Bad news tends to get top billing — and it’s no different for environmental news, which at times this year was downright depressing.
Yet it wasn’t all gloom and doom. In fact, 2021 saw a series of major wins for the climate, for wildlife and for habitats around the world — yet you’d be forgiven if you missed them (or indeed forgot about them).
Take hope with Conservation News’ top 5 victories from 2021.
1) At UN Climate Talks, nature took center stage
In one of the largest in-person global convenings since the pandemic began, representatives from nearly 200 countries met in November to chart course for slowing climate breakdown at the UN Climate Talks in Glasgow.
And for the first time, nature rose to the top of the summit’s agenda, according to Shyla Raghav, Conservation International’s vice president of climate strategy.
“Years from now, the 2021 UN climate talks in Glasgow may well be remembered as a turning point — the point at which the Paris Agreement’s aspirations finally began to turn into action,” she said.
“The concept that nature is essential to solving the global climate crisis, once advocated by a few forest-rich countries, has become mainstream.”
And with this mainstream movement came some big commitments.
In a major announcement on day two of the summit, more than 130 countries — accounting for about 86 percent of the world’s forests — committed to stop deforestation by the end of this decade.
Joining the fight to end forest destruction, more than 30 financial institutions, with support from Conservation International and partners, pledged to eliminate deforestation driven by agriculture from their portfolios and increase investments in nature-based solutions by 2025.
Another huge win for forests — and other ecosystems — at the summit: Countries ratified a plan to implement international carbon markets, known as “Article 6” of the Paris Agreement. The market will allow countries to “buy” emissions reductions (with some exceptions and regulations) from other countries that have already made a surplus of cuts to their own carbon emissions. It will only permit countries to buy a certain number of credits, registered in or after 2013, that will contribute to their climate goals.
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The new international carbon markets will allow the sale of carbon credits from natural climate solutions — activities that conserve, restore or improve the use or management of tropical forests, mangroves and other ecosystems — that have made proven emissions reductions.
With commitments in place, the next question to ask, says Raghav, is “how fast can we move?”
Countries have agreed to return to next year’s conference with more ambitious and tangible plans, backed by policies and financing, to hit their climate targets.
“Where we go from here is just as important as anything that happened in the past two weeks," Raghav says, "Pledges and commitments are important but they’re not enough — they need to translate to impact. We have much work to do."
2) The United States rejoined the Paris Agreement
One of the world’s largest economies — and second-largest emitters — the United States has a critical role to play in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. That is why the Trump administration’s decision to formally pull the country out of the Paris Agreement in 2020 was a huge blow to the climate movement worldwide.
The good news: One of U.S. President Joseph Biden’s first acts in office was to rejoin these global climate accords.
Since then, the U.S. has committed to cutting carbon emissions by 50-52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. A key part of Biden’s climate plan is to increase investments in natural climate solutions, which can deliver at least a third of the emissions reductions necessary to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
“As President Biden rightly pointed out during his campaign, the actions we take must include investments in nature,” said Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan in a statement. “Investing in the restoration and protection of nature, if carefully designed, can reduce and remove climate-warming carbon far faster than current technology — and deliver additional benefits that no technology can, including fresh water, wildlife habitat, livelihoods.”
Additionally, Biden issued a sweeping series of executive undoing a number of the environmental policies enacted during the Trump administration, including the restoration of three federally protected areas that were severely downsized or downgraded. The restored areas include Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument off the coast of New England.
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Restoring protections to these national monuments makes them off-limits to commercial fishing, mining and drilling — and will help protect the cultural lands of Southwest Indigenous nations such as the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo nation.
“Restoring legal protections for these monuments is a landmark decision that advances environmental justice,” Conservation International scientist Rachel Golden Kroner said. “It is an affirmation of Indigenous-led conservation and an integral part of our efforts to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, together.”
3) Speaking of protected areas …
As governments map their road to recovery from COVID-19, experts are urging governments to protect nature to prevent the spread of future zoonotic disease outbreaks.
Several countries took that advice to heart in 2021, creating and expanding protected areas around the world.
In Guanay, Bolivia — a remote municipality nestled in the Andes — the government established a law in March to protect one-third of its land, spanning 110,837 hectares (273,884 acres) of cloud and montane forests — an area nearly twice the size of Singapore. With support from, Conservation International, the Guanay Protected Area will help guard against deforestation driven by unsustainable agriculture and mining, which have already claimed nearly 60 percent of surrounding forests.
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“Some of the most intact and undisturbed forests in northwestern Bolivia can be found in Guanay,” said Conservation International’s Gabriela Villanueva, who provided technical support for the creation of the protected area. “The establishment of this protected area will help us make sure that Guanay’s forests — and the services they provide to people and wildlife — remain for future generations.”
And that’s just what’s happening on land; there is currently a global push by more than 100 countries to expand ocean protection to 30 percent by 2030 — which scientists say is necessary to limit the impacts of climate change on our oceans and prevent the widespread extinction of marine species.
