A Year in Review: 2021 in Five Trends
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but here’s how the past year could affect the critical decade ahead.
This article originally ran in the December 2021 issue of the Global Insights newsletter. Subscribe here to get exclusive insights like these straight to your inbox.
We kicked off this year asking, will nature go mainstream in 2021? Now that the season of reflection is upon us, it’s time to take stock of what progress was made during this year, and how it will affect the rest of the critical decade ahead.
For some, the early 2020s may feel like lost years—after all, the global conferences meant to make 2020 an environmental “super-year” won’t conclude until 2022. And even with this year’s highly anticipated climate conference behind us, many activists insist that we shouldn’t celebrate new pledges before they actually deliver.
It’s enough to make us wonder, how much does a year matter anyway?
Given that each fraction of a degree of warming means more intense climate impacts, a year of unmitigated emissions really would be a problem. On the other hand, we know that progress doesn’t happen overnight—change takes nurturing, inclusion, and hard work over the course of many years, especially at the scale required by the climate and biodiversity emergencies. So, though it’s hard to say how 2021 will net out in the eyes of future historians, here are 5 ways this year could contribute to positive trends for the planet.
2021 put a deforestation-free future on the menu.
Despite some indications of a global slowdown in recent decades, deforestation rates remain high—and it’s the very “lungs of the planet” that continue to face sharp decline: old-growth tropical forests. Currently, the biggest drivers of deforestation are food systems, various stakeholders are betting that this doesn’t have to be the case. At COP26, 141 countries committed to halting and reversing deforestation by 2030, with a $3 billion initiative to advance innovative finance for deforestation-free farming in South America leading the way for countries to make good on their promises. It’s not the first time countries have agreed to address global deforestation, but the dedication of funding from the outset this time around could boost chances of success.
DIG DEEPER: See how new research on food could be good for forests, too.
A 2021 deal may catalyze carbon market growth.
Also at COP26, nearly 200 countries reached a final deal on carbon markets. This much-anticipated deal could help generate new finance streams for forest and wetland protection, as well as transitions to clean energy. That’s big progress on the foundation laid by the 2015 Paris Agreement—and even though carbon markets are just one of the tools to help mitigate climate change, they could accelerate nature’s solutions to global climate action if designed effectively. Now, it’s up to voluntary action by the public and private sectors to capitalize on this mechanism.
LEARN MORE: Scroll through this illustrated guide to carbon offsets.
2021 science confirms: we are nature.
Healthy ecosystems are our source of respite, nourishment, medicine—everything humanity needs to survive. But in exploiting them, we open ourselves to incalculable risk: for instance, TNC scientists recently discovered that mammals common to the wildlife trade carry 75% of the 226 viruses known to be transmissible between humans and animals. Fortunately, a growing number of global leaders seem to recognize that nature’s fate and ours are one in the same, with the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranking environmental degradation as one of the most significant long-term threats to human well-being in its annual Global Risks Report for the past two years, and the World Health Organization (WHO) urging a green recovery to support human health.
REFLECT: TNC’s Lynn Scarlett shares how protecting nature can help ensure clean air, safe water and food for the future.
Leaders pledged for nature (and partnership) in 2021.
In the past few years, hundreds of scientists around the world have shown us nature is in trouble—and in 2021, more than 90 countries responded by committing to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 through the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. But in doing so, many have also recognized the need for a “whole-society” approach that enables community leadership, especially that of the Indigenous Peoples who steward much of Earth’s remaining biodiversity. Despite some encouraging promises—including $1.7 billion to advance Indigenous land rights around the world announced at COP26—the failure of past pledges is a reminder that we must follow through with action plans and accountability to truly deliver for the planet through authentic partnership.
EXPLORE SOLUTIONS: See 5 key strategies for scalable conservation—and 14 communities leading the way.
One year closer to making "biodiversity finance" redundant?
While some of the most prominent finance leaders recognize that net zero is the future, far fewer have taken action for a nature-positive economy. In 2019, the world spent an estimated $130 billion annually on activities that benefit nature, which represented almost triple 2012’s funding—but nowhere close to the approximately $770 billion needed each year to reverse the biodiversity decline by 2030.
This year, there were signs of positive momentum, with G7 leaders affirming that “our world must not only become net zero, but also nature positive.” A newly launched taskforce made up of more than 200 financial institutions, governments, and corporates evolved out of a 2020 mandate to “shift global financial flows away from nature-negative outcomes and toward nature-positive outcomes.” Other national efforts also stand to help redefine finance in nature’s favor, including a recent U.S. infrastructure bill with some $76 billion in green funding and Belize’s commitment to the biggest-ever debt conversion for ocean conservation.
QUICK GUIDE: Check out this blueprint for biodiversity compensation.
2021 delivered important finance and policy commitments worldwide, and that may distinguish it from recent years. But true progress means measurable results for nature and people. This year’s promises are meaningless without action plans, accountability, and authentic partnership in the years to come. As for how much a year matters anyway—any length of time that’s part of a trend toward progress will prove to be meaningful in the critical decade ahead.
Our global insights, straight to your inbox
Get our latest research, insights and solutions to today’s sustainability challenges.
Check out our latest thinking and real-world solutions to some of the most complex challenges facing people and the planet today.