How Conservation Rocked in 2016


Whilst many of us will remember 2016 as the start of the post truth era, brought about in large part by what scientists have described as a new type of Fact-Resistant human, 2016 has been a great year for conservation.

In our continued efforts to shift the focus away from a doom and gloom outlook within our sector, and in our continued effort to draw awareness to the Conservation Optimism Summit that will be held in April 2017, let us celebrate everything we have achieved this year, because we have a lot to be proud of. So let’s start things off with Item 1: Climate Change.

Ratification of Paris Agreement

As an issue first brought to the world stage at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, the path to the Paris agreement has taken its time.

International treaties such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol extended the mandate of UNFCCC to commit governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the premise that climate change was happening, and that it was human induced. Fast forward to 2009 and the world awaits in trepidation as global leaders announce their plans for the non-binding Copenhagen Acord, regarded by some at the time to have been a failure in our global capacity to find consensus and commit to true change.

Then in 2015 the Paris Accord is drafted. Nations throughout the world and particularly the two biggest emitters, namely the United States and China, agree to set national targets which will reduce global output of greenhouse gas emissions.  A year later the accord comes into force after the European Union along with many other countries lead the way in ratifying the agreement. Countries have committed to reducing their emissions and reporting the results of their efforts transparently, with the goal of keeping global temperature increases below 2°C from pre-industrial levels.

Whilst not perfect, and whilst there is still a long way to go, the journey to this agreement is testament to the efforts of environmentalists world-wide, whose stubborn perseverance has led to change. What’s more, earlier this year the International Energy Agency said that CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels have remained constant for two years in a row, and more than 360 companies and investors signed an open letter to the new president elect of the United States urging him uphold the deal, which is just awesome. So whilst we still have no reduction, stability of emissions is the first step, something which will be good for the planet, and good for endangered species. First win. Now onto item 2: National Parks.

More than just words on paper

2016 was also a great year for the designation of national parks, protected areas and marine reserves. Around the world governments and inter-governmental bodies put words into action and created some of the largest expanses of protected areas in modern history.

The first one that warrants recognition is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. In October, President Obama (I will miss writing this) expanded the size of the reserve to encompass an area of 1,510,000 km2 of ocean, securing the protection of numerous islands and atolls important for biodiversity conservation and Hawaiian culture. Not to mention that it’s home to ~7,000-different species, 25% of which are endemic. The annoying thing however about this reserve its unpronounceable name, but even the man himself struggles with this, so let’s not be too hard on ourselves.

Next is the Caribbean biosphere reserve recently created in Mexico. President Enrique Peña Nieto recently announced the creation of the largest biosphere reserve in Mexico to mark the opening of the COP13 global biodiversity summit, which opened on the 5th of December this year. The area will make up 5.7 million hectares (mostly marine), home to ~1,900 species of flora and fauna, 500 species of fish and an estimated 86 species of coral. On paper this means no more petroleum exploration throughout a large part of Mexico’s coast, a win for wildlife and conservation.

Lastly, in October the largest marine reserve on the planet, about twice the size of Texas, was created in Antarctica. After years of protracted negotiating, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Murray McCully announced that the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, in collaboration with the European Union, would designate 1.57m sq km for conservation, prohibiting commercial fishing for at least 35 years. As one of the most pristine marine environments on earth, and a critical ecosystem home to huge swathes of krill, 38% of the world’s Adelie penguins, 30% of the world’s Antarctic petrels and 6% of the world’s population of Antarctic minke whales, this designation is incredibly significant.

These are just some of the biggest examples, and whilst many of us will be pestered by a nagging reminder that these reserves are difficult to patrol, lets set aside our cynicism and celebrate these achievements. Onto Item 3: Species conservation.

Pangolins, Thresher sharks, Giant Panda’s and other species

Loads of positive species conservation outcomes happened this year. Pangolins and Thresher Sharks (apparently to the roaring cheers of CoP17 delegates in South Africa) were listed on Appendix I and II of CITES, respectively. Our beloved Giant Panda was uplisted from endangered to vulnerable, a testament to the effectiveness of Chinese and international interventions to save this species. What else?

  • South Africa banned Leopard hunting for one year
  • Golden Eagle numbers are up in Scotland (15% in last decade)
  • Beavers given legal protection in Scotland, setting a UK precedent for their wider reintroduction
  • The numbers of Common Cranes are up throughout the UK
  • ZSL announced an increase in Tiger numbers in Nepal
  • The hunting of brown bears, wolves, lynx and wild cat was banned in Romania

Whilst these are great achievements, there is still much to be done, but the struggle to save some of the most endangered species can for now, continue in the New Year. Next onto item 4: Legislation.

Plastic, food waste and legal protection

Several legislative milestones were overcome in 2016. The UK finally introduced a 5p charge on throwaway plastic bags, leading to an estimated 85% reduction in use within 6 months. The UK also committed to banning microbeads from cosmetic products by 2017 (as did the US); the tiny pieces of plastic which end up harming marine and fresh water environments as they’re consumed by different species within the food chain. The French banned all use of plastic plates, cups and cutlery, and the Italians introduced a law to slash the amount of food waste produced by the country each year.

Perhaps the best piece of news came from the EU. In early 2015, some of the largest conservation NGOs in Europe initiated a concerted lobbying effort to oppose changes to the EU Nature Directives. These directives are responsible for a wide range of laws which protect and safeguard nature throughout Europe, including the UK. The Natura 2000 network was established as a result of these laws, and is now one of the largest networks of protected areas in the world, protecting 18% of Europe’s landmass and 6% of its ocean. Nature conservation organisations managed to rally the collective voice of some 500,000 European citizens, who joined in force to oppose any dilution of this legislation. In the end, conservationists won the battle. In the immediate and near long term, Europe’s nature will for now, remain protected.

So, here’s to a great year, and a better future

These are wonderful examples of what we can achieve when we collaborate as community. When we collaborate as practitioners, academics and activists. When we collaborate to push for positive change. As Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. We can reverse the damage done by those who have come before us, but we need to maintain and project an attitude of optimism if we want to achieve societal change effectively, and offer people an opportunity to be hopeful about a better tomorrow.

To top it all off, we should not forget about the new series of Plant Earth. After 10 years of waiting, we can now once again enjoy beautiful footage of some of nature’s most awesome actors, whilst listing to the soothing voice of Sir David as we do. And it turns out that more young people are watching planet earth than The X Factor, reminding us once again that a love of nature is deeply engrained in our evolutionary past, and that change will come about as young people grow up to demand a wilder future for themselves.

What’s not to be optimistic about that?

Happy Christmas

Lucas Ruzo

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