Top 5 environmental success stories of 2016

By Orion McCarthy 

LOOKING back, 2016 will likely be remembered as a year of negative news. Stories of celebrity deaths, political nastiness, conflict and division dominated the news cycle, leaving scant space for uplifting headlines. Negative stories about the environment were also common, as climate change intensified, coral bleaching decimated reefs, pollutants contaminated drinking water, and biodiversity loss continued. Populations of the vaquita porpoise, eastern gorilla, plains zebra, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans all showed worrying signs of decline in 2016.

In light of these negative news stories, many have taken to social media to crown 2016 the worst year of all time. But doing so would ignore the substantial environmental progress made in 2016 for multiple environmental movements and conservation causes. The headlines 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 2017.

Here are five of the biggest victories for environmental conservation in the past year.

1. It was a record breaking year for ocean protections

Cardinal fish shelter under a tabular coral on a reef inside Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. The marine monument was expanded in 2016 to encompass a swath of ocean twice the size of Texas. Photo credit: NOAA.

Over the past few years, an unprecedented amount of attention has been directed towards the world’s oceans. Since 2014, the annual Our Ocean conference has generated substantial commitments to address marine conservation challenges, including illegal fishing and plastic pollution. In 2015, four countries committed to protect nearly 3 million square kilometers of ocean, and area roughly the size of India.

Momentum for marine conservation only accelerated in 2016, which saw the designation of the two largest marine protected areas (MPAs) in the world: the Ross Sea MPA off the coast of Antarctica, and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. These massive new MPAs, which collectively cover an area larger than Alaska, Texas, and California combined, will protect thousands of marine species from exploitation and increase the resilience of marine ecosystems to climate change. In total, over five million square kilometers of new MPAs were announced during the year.

But progress didn’t stop there. In January, U.S. lawmakers banned the use of plastic microbeads in certain products to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean. In June, the Port State Measures Agreement, an international treaty designed to end illegal fishing, entered into force. In August, the United States strengthened a provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to reduce bycatch. And in December, the Obama Administration moved to protect offshore areas in the Atlantic and Arctic Ocean from oil and gas drilling. Together with new MPAs, these accomplishments will help to ensure the health and longevity of marine ecosystems and protect countless species for years to come.

2. Climate action reached a turning point

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holds his granddaughter as he signs the Paris Climate Agreement. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Climate change kicked into high gear in 2016 as historic temperatures melted sea ice, bleached coral reefs, triggered severe weather, and pushed species to extinction. But this year also emerged as a historic turning point for climate action as local activists and world leaders rallied to protect the planet.

The major climate success story of 2016 was the ratification of the Paris Agreement, an international framework for countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and limit global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius. While the agreement was reached in 2015, the Paris Agreement entered into force in November 2016 after being ratified by 55 countries including the United States, China, and member states of the European Union. By the end of 2016, 120 countries representing 80% of global emissions ratified the agreement.

The Paris Agreement wasn’t the only climate victory of 2016. In October, 197 countries agreed to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a family of powerful, long lasting greenhouse gasses used in refrigerators and air conditioners. If enforced, this single agreement could prevent up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming over the next century.

In another significant act of climate diplomacy, 190 countries agreed to cap carbon dioxide emissions from international flights at 2020 levels. This is a huge win for the planet, given the enormous carbon footprint of the airline industry. After 2020, carriers that pollute more than the cap will have to purchase carbon offset credits.

Finally, 2016 was a booming year for renewable energy production as falling prices made solar and wind energy more and more competitive with fossil fuels. While the U.S. solar industry is on track to install 2 million panels in two years, China’s solar and wind energy capacity increased by 74% and 34%, respectively in 2016. In addition, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland recently announced their intentions to phase out all coal fired power plans.

3. Some endangered species showed signs of recovery

A mother giant panda plays with her cub at the San Diego Zoo. Giant panda populations have been increasing in response to successful conservation interventions. Photo credit: San Diego Zoo.

A recent study by WWF found that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58% over the between 1970 and 2012. This worrying trend of biodiversity loss continued in 2016 as habitat loss, exploitation, and climate change threatened species across the globe with extinction.

Thankfully, a number of species bucked these trends and exhibited promising signs of recovery in 2016. The West Indian Manatee recently made headlines for being removed from the endangered species list. The decision to relist the species as threatened, rather then endangered, reflects the manatee’s impressive recovery since 1991, when only 1,267 were thought to exist in Florida. The population is now estimated at 6,300 individuals, an increase of 500%. Populations of green sea turtles in Florida and Mexico also showed signs of recovery in 2016, and were downgraded from endangered to threatened.