Contributing to this goal, Ecuadorian President Guillermo announced in November the expansion of the Galapagos Marine Reserve — a 133,000-square-kilometers (51,300-square-mile) marine protected area in the Pacific Ocean — by 60,000 square kilometers (23,000 square miles). Soon to be roughly the size of Spain, this marine reserve protects critical habitats for whales, sea lions and tuna.
Following suit, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama pledged later in November to expand and join their Pacific marine reserves to create an interconnected “safe swimway” that will be off-limits to industrial fishing fleets. This Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor will span more than 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles), protecting migratory routes for threatened species like leatherback turtles and hammerhead sharks.
“We need coordinated initiatives like this one to protect the world’s oceans; it’s not enough for countries to implement piecemeal efforts,” Luis Suárez, vice president of Conservation International in Ecuador, told Conservation News. “Whales, manta rays, marine turtles and other migratory species do not live within prescribed boundaries. And climate change knows no national borders. Countries must rethink conservation policy — they must work together to make an impact.”
4) A sea change for blue carbon
Hugging coastlines throughout the tropics, mangroves can stash away as much climate-warming carbon in a single square mile as the annual emissions of 90,000 cars. They also provide a powerful defense against the impacts of a warming planet, acting as natural buffers against sea-level rise, storm surges and floods.
Yet, mangrove forests have been decimated within the past few decades to make room for agriculture, shrimp farms and urban development — releasing the “blue carbon” this wetland ecosystem stores.
A groundbreaking initiative launched in May 2021 is providing a new way to protect these climate superstars.
Developed by Conservation International and partners, a blue carbon finance project for the first time takes into account not only the carbon that mangrove trees store in their trunks and leaves, but also the carbon they sequester in their soils, often for millennia. Through the sale of carbon offsets, the project creates a long-term funding opportunity that is expected to conserve and restore mangroves in Cispatá, an 11,000-hectare (27,000-acre) mangrove forest along Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
“In most terrestrial forests, soil gets ignored because it only contains a small proportion of the total of carbon,” said Jennifer Howard, who heads Conservation International’s Blue Carbon Program. “But when it comes to wetlands like mangroves and marshes, soil is the most significant source of carbon in the ecosystem. If we ignore the soil, we’re simply leaving money on the table.”
With its carbon stores fully calculated by the Verified Carbon Standard and the Climate, Community & Biodiversity Standards, the most widely used programs for certifying emissions reductions, the Cispatá forest can now be valued for its climate benefits and included in carbon markets. Revenues from the sale of carbon credits will benefit local communities, contributing to sustainable livelihoods and compensating landowners for protecting their mangroves.
According to Howard, this step opens a path for other blue carbon ecosystems around the world to be added to those markets in the coming years.
“You would be hard-pressed to find an ecosystem that delivers more in benefits,” Howard said. “And as blue carbon credits help to make these ecosystems healthier, coastal communities will start to receive more of those benefits.”
5) The biodiversity fight gets a shot in the arm
A UN report found that more than 1 million species are at risk of extinction, largely due to destructive human activities.
Fortunately, the fight to stem biodiversity loss got a major boost this year.
In an announcement at New York Climate Week in September, nine philanthropic organizations — including the Betty and Gordon Moore Foundation, Nia Tero and the Bezos Earth Fund — pledged US$ 5 billion over the next decade to support the creation and expansion of protected areas, sustainable management of the world’s oceans and Indigenous-led conservation. Called the Protecting Our Planet Challenge, this effort marks the largest ever private funding commitment to biodiversity conservation.
“This last year has made clear that natural systems are all connected — ecosystem health, climate health, human health — and by protecting and restoring 30 percent of the world’s land by 2030, we can safeguard our collective future,” said M. Sanjayan, the CEO of Conservation International, which is not part of the Challenge.
In a separate announcement, the Chinese government pledged US$ 230 million in a new fund to support biodiversity conservation in developing countries. Along with establishing the Kunming Biodiversity Fund, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the creation of several new national parks to cover 230,000 square kilometers (88,800 square miles) of land across China. Officials say the parks will protect nearly 30 percent of the country’s key terrestrial wildlife species, including pandas, tigers and leopards.
“This new fund gets us one step closer to filling the financing gap needed to confront the global biodiversity crisis, which has historically lacked adequate support,” said Xiaohai Liu, chief representative of Conservation International in China.
With increased funding in place to protect the world’s wildlife, the next step will be tackling the “how.”
Currently, Conservation International experts are working to create a roadmap to help determine “who” — from farmers to foresters to consumers — must be empowered to do “what” and “where” to conserve the world’s ecosystems. One key aspect of the roadmap is protecting the world’s “irrecoverable carbon” — that is, vast stores of carbon that, if lost, could not be restored by 2050. Mostly locked away in mangroves, peatlands, forests and marshes, this carbon is equivalent to 15 times the global fossil fuel emissions released in 2020.
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“The unprecedented global biodiversity crisis is finally being understood and appreciated as the twin counterpart to the climate crisis, which is increasingly affecting all life on Earth,” Sanjayan said. “We cannot solve one of these challenges without also solving the other."
Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.
Cover image: Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya (© Jonathan Irish)