As we close out the year, we wanted to share 10 positive stories in our fight to save this planet that you can feel good about.
It’s important to always celebrate the good and focus on solutions in progress, especially with such overall scary topics like climate change and biodiversity collapse, the two existential threats that are the reasons we created Animalia. We are still not headed in the right direction overall, make no mistake about it. We are on pace to blow past the 1.5C temperature increase target set in Paris in 2015 and now need to do everything we can to stay below 2.0C. Likewise, we have over 1 million plant and animal species threatened with extinction and with it, the natural ecosystems they maintain. It’s rough out there.
However, any element of hopelessness breeds inaction. And the last thing we need right now is inaction. So here are 10 stories of progress to celebrate. Here’s to hopefully much more in 2022.
Finally, we also curated a short list of some of our favorite Animalia podcast episodes from this past year. We made 36 in all, speaking to incredible experts all around the world. And today we are publishing our final episode of the year, some reflections from me personally about 3 topics that are close to my heart, including a really simple framework I have for understanding how we save this planet.
Thank you all so much for your support. The entire Animalia community – myself, Annelise, Abby, Dana, and Jose are blown away but the engagement we receive and we all do this as a labor of love to contribute what we can in this critical effort to save our big beautiful planet and all the incredible life on it.
10 POSITIVE STORIES
1. Foundation Laid for Indigenous Path to Forest Restoration
We are losing our forests at historic rates, and with it we are losing our natural carbon sinks, oxygen production, and water quality all of which our forests support. Since the last Ice Age, we’ve lost 1/3 of the planet’s forests, mostly due to agricultural expansion. While there are many competing theories on how to restore and protect these critical ecosystems, the right one is starting to prevail……giving forest ownership back to the Indigenous communities they were originally stripped from. Indigenous peoples know how to sustainably harvest our forest ecosystems, allowing them to create economic value both in the materials they can produce and the carbon they sequester. We do not need to cut down any remaining forests to meet our demand for food and raw materials, especially if we can move away from the highly inefficient food sources – such as livestock and nutrient deficient corn. Agroforestry is also a very real thing that can be expanded in the future, providing more sustainable ways to harvest items like cacao, IF we turn over control to the Indigenous communities that know how to execute this, protecting their cultures in the process. While there is work to do to get there, there was great progress in 2021:
- The Peruvian government established 2.7 million acres near the border of Brazil for Indigenous control instead of oil/mining exploration after 20 years of discussions
- The UN published a groundbreaking study showing that forests under Indigenous control are healthier and sequestering 2x more carbon than those that are heavily protected by governments
- There is a bill in development in the US that would give US Indigenous communities control and governance of many of our National Parks
We don’t need private equity firms buying up deforested lands to plant trees and sell them in the carbon market. We need to give these lands back to the people whose cultures have been caring for them for thousands of years.
2. Biden Nixes the Keystone Pipeline
Overall, we are a bit disappointed with the progress on the climate and biodiversity fronts from the Biden administration based on the large promises made. A lot more talk than action so far, but plenty of time for his team to change that. He did however get off to a great start by passing an Executive Order on Day 1 nixing the Keystone XL Pipeline, a massive oil and gas pipeline connecting wells in Canada to the United States that has been hotly opposed by activists for years. This pipeline would have increased carbon emissions by as much as 25 million tons per year at a time we need to drastically lower them. Make no mistake about it, this was a big time win.
However it was also a learning opportunity for Biden and the team behind it. Because many hard working people lost their jobs without any safety net. The blue collar workers that contract to build our oil and gas infrastructure are not the enemy. They are good, hard working people who are trying to make a living. In the future, when we shut down fossil fuel projects, we need to protect the displaced workers as well by subsidizing their pay for a period of time and helping them retrain to find work in the renewable energy sector. This was a short sighted miss by Biden and a learning moment for us all, but still shutting this down was a step in the right direction.
3. Humpback Whales Remarkable Recovery
In the 1960s, humpback whales were near extinction, with population numbers shrinking from 27,000 to just and estimated 450. The whaling industry worldwide was at its peak, taking down thousands of whales per day. But today, humpbacks have recovered to 93% of their pre-whaling numbers. Far and away the best conservation success across all whale species. Whales are hugely important keystone species and ecosystem engineers. They feed on krill ensuring that prey species does not overpopulate and eat through critical vegetation, their fecal matter serves as an important fertilizer, and they themselves are massive carbon sinks, sequestering 33 tons of CO2 in their lifetime, compared to just 48 pounds of CO2 the average tree sequesters over its lifetime.
We are still a bit unclear on why humpbacks have recovered faster than other whale species receiving similar recovery protection, but the evidence may lie in their relative close proximity to more protected coastal ecosystems vs. say deep sea dwellers like sperm whales, and their food supply being less impacted by other species collapse compared to say orcas that eat larger prey species such as seals who are also seeing their numbers shrink. Still, we are not out of the woods yet. While we’ve made successful inroads in stopping whaling, climate change and ocean pollution serve as serious threats to maintaining humpback numbers.
4. Kenyan Woman Turns Plastic into Bricks
A remarkable entrepreneur from Kenya, Nzambi Matee, a materials engineer, designed a new type of brick made out of used plastic and sand. The resulting brick is 5 times stronger than concrete while weight less and being less brittle. Incredible ingenuity. And this is important, as cement accounts for 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. And while there is also important innovation happening in making greener concrete alternatives, such as this company here, it’s great to see innovations like this from Nzambi that can get us off concrete all together. Today her system can produce about 1,500 bricks per day, but we expect to see that grow in the years ahead as she scales.
5. Methane Finally Gets Targeted
While COP26 was overall a pretty big disappointment – the leaders couldn’t even agree to “phase out coal” over time, instead opting for simply “phasing it down” – one big win was there was an agreement to lower methane emissions for the 1st time at a global level. This is significant because while there is far less methane in our atmosphere than carbon, it traps 85x more heat. It also has a much shorter shelf life in our atmosphere – 10-15 years compared to 100+ years for carbon – meaning short term reductions will reduce short term temperature rise at a faster clip. Methane is also the main issue with natural gas. So as long as we’ve been only CO2 focused in our public rhetoric, the fossil fuel industry has sort of “gotten away” with pegging natural gas as a climate friendly solution because it produces far less carbon emissions than coal or oil. However when factoring in methane, natural gas becomes a big problem.
Well, a majority of countries at COP26 signed a pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. The type of aggressive targets we need. And in conjunction with this, the US EPA announced a new suite of rules and regulations for monitoring methane emissions from natural gas providers.
6. Coral IVF Breakthrough
We’ve already lost 50% of our coral reefs in the last 70 years and are on pace to lose 100% if we hit 2.0C temperature increase primarily due to coral bleaching, a process spurred by ocean acidification and ocean warming that cause stress leading them to expel the algae living in their tissues and die out. This is a big problem because corals are one of our most critical marine ecosystems. Over 500 million people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, income, and protection from storms and coastal erosion.
Just making the 2021 cutoff, earlier this month news came of the first successful coral babies born through in vitro fertilization, the same technique we use in humans to aid in reproduction. These coral IVF babies were planted in 2016, and 5 years later, they have both survived a bleaching event and grown into maturity. This is really a monumental breakthrough that could be the key piece in saving coral going forward. They are now even reproducing themselves!
7. Record Setting Renewable Electricity Addition
According to a recent IEA Report, in 2021 we added a record 290 gigawatts of renewable electricity across the planet with the heaviest contributors being solar and wind. This continued progress is critical as cleaning our electricity grid is undoubtedly the #1 thing we need to do in order to hit our climate targets. Electricity accounts for 25-30% of all greenhouse gas emissions today, and this is only going to increase with more and more of our lives going electric – from transportation to currency to farming to the data centers that power AI. It’s estimated that by 2026, the world will need to generate 4,800 GW of electricity China led the way in this expansion and is expected to reach it’s target of 1,200 GW of renewable power generation by 2030 4 years earlier, by 2026. That said, China also continues to burn a lot of coal as well as it looks to become the dominant energy provider worldwide, particularly via it’s economic expansion into Africa and Southeast Asia.
The US would like to hit 80% of electricity coming from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2035, but that plan took a big blow with the muffin stump that is Joe Manchin killing Biden’s proposal to put stricter regulations on utility companies to transition off fossil fuels because he comes from a big gas and coal state. Another example of a US politician choosing self-interest for re-election over doing the right thing. Nonetheless, this global record is a continued step in the right direction, albeit with a lot more work still to do.
8. Singapore Green Lights Cell-Based Meats
Large scale, industrialized livestock farming, both terrestrial and in our oceans, is one of the most damaging things to our planet and well being. From inefficient land use to inefficient water use to the total emissions of meat life cycles to its role in passing zoonotic viruses to humans such as H1N1, this part of our food supply has to go. That’s not to say all forms of livestock farming are bad. In fact, smaller scale, rotational grazing can be a valuable part of a regenerative agricultural future.
However that form of meat production will not fill the gap left by moving off the toxic industrial production, so we will need other replacements to fill the void. Enter cell-based meats, a growing technology where we use immortalized stem cells from animals to produce meat exactly as you would find it naturally, just without the need to breed a living animal, inject it with hormones, and slaughter it. As the cost of this technology has come down and down, it has finally entered the market. Singapore became the first country to pass regulatory approval for selling cell-based meat in the market. Except many more to follow, including the US in 2022.
9. Greenland Says No More Drilling
Earlier this year, Greenland officially banned all future oil exploration because of the climate crisis. This was a big move as the country has been one of the drilling hotspots over the last couple of decades. In fact on the western coast alone, some 18 billion barrels of oil still remain. Yet the Greenlandic government decided to take a progressive step towards protecting the environment over easy economic gains. Make no mistake, this was not an easy decision. The 56,000 inhabitants of this Danish tied country will need to find an alternative form of economic support. Some speculate this decision was also tied to further efforts for more independence from Denmark. An Inuit led party now leads Greenland and they want to be free of their colonial overlords. Yet some say this could make independence that much harder as in the short term, the country may be even more reliant on Denmark economic subsidies.
Which makes this decision all the more bold. Putting environmental needs above all others. Maybe Joe Manchin can other Congressmen & Congresswomen constantly acting out of self-interest here in the US can learn a lesson or two.
10. Nuclear Gets Bipartisan Support
For the first time in a long time, there was support across the political aisle for nuclear energy, with Congress passing $12B in funding for supporting and updating existing reactors and investing in new ones. Small modular reactors pave a new, bright future for nuclear energy. And we need it. Nuclear is a net-zero carbon energy source that is super reliable and super cheap. The advancement of small modular reactors increases efficiency, safety, and lowers the size of nuclear plants. While we still have room to improve on disposing of nuclear waste and still need uranium to make it happen, this energy source is far far clearer than fossil fuels. And while we build out the infrastructure to move to a world where we can draw all of our energy from sources like wind, solar and geothermal, nuclear is the key bridge in getting there to hit our emissions targets.
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S2:E36 MY 3 REFLECTIONS ON 2021 IN OUR FIGHT TO SAVE THIS PLANET
To close things out, your host James is going to share his thoughts on 3 different topics that he thinks are really important for everyone to understand:
The 2 main things we need to do to save this planet
Is “Greening” Your Life Important?
The Intersection of Climate Justice, Biodiversity Collapse, and Social Justice
Here’s our personal 5 favorite episodes from 2021