EVERY year, headlines are dominated by negative environmental news, and 2015 was no exception. El Niño climate craziness, coral bleaching, Indonesian wildfires, and the death of Cecil the lion filled the front page. If you didn’t dig deeper, you might think that 2015 was a dismal year for the environment.
But 2015 was actually a historic year, a milestone for multiple environmental movements and conservation causes. The stories didn’t always flash across the front page, but the conservation victories they chronicle hold profound implications for the environment and the world going forward into 2016.
Here are five of the biggest victories for environmental conservation in the past year.
1. The Paris Agreement
2015 showed incredible diplomatic progress in addressing climate change, with a number of impressive climate commitments from countries that have been historically reluctant to deal with climate change at all, including China, Brazil, India, and the United States. That’s a big deal, since those four countries release 52% of all anthropogenic carbon emissions.
After failing to reach an agreement at the 2009 summit in Copenhagen, the historic 2015 Paris climate summit finally produced a concrete framework for tackling climate change.
The agreement, which requires countries to submit their own emission reduction plans every five years, encourages a diverse approach to climate mitigation. Whether it means focusing on developing renewable resources or on conserving old growth forests, every country has the power to shape its own emission reduction plan to reflect its own unique circumstances and strengths.
The emission reduction plans submitted so far by 186 nations are projected to collectively limit global warming only to 2.7°C. To reach the target of 1.5°C set by the Paris Agreement, countries will have to increase their emission reduction commitments in the coming years as technology becomes available.
In the long term, many nations may have to go carbon neutral to prevent rapid climate change. But with a framework in place and all the major emitters onboard, many of the diplomatic hurdles to addressing climate change have been successfully cleared.
2. Marine Protected Areas
Not too long ago, the total area of oceans covered by marine protected areas, or MPAs, was staggeringly low at less than 1%. In 2010, the United Nations set a goal for MPAs to cover 10% of the ocean by 2020, with coverage of 30% of the ocean as the ultimate, long term goal.
This year has seen huge gains in the expansion of marine protected areas. Nearly 3 million square kilometers of ocean have been designated as MPAs in 2015, an area the size of India. Nearly all of these gains have come from a handful of countries, which have set aside significant chunks of their territories for conservation in the form of large marine reserves.
Including both proposed and existing MPAs, 6.1% of the ocean has been set aside for conservation, and the world is currently on track to meet the UN 2020 target for 10% MPA coverage. However, reaching the 2020 target ultimately hinges on a continued push by policy makers to establish more MPAs, building off the phenomenal success seen in 2015 in the years to come.
3. Addressing Illegal Wildlife Trade
In a historic act of cooperation and environmental conservation, the United States and China announced plans to end the commercial sale of ivory in their respective countries. China constitutes the largest ivory market in the world, with the United States coming in second, so the announcement has major repercussions for the ivory supply chain as well as elephant poaching in Africa.
While the United States already boasts a strong stance on wildlife trafficking, the new ivory ban announced by Obama in 2015 closed key loopholes and banned interstate ivory sales. Although China’s pledge lacks specific dates and some other details, the diplomatic significance of the agreement sends a powerful message to those involved in the wildlife trade that poaching will not be tolerated.
The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest black market worldwide after drugs, weapons and human trafficking. The wildlife black market expands beyond ivory to include the exotic pet trade, illegal timber, furs, skins, and a variety of exotic animal parts such as rhino horn and shark fins.
In addition to ivory, the trade of shark fins experienced further disruptions in 2015. UPS altered its shipping policies to ban the transport of any shark fin products. The proactive move by the logistics giant seeks to disrupt the shark fin soup supply chain, and sets a powerful example for other companies.
4. Response to Trophy Hunting
The tragic death of Cecil the lion at the hands of Walter Palmer sparked international outrage this year, igniting public pressure to address the issue of trophy hunting. While the legal status of trophy hunting remains unchanged in many African countries, this year’s intense outrage did achieve some positive change: hunters are now finding it increasingly difficult to get their trophies home.
In a win for endangered species, 45 major airlines, including Emirates, Delta, British Airways and Qantas, will no longer transport wildlife trophies. While it remains legal to bring many of these trophies into the United States, hunters can no longer transport their trophies using the airlines above.
Cecil’s death also acted as a catalyst for the protection of African lions under the Endangered Species Act this December, which will lead to further rules and restrictions on the movement of lion trophies in and out of the United States.
5. Big Oil Struggled
2015 was not a good year for Big Oil. Oil prices plummeted, and with the high operating costs of oil extraction, energy company profits took a hit. Less profitable oil ventures led to less exploratory drilling and development, inadvertently safeguarding pristine environments across the globe.
The most high profile case occurred in the Arctic during the summer, when Shell abandoned plans for a large offshore drilling operation in the waters north of Alaska. 2015 also saw the rejection of the long proposed and politically charged Keystone pipeline, an environmental victory that keeps 800,000 barrels of oil a day in the ground.
With the rise of renewables on the horizon, Big Oil will continue to struggle if companies refuse to adapt to a changing reality. The price of solar power has already dropped 80% in the last 7 years, making solar a competitive alternative to fossil fuels. The transition has begun, and 2015 has shown that oil’s dominance is clearly waning.
What YOU can do
With 2015 drawn to a close, scientists, conservationists, and policy makers are looking ahead to 2016. Hopefully a banner year of environmental advances will follow.
In the meantime, the start of a new year is the perfect time to make your own commitment to the environment. Do the Earth a favor, and make a new years resolution that matters. Find an aspect of your lifestyle that could be altered to be more environmentally friendly. Maybe you can try Meatless Mondays, take the Palm Oil Challenge, or commit to buying locally. Volunteer, buy sustainable seafood, switch to growing only native plants, or bike to work instead of driving. The possibilities are endless.
Lessen your impact in the way that best suits you and your lifestyle, and make 2016 your year of environmental progress.
- How one small country went carbon neutral – and what the rest of world should do to follow
- 4 countries that took huge steps to protect the ocean in 2015
- African Lions were just listed as Endangered under the ESA. Now what?
- Why do governments care about stopping poaching?