The Happiest Environmental News From 2016

Hey look, we didn’t entirely screw up the planet this year.

Dec 28 2016, 4:00pm

Giant panda. Image: Flickr/playlight55

I'm not going to tiptoe around it: This year was a pretty dismal stretch for the environment. We witnessed hotter-than-ever global temperatures, the first mammal species to become extinct due to climate change, and the election of a US president who thinks humans had jack squat to do with any of it.

But before our collective outlook becomes permanently bleak, I'd like to remind you that environmental progress is also unstoppable, and several accomplishments this year are proof of that. So here, in no particular order, are the stories from 2016 that give me personal hope for a not-so-terrible future—and I hope they do the same for you.

President Obama created one of the world's largest marine monuments

Map of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument expansion. Image: Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

In late August, President Obama returned to his roots by expanding the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off the northern end of the Hawaiian Islands. The marine protected area was first established by President George W. Bush in 2006 for the preservation of tropical reef-life such as green sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, and Laysan albatross. Considered "the rainforest of the sea," Papahānaumokuākea is home to ancient coral reefs, 7,000 species of animals, and is also a sacred cultural site for Native Hawaiians.

After this year's addition, the monument now covers a total of 582,578 square miles; an area larger than all of America's national parks combined.

President Obama said that protecting marine ecosystems is "in the public interest," and despite sparking controversy over its "no take" rules (fishing and other exploitative activities are prohibited within Papahānaumokuākea), the protected area is an example of how one generation can safeguard the environment for another.

Scientists discovered a way to trap CO2 underground as a solid

Sample of CO2 converted into ankerite. Image: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

While this story isn't directly related to the environment, it's implications are exciting for anyone who cares about climate change and mitigating its effects. Two years ago, researchers with the US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory injected carbon dioxide into dried-up basalt lava flows. After a couple of years elapsed, they checked their samples and discovered that once-fluid CO2 had been converted into a solid, stable mineral called "ankerite."

"These continental-scale basalt formations are one of the largest geological formations on our planet. They're spread all across the globe both onshore and offshore, and in really important locations," Peter McGrail, the study's lead author, told me last month. He believes this technique could help large greenhouse gas-emitting countries, such as India where basalt formations are plentiful, reduce their carbon footprints.

Although it's still nascent, and requires scaling-up, this new way of sequestering emissions offers enormous potential for commercial use. And since it doesn't look like we'll be quitting oil anytime soon, a safer method of trapping and storing greenhouse gases will be crucial for our climate future.

Carbon emissions were down and renewable energy usage was up

Image: EIA

In October, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a federal agency tasked with collecting and analyzing energy data, delivered some hopeful news. Throughout the first half of 2016, carbon emissions in the US were as low as they had been since 1991, hovering somewhere around 2.53 billion metric tons.

A couple of factors went into this, according to the EIA. Overall, the weather was unseasonably warm, and the number of of heating-degree days, or days that would increase the cost of utility bills, were few. It's important to note that record-high temperatures are now believed to be a symptom of global warming, similar to "global greening," or the phenomenon that's caused an increase in plant growth, due to higher levels of CO2. With regard to hotter weather, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies found that "each of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month globally in the modern temperature record, which dates to 1880."

But another reason for the emissions drop was the fact that renewable energy usage increased by 9 percent, compared to the same period in 2015. This, in the overall scheme of things, is a positive beacon for long-term climate progress. What this year proved was that more incentives, along with improved state and federal standards, for renewables can significantly impact our carbon footprint. Most significantly, it showed that adopting a newer, cleaner energy mix isn't entirely impossible.

Giant pandas are no longer "endangered"

Giant panda cub. Image: Flickr/guido da rozze

A few months ago, I wrote a counterargument to the celebration that giant pandas had been upgraded to a conservation status of "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Yes, the odds are improving for these once categorically endangered bears. But realistically, they're still as imperiled as ever.

I'm not retracting my opinion. While giant panda population numbers are up, thanks to a healthy boost from well-funded conservation programs, their downgrading leaves plenty of room for protections to soften. And unless their habitat in China is preserved for their eventual reintroduction (previous attempts have been less than successful), can we really consider their outlook improved?

Still, the reason I'm including giant pandas on this list is symbolic. Much like the panda's symbolism for an entire conservation movement (think about the World Wildlife Fund's iconic logo), their rehabilitation in captivity is an auspicious sign of what can be achieved if we put our money where our mouths are. Species conservation takes time, effort, funding, and most importantly, it takes people giving a damn. So in the face of countless extinction threats, let's take a tip from the panda, and open our hearts (and wallets) to all the creepy, crawly, and less-than-charismatic critters who need saving, too.