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The Top Positive Environmental News Stories from 2021

  • 2021 saw what many would consider the most important Conference of the Parties on climate change (known as COP 26). While still not yet enough to bring us to net-zero emissions by 2030, there were significant commitments made that undoubtedly bring us closer if they are adhered to.
  • An amazing amount of species recovered–including some iconic ones–making hopeful population rebounds after years of conservation efforts and policies.
  • New technologies show promise of slashing ⅓ of global greenhouse gas emissions in just a couple of decades in the agriculture sector, playing a pivotal role in combatting climate change.
  • Indigenous groups and organizations achieved some major victories and achievements inspiring some of the boldest commitments to protect tropical forest cover.

In many ways, 2021 proved just as difficult a year as the previous one: a world still grappling with a pandemic claiming countless lives and upending the economies and livelihoods of nations across the globe. Amid this tragedy, the highly anticipated COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, while considered a step forward in many ways, still failed to deliver a direct pathway to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. But there were some very significant reasons to remain hopeful.

This was a harsh year any way you slice it, but it comes to a close with significantly brighter prospects than the one before it. There were notable leaps forward in conservation efforts and funding, species recovery, technology innovation, Indigenous rights victories, a sharper spotlight on reforestation (and what constitutes it), ambitious commitments to tropical forest conservation, and, despite issues of access, a much stronger activist presence at the annual COP than has ever been seen before.

Mongabay takes a look back at some of the most positive stories from 2021.

 

New protected areas established 

While the Australian government has drawn criticism for its COP26 declaration, the country has made significant gains in marine protected areas. Notably, two new parks will cover an area that is twice the size of Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Combined, these Indian Ocean reserves will protect 740,000 square kilometers (286,000 square miles) of ocean. Additionally, the state of South Australia added nearly 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) of land by proclaiming Nilpena Ediacara National Park its newest national park.

A whale shark glides beneath Darwin’s Island in the Galapagos. Image by Shawn Heinrichs / SeaLegacy.

Panama declared a marine reserve that’s the same size as the country’s entire land area, tripling the size of Cordillera de Coiba Marine Protected Area, while Ecuador announced an expansion of 60,000 square kilometers (23,200 square miles) to Galápagos Marine Reserve. The presidents of the two countries also joined their counterparts from Costa Rica and Colombia to extend and join up their marine protected areas.

 

Conservation brings in cash

While government commitments to rewilding and restoration were unquestionably some of the most ambitious ever seen, the private sector leaped ahead this year, driven by funding from individuals and foundations alike. Conservation and ecotourism were also shown to be important sources of income for local communities.

This year saw the most money ever pledged for biodiversity conservation from a private source. The $5 billion commitment was made by nine different organizations that aim to disperse the funding over the next decade in a plan called the “Protect Our Planet Challenge.” The plan is also referred to as “30×30” as it seeks to protect and conserve 30% of the planet’s land and ocean area by 2030.

Conservation proved once again it can be profitable, and in a concrete way by providing economic opportunities and new income streams for locals. In Indonesia, Way Kambas National Park has helped establish a new creative economy built around conservation of the critically endangered Sumatran Rhino. Small and medium business opportunities have thrived around the park, creating job opportunities, particularly for women.

Oscar-winning actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio spearheaded a pledge of a hefty $43 million to restore the Galápagos Islands. This is funded in partnership with an organization he co-founded, Re:wild, and local communities in the Galápagos Islands along with Island Conservation and the Galápagos National Park Directorate. Paula A. Castaño, a restoration specialist who works on the Floreana Island Ecological Restoration Project, will aid in the effort as well as use DiCaprio’s Twitter and Instagram accounts to disseminate information related to the project.

Paula Castaño, a wildlife veterinarian and island restoration specialist with Island Conservation in the field in the Galápagos. Photo credit: Island Conservation

 

Indigenous victories and contributions continue

Building upon last year, 2021 continued the trend for Indigenous rights recognition and their enduring contribution as the most effective stewards of ecosystem preservation and protection. While land rights remain a battle, the potential for Indigenous rights justice and the ability of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) to play a key role in combating climate change gained further acknowledgment, including at COP26.

Twenty years of discussions have resulted in the Peruvian government establishing a long-awaited reserve for Indigenous peoples in the department of Loreto near the border with Brazil. The Yavarí Tapiche Indigenous Reserve covers 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) specifically for “uncontacted peoples.” The reserve is established under a Peruvian law that governs territories for peoples in isolation or initial contact (PIACI), overcoming opposition from oil companies that operated in the location in 2013. The Peruvian Ministry of Culture says this is the first reserve of its kind to be established after the implementation of PIACI law.