This year also marked the first time that tiger populations increased in more than a century. An April 2016 study estimated the global population of wild tigers to be 3,890, up from 3,200 in 2010. Giant pandas also showed signs of recovery: following a successful decade of conservation that saw global panda populations rise 17%, the IUCN Redlist moved to reclassify the giant panda as vulnerable rather than endangered. While giant pandas are still threatened by human activity, measures such as captive breeding and habitat conservation have nudged trends in the right direction for the species. Continued conservation is critical for the full recovery of pandas, tigers, sea turtles, manatees, and countless other species.

4. The war against poaching picked up steam

The international community voted to increase legal protections under CITES for pangolins, manta rays, thresher sharks, and elephants at the 17th CITES Conference of Parties (CoP17) in Johannesburg in October. From top left to bottom right: two African elephants (Loxodonta africana), a thresher shark (Alopias macrourus), an Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), a Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris), a black rhino (Diceros bicornis), a manta ray (Manta alfredi) and an electric blue dwarf gecko (Lygodactylus williamsi). These species are all threatened by the illegal wildlife trade. Photo credit: CITES.

Although poachers continued to kill elephants, rhinos, pangolins, sharks, tigers, and other animals during 2016, major progress was made towards closing legal loopholes and cracking down on traffickers to address the illegal wildlife trade.

During the 17th CITES Conference of Parties (CoP17), the international community voted to increase legal protections under CITES for pangolins, manta rays, thresher sharks, and elephants. In addition, the United States enacted a near-complete ban on commercial ivory in July, effectively closing the second biggest legal ivory market in the world. Hong Kong also began the process of phasing out its legal ivory trade by announcing plans to close legal loopholes exploited by wildlife smugglers, while China, home to the largest ivory market in the world, announced plans to ban its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017. Finally, innovative technologies including thermal imaging cameras and human imaging software helped rangers apprehend dozens of poachers in Africa.

As the fourth largest illicit trade globally, the illegal wildlife trade harms people and animals. Poaching and smuggling degrade ecosystems, destroy livelihoods, direct money to terrorists and drug gangs, and drive species to extinction.

5. Environmental activists achieved major wins

A Lakota Sioux marcher photographed during protests at Standing Rock Indian Reservation. A months-long peaceful protest successfully halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Sioux tribal lands. Photo credit: Sierra Club.

Environmental movements are not born overnight. To spark real change, activists must organize, mobilize, and communicate effectively to sway public opinion and secure lasting changes. Following years of outreach, campaigns, and protests, many thousands of dedicated animal rights, environmental justice, and climate activists made headlines in 2016 with a series of major victories.

From the Cove to Blackfish, animal rights activists have used documentaries to successfully shift public perception about captive animals. In a 2015 survey, 32% of Americans asserted that animals should have the same legal protections as people, up from 25% in 2008, and a majority of respondents reported concern over animal treatment in circuses and marine parks. This change in public opinion and continuing activism by filmmakers helped to secure major victories for captive animals in 2016: Ringling Bros., the largest circus in the United States, retired all of its remaining performing elephants while Sea World agreed to end captive breeding of orcas at its facilities.

In addition to documentaries, environmental activists continued to use political activism to secure environmental protections in 2016. California voters upheld the state’s plastic bag ban, the first in the nation when it was passed in 2014, while the town of Newark, New Jersey successfully passed a groundbreaking environmental justice ordinance to mandate consideration of environmental impacts of development in the city in relation to income and race. Finally, the most widely publicized environmental activism story of the year, a powerful, peaceful, months-long protest that drew participants from around the country to Standing Rock Indian Reservation, succeeded in temporarily halting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision to halt the project will protect the drinking water and sacred land of the Sioux Tribe.

What YOU can do

From the incremental progress won through on-the-ground conservation programs to the major breakthroughs brought by international agreements and activism, the environmental victories of 2016 are something to be proud of. Going forward, conservationists, activists, and policy makers should internalize lessons from these achievements to advance environmental progress in 2017.

But 2016 has also highlighted how easily and unpredictably fortunes can shift. While the past eight years have been kind to the environmental movement in the United States, initiatives focused on land conservation, climate science, endangered species protections, and renewable energy will likely face strong headwinds in the years to come. Safeguarding the progress won in 2016 will require vigilance and a willingness to speak up for the environment.

As you mull your new years resolutions for 2017, consider committing to remain active and outspoken to protect the causes you care about. Write letters to your elected leaders to make your voice heard. Take advantage of local avenues for environmental progress by volunteering or participating in grassroots initiatives. Start a conversation with friends and family about the importance of protecting the environment. Remind people of the enduring importance of environmental conservation, regardless of what happens in 2017.

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