The new year could not come sooner. Sure, 2020 was bad—but 2021? I’m not sure that it wound up being that much better. For one, the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. As does the climate crisis. And our world leaders are not doing nearly enough to stop them (or at the very least, one of them).
All that being said, 2021 wasn’t all bad. The United States rejoined the Paris Agreement. And the fossil fuel industry has taken its share of hits—from the first U.S. county banning new fossil fuel infrastructure to Harvard University divesting its endowment from fossil fuels (after years of student pressure). Grassroots organizers across the globe have been working tirelessly this year. The movement has been on a global grind, and it shows. We’ve seen climate justice wins that underscore the importance of people power and representation.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re closing out the year on a positive note. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. There’s no way I could capture every single climate and environmental win on Earth this year, but I can highlight the ones that resonated with me the most. Let’s get into it.
UK Gas Plant Abandoned
For three years, environmentalists across Europe were campaigning to stop the construction of what would become the continent’s largest gas plant. In February, they succeeded. Drax, a U.K.-based energy company, abandoned its plans to replace a coal-fired power plant with a gas one.
Though many energy companies have argued gas is fine for the planet, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. At COP26, this year’s international climate negotiations in Scotland, world leaders promised to reduce global methane emissions by 30% of 2020 levels by 2030.
First US Indigenous Interior Secretary
Sec. Deb Haaland made history this year when she was sworn into the Department of Interior in March. She is the first Native American to be secretary of the Interior where she’s focused on public and tribal lands. As a member of Congress, Haaland was hyper-focused on combating the climate crisis and supporting tribal communities. She’s promised to do the same in this greater role.
One of her most exciting accomplishments so far? Establishing a Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force that will remove racist and inappropriate names from federal lands. “Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands,” Haaland said in a statement. “Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage—not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression.”
First US City Begins Reparations
In Evanston, Illinois, city officials have begun the process of reparations. The city will be distributing $10 million to its Black residents for the legacy and trauma of racist housing policies. They’ve begun by first offering 16 residents $25,000 toward housing repairs or costs, which might not sound like the ideal form of reparations (aka just give people money), but it’s a start.
This effort could serve as a model for the future. Perhaps 2021 will include even more cities taking this step? Climate justice is racial justice.
Canada’s First River With Legal Personhood
Though rivers in other parts of the world have been granted legal personhood, the Magpie River became Canada’s first this year. The Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, a First Nation band in Canada, made this formal recognition in tandem with a local municipality in February as the river—Muteshekau Shipu in the Innu language—is a critical part of their culture and wellbeing.
The hope is that this can protect the river from pollution and exploitation in the future. It has yet to be tested in the court, but the joint resolutions signal a win for Indigenous rights.
Keystone XL Finally Dies
After over a decade of Indigenous-led resistance, the company behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline finally gave up. TC Energy decided in June to cancel its plans to build the massive crude oil pipeline, which came months after President Joe Biden withdrew a presidential permit Donald Trump had given the project.
Biden has remained silent on other oil and gas pipelines, but he did follow through with helping end Keystone XL. Ultimately, however, this was made possible through the direct action, civil disobedience, and campaigns that environmental and Indigenous leaders organized over more than 10 years. RIP, Keystone XL.
Memphis Oil Pipeline Cancelled
Speaking of pipelines, the Byhalia Pipeline is another one to bite the dust this year. A predominantly Black community in Memphis, Tennessee, came together to stop the 49-mile crude oil pipeline from becoming a reality. It was still in the early planning stages, and the community didn’t waste any time.
Residents were concerned that the pipeline could harm their aquifer. Plains All American, the pipeline developer, blamed the pandemic for the change of heart. Now, organizers are organizing to ensure the aquifer has protection for years to come—not just pipelines, but from pollution at large.
Peruvian Tribes Secure Land
Nearly 30 years ago, the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest requested over 370,000 acres of land for the Kakataibo tribe in Peru. In July, the government finally made that happen. The tribe remains uncontacted and, therefore, needs a substantial amount of land to keep them protected from outsiders. This is especially relevant as more Indigenous people globally face violence from outsiders trying to steal their land and resources.
Not only is the forest at risk when these groups come in—so are the lives of the people who live there.
Shell’s Year of Loss
Shell has had one rough year, which is great news for humanity. In May, a Dutch court ordered the oil giant to cut its emissions by 45% from 2019 levels by 2030. In August, the company agreed to pay $111 million to the Ejama-Ebubu community of Ogoniland in Rivers, Nigeria, for an oil spill that took place decades ago in 1970. Just last week, Shell announced it wouldn’t move ahead with drilling in Cambo, an offshore oilfield off the coast of Scotland.
The Cambo decision comes a few months after climate activist Lauren Macdonald confronted Shell CEO Ben van Beurden at a TED event about the company’s greenwashing. She informed the audience of its drilling plans and made clear that the CEO should be “ashamed” of himself, as seen in this video. The timing of its announcement doesn’t feel like a coincidence.
Land Back in Australia
The Indigenous land back movement is picking up steam all across the world. In Australia, the government moved to return over 395,000 acres of land to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people. This decision puts them in direct control and management of their ancestral lands, a key step to helping address and reverse the climate crisis.
Indigenous people know how to tend to the land best. Research shows that forests under their guardianship experience lower deforestation rates, thus, contributing to more successful carbon storage.
Bears Ears Returns
In another land back win, Biden reinstated federal protections for Bears Ears National Monument, which was the first national monument to be created in partnership with tribes. In October, the president finally restored designations to Bears Ears, as well as Grand Staircase-Escalante, a monument that’s a buzzing habitat for bees.
Trump had shrunk down the size of these monuments and opened them up to extractive industry. Biden is finally reversing this move in a major win to the Indigenous people who hold these lands sacred.
Boston’s New Climate Mayor
We didn’t see a ton of electoral victories in 2021, but Michelle Wu is such a breath of fresh air. She’s the new mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, and ran on a Green New Deal platform. New York Magazine called her “America’s first actual honest-to-goodness climate mayor.”
Wu has wasted no time on climate action since being elected. She’s already taking steps to divest the city from fossil fuel investments and invest in public transit. The new mayor offers hope for the future. We’ll need more leaders like her in the new year if we’re going to successfully address the climate crisis. Here’s to hoping.