In another multidecade battle, the proposed Athirappilly hydroelectric project was scrapped by the government of Kerala in India following environmental and tribal community protests, bringing to a successful close an effort that started in 1996 to protect Kerala’s only riverine forest, and potentially hundreds of Indigenous people.

Mongabay covers the latest news from nature’s frontline. Find our latest articles and more in our newsletter. Click the image to subscribe. Image by Maria Angeles Salazar. Instagram: @masaru_arts.

At COP26 there was a historic acknowledgment of the key role that Indigenous groups will play in combating climate change. A joint study released during the second week of the conference outlined evidence showing that if tropical rainforest nations want to meet their Paris Agreement goals, the most effective action they can take is to give land rights back to IPLCs. The lands span an area equivalent to the contiguous United States, yet IPLCs only have rights to about half.

An estimated 253.5 gigatons of carbon are stored on these lands (which comprise 60% of the world’s tropical forests), yet 130 gigatons of it (52%) are in areas not currently legally recognized as IPLC territory.

But there’s a push to tackle this. The Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative calls for protecting 80% (35 million hectares, or 86 million acres) of the Amazon in Peru and Ecuador by 2025. This ambitious initiative, unveiled by a group of Indigenous organizations, so far has been met positively by the Peruvian and Ecuadoran governments, although those countries’ reliance on on extractive industries in the rainforest could complicate matters.

In another display of hope this year, on Sept. 10 the IUCN World Conservation Congress voted in favor of another Indigenous-lea measure, this one calling to protect 80% of the entire Amazon Basin by 2025. The vote received the approval of 61 governments and 600 NGOs and Indigenous peoples’ organizations.

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal speaking at a press conference at the IUCN Congress in Marseille, France.

 

Restoration and rewilding

The United Nations officially declared the 2020s the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration calling on nations across the globe to restore 1 billion hectares (2.5 million acres) of degraded land. This is equivalent to an area larger than China. Considering half the globe’s GDP relies on nature, this comes as great news to the economy, with every dollar spent on restoration. yielding $30 in benefits.

“The U.N. Decade runs from 2021 through 2030, which is also the deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals and the timeline scientists have identified as the last chance to prevent catastrophic climate change,” the U.N. says.

The past two decades have seen an area of forest larger than the size of Madagascar or France (58.9 million hectares, or 146 million acres) completely regrown, an assessment conducted by BirdLife International, WCS and WWF have concluded. The trees grown could potentially sequester more than 5.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide, which would be more than the annual emissions of the United States.

Schoenherr’s blue weevil (Eupholus schoenherri – Curculionidae family), a spectacular blue and turquoise beetle from New Guinea. Photo by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Some of the hotspots identified for regrowth overlap with areas experiencing high rates of deforestation, such as Brazil. The reason for this is that sometimes land that’s cleared for agriculture is subsequently abandoned. Factors that account for some of the regeneration are “local protections that provide space and opportunities for trees to recover and transition away from agriculture, which can occur when local populations move to urban areas or farming practices change.”

In line with tree restoration comes an exciting initiative from Jane Goodall, who has pledged her support to plant 1 trillion trees by 2030, potentially increasing the world’s entire tree cover by a third from today. Trees for Jane partners with the Trillion Tree Campaign (1t.org) and German NGO Plant-for-the-Planet. Because reforestation and tree planting can potentially negatively impact native ecosystems if done incorrectly, Goodall is advising the Trillion Tree Campaign on how replanting can be done responsibly. Guidelines have also been instituted on which kinds of tree planting projects can be financed under this initiative.

In the same vein, this year Mongabay launched an online database of tree-planting projects to increase transparency for potential donors. The Mongabay Reforestation Directory rates publicly available information on 350 projects in 80 countries using 36 expert-defined criteria.

 

Species make a comeback

Everyone loves a good comeback story, and 2021 saw a lot of them. From humpback whales to eastern barred bandicoots, lots of species that were either previously teetering on the edge of extinction or simply vanished (thought to be extinct) saw their populations climb back or were spotted once again in the wild.

A giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) climbs a tree at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding and Conservation Center in Sichuan, China. Photo by Binbin Li, Duke University

It took 30 years, but red kites have made their way back to 2,000 breeding pairs in England. This medium-to-large bird of prey was once down to just 37 breeding pairs in southern England in the mid-1990s.

While still considered vulnerable, China’s giant panda is no longer endangered, thanks to years of conservation efforts. The panda population in the wild now sits at around 1,800, China says. The iconic animal’s rebound provides further confidence in conservation efforts for Chinese citizens, as many took to social media platforms to voice their joy on the occasion. The restoration of bamboo forests and habitats has also been credited with their recovery.

A breaching humpback whale in front of Salvador de BahiaImage in Brazil. Image by Enrico Marcovaldi / Projeto Baleia Jubarte

In a remarkable turn, and despite the increasing cumulative plastic pollution and acidification problems impacting oceans, humpback whales have bounced back to an estimated 93% of their original population predating modern whaling in 1830. This comes after they nearly went extinct in the mid-20th century, declining from 27,000 to an estimated population of just 450. The population rehabilitation is largely attributed to the commercial whaling ban of 1986. A recent study estimates that the population will be “nearly recovered by 2030.”

The eastern barred bandicoot also made a stunning recovery from the brink of extinction, climbing back to a population of 1,500 from 150, the result of 30 years’ worth of conservation action.

 

COP26 commitments, coal cancellation, and activism taking center stage

There’s still a long way to go on the transition away from fossil fuels, but this year saw uniquely encouraging steps forward. Even though COP26 may not have closed the gap on a viable net-zero pathway, the Glasgow Climate Pact has some key differences from the Paris Agreement that experts say give us a fighting chance at staying below 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) of warming if the actions and commitments made in the pact are fully adhered to. Notably, every government is expected to come back with stronger commitments at every annual COP, rather than every five years (as previously outlined in the Paris deal).

“We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees [2.7°F] alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action,” said COP26 president Alok Sharma.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, speaks at COP26. Image courtesy of Jack Sauverin/UK Government.

2021 also saw a uniquely aggressive crackdown on both new and existing coal plants across the globe. Some of the most positive stories come from Indonesia, where environmental NGO, Walhi triumphed in a lawsuit against PT Mantimin Coal Mining for obtaining an operating permit in Borneo without completing an environmental permit.

A recent report shows that plans for 75% of new coal plants were halted or ditched altogether since the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed. President Xi Jinping announced in September that China would not finance any more coal-fired power plants abroad, but this pledge leaves open a loophole allowing the country to invest in other coal projects, including gasification plants in Indonesia.

In North America, another fossil fuel giant took a tumble: the Keystone XL pipeline was finally axed following U.S. President Joe Biden’s cancellation of the permit for the 1,900-kilometer (1,200-mile) project.

If you read anything from COP26, you very likely heard of the high-profile Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use. This declaration, endorsed by 133 world leaders, states: “We therefore commit to working collectively 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% of global forest cover.

While Indonesia, a key signatory of this declaration, has since walked back its commitment by taking umbrage with the definition of “reverse and halt forest loss,” experts say the pledge has some hope to make good on its promise because of its attention to revamping or addressing trade policies, finance, and land tenure rights.

Protesters outside COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, November 3, 2021. Photo by Albin Hillert for the Lutheran World Foundation via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

And lastly, citizens around the world made their voices heard loud and clear during the “Global Day of Climate Action,” which saw more than 100 demonstrations in the U.K. alone and attracted 100,000 protesters to the streets of Glasgow. More than 100 other nations also saw similar protests. Young activists from around the globe, including Greta Thunberg, demanded stronger action from the world leaders in attendance at COP26.

 

New and emerging technology

Technology undoubtedly plays a role in fighting climate change, including through its potential to overhaul our food systems. A timely new study shows emerging technologies could pave the way for net-zero agriculture in just a couple of decades. As this sector accounts for around a third of greenhouse gas emissions globally, this is welcome news. An additional study noted that Europe has the potential to feed 600 million people entirely from organic farming alone by 2050.

At COP26, a promising new atmospheric methane removal technology was widely discussed. While methane only comprises 2 parts per million in the atmosphere, it traps 85% more heat over 20 years when compared to CO2. A hundred nations agreed to a 30% reduction of human-caused methane emissions by 2030.

The technology is intended to pick up the slack where this commitment is falling short. Up to $50 million will be necessary to field test the technology, which has several implementations but largely is a process of methane oxidation — breaking methane down into smaller particles of CO2, which would have 1/44th the heat-trapping capacity of methane.

 

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: News of a $24 million gift establishing the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Mongabay’s podcast took a close look at the technology, listen here:

Read more of Mongabay’s happy and upbeat news stories here.

Mike DiGirolamo is Mongabay’s audience engagement associate. Find him on Twitter @MikeDiGirolamo and Instagram or TikTok @midigirolamo.

Banner Image by Maria Angeles. Find her on Instagram @masaru_arts.