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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Top environment stories of 2016

Top environment stories of 2016

Our environmental indices may be at an all-time low, but the stories of victory in the year gone by create hope for the coming year

Protesters rally against Wells Fargo in solidarity with the people of Standing Rock in Hollywood, California. Photo: AFPPremium
Protesters rally against Wells Fargo in solidarity with the people of Standing Rock in Hollywood, California. Photo: AFP

As the year draws to a close, it is only fitting that we take stock, draw up lists—of what worked in 2016 and what didn’t. And to end the year and my last column, perhaps it is best to recall what is working for the environment and the natural world. Our environmental indices may be at an all-time low, but the stories of victory in the year gone by create hope for the coming year.

1. Victory for Standing Rock

For several months, Native American tribes and their allies, led by the Standing Rock Sioux, have been protesting against the Dakota Access pipeline, a project that would transport oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana across the plains to Illinois. The protesters had argued that the pipeline would desecrate ancestral lands, threaten the water supply, and unfairly burden the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which is unlikely to benefit from any economic development that accompanies the project. The tribe won a major victory when the Department of the Army announced that it would not allow the pipeline to be drilled under a dammed section of the Missouri river. The site had become a global flash point for environmental and indigenous activism, drawing thousands of people, creating hope for many such battles that are being fought around the world.

2. Battle for clean air in Indian cities

“We’ve only just begun" may perhaps be the best way to summarize this battle, especially at a time when the Air Quality Index is touching alarming new highs in most cities across India. But look at it this way: what environmentalists have been harping on for years, finally has the attention of the politicians, the common man/woman on the street and yes, once in a while, the 9pm television debates. While scientists are still debating whether the odd-even formula will bring down pollution levels, here’s what this scheme has succeeded in doing: it has made sure that air pollution as an issue has occupied centre stage. In a city known for its flashy cars and political connections, the citizens of Delhi, for the first time in 2016, embraced the inconvenient experiment in the hope that it would bring down air pollution. The good news is that more and more citizens are willing to come forward to tackle air pollution, but will this be enough? This is the space to watch in 2017.

3. A proactive green tribunal

At a time when the government is trying to dilute environment laws, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), through a series of orders in 2016, restored our faith—that there is a redressal mechanism in the country. In a number of landmark decisions, the tribunal stepped in when all else failed. This year it suspended the environmental clearance to a hydropower project in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh on the ground that both the environmental impact assessment report and the project developers did not disclose that an endangered bird (the black-necked crane) inhabited the region.

In another strong order, the NGT asked for a slew of measures, with time-bound targets, to be taken to tackle air pollution in Delhi. At a time when the centre and state governments were playing politics on who is to blame for pollution in the National Capital Region, the NGT orders helped fix responsibility with clear targets for each stakeholder.

The same tribunal ordