3 reasons for optimism this Earth Day

Elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust center in Kibwezi, Kenya. New findings are changing what we know about how protected areas work. ©Charlie Shoemaker/Conservation International

This Earth Day (April 22), you could be forgiven for feeling gloomy about the state of our planet.

No human who has ever lived has seen the things we’re seeing now: Rising temperatures are melting glaciers, bleaching coral reefs and putting islands at risk of vanishing. Pollution is clogging our coasts. Wildlife face mass extinctions.

Humanity has never faced challenges on this scale — but we’ve never had the tools we now have to solve them. With that in mind, here are but a few reasons to be hopeful this Earth Day.

  1. The world’s most populous country is becoming a global sustainability leader.

The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were supposed to herald China’s arrival as a fully global society — yet outside the sports venues, it was Beijing’s abysmal air pollution that got the most press.

How quickly things can change.

China is still the world’s largest emitter of carbon, but look at what has happened since 2008:

Let’s be clear: China still has a long way to go. (Even if it clears its air, it still has a serious water pollution crisis on its hands.) Amid U.S. backtracking on climate and energy issues, though, China appears ready to assume the role of leader in global climate policy.

  1. We’re getting a better picture of what it takes to truly protect wildlife and their habitats.

Protected areas — such as national parks and reserves — have become the go-to method for conserving wildlife, ecosystems and the benefits they provide to humans. But they are not working as intended: We keep losing nature to unsustainable development. Fortunately, new research is pointing the way to make protected areas work for nature and for people.

We now know better than ever why protected areas fail:

  • They are not as secure as you might think: Many protected areas around the world — including in the Amazon and even Yosemite National Park have seen local legal changes that relaxed rules governing their use or that shrank park boundaries.
  • A recent study found that many marine protected areas lack sufficient staffing or budget, typically leading to worse outcomes for marine life in those places.
  • Indigenous and local communities in some places have been harmed when protected area laws kicked them off their ancestral lands.

Things are looking up, though — we are coming up with ways to make them better:

  • High-tech camera traps — and improved systems for crunching the mountains of data they capture — are enabling researchers to understand how well species are thriving in protected areas, drawing lessons for conservation elsewhere.
  • A marine protected area in eastern Indonesia referred to as the “epicenter of marine biodiversity” represents a new model for conservation with the announcement of a dedicated fund that will pay to protect and manage the protected area in perpetuity.
  • And new research is backing up what many conservationists have long known: Places where indigenous people and local communities have legal rights to their lands see less deforestation and better outcomes for wildlife and for climate change. Improved land tenure for indigenous communities can create a valuable complement to protected areas.

These findings are refining what we know about how conservation works, driving new policies for protecting wildlife while respecting local communities as well.

  1. The cutting edge of conservation isn’t in a remote rainforest. It’s in the big city.

With more than half the world’s population now living in cities, it seems natural that cities are becoming living laboratories for sustainability, helping put human and financial capital behind “green” efforts.

Consider:

  • Cities from Copenhagen to Kolkata are experimenting with new ideas for addressing flood control, public transit and waste management — offering solutions that could soon become the norm in cities elsewhere.
  • This month, Chicago became just the latest big city to go all-in on renewable energy, vowing that all city-run buildings would run fully on renewable energy by 2025.
  • And amid the uncertainty about the future of climate and energy initiatives in a new U.S. presidential administration, state and city governments are pressing ahead anyway with innovative plans for emissions cuts and energy efficiency.

But cities are not immune from what happens farther afield, and their footprints can be bigger than meets the eye. The 2014-2015 drought in Sao Paulo, Brazil, illustrated what happens when you don’t take care of the nature in your back yard: The loss of forests in the region damaged a powerful driver of the area’s rainfall.

With this in mind, cities including Mexico City, Bogota and Jakarta have focused their efforts on protecting and restoring their nearby forests: In each case, the forests outside each city store and filter the water that those cities rely on. This work, with the assistance of Conservation International, is spurring new knowledge and advancements in how to preserve the nature that people need, no matter how far removed they are from the countryside.

Bruno Vander Velde is editorial director at Conservation International.

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