the St. John’s Bridge, supported by a flotilla of “kayaktivists”, blocked the ship’s passage for two days before authorities were able to clear the way for the Fennica to join the rest of the fleet.
Two months later, Shell, reportedly $4.1 billion in the hole, announced it was officially declaring defeat in the Arctic after its exploratory wells met with discouraging results.
Company officials said they were abandoning their Arctic ambitions for the “foreseeable” future, and while the historically low price of oil and the prospect of the world finally taking action on climate change probably had a lot to do with that decision, the Guardian reports that the company also admitted it was taken by surprise by the fierce opposition it faced.
8. China and the US pledged to end the ivory trade.
China and the United States are the two biggest markets for the global trade in poached ivory, so it was welcome news when Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama issued a joint announcement pledging to end commercial ivory sales in their countries.
“Two of the most powerful Heads of State want an end to all ivory trade,” Cristián Samper, President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a statement. “That’s only good news for elephants, and we call upon all governments to follow suit.”
There is a lot of momentum in the US behind measures aimed at stopping illegal wildlife trafficking and poaching. California banned the sale of virtually all elephant ivory and rhino horn in October, and an overwhelming majority of voters in Washington passed an anti-wildlife tracking law in November.
There was action at the federal level, too. The US House of Representatives passed the Global Anti-Poaching Act in November, which would elevate wildlife trafficking to the same category of offense as weapons and drug trafficking. And the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that two species of lion — Panthera leo leo and Panthera leo melanochaita — were being granted protection under the Endangered Species Act, making it harder for trophy hunters to import the lions or their parts into the country.
9. A mystery whale known only from specimens was finally found living in the wild.
Scientists finally encountered living members of a species of whale known only from old, dead specimens. Omura’s whale was documented in photos, videos, and audio recordings for the first time ever in the waters off Madagascar.
10. See: The top 20 new species of 2015
No really, you should see these photos of the top 20 new species of 2015. Here’s a sneak peek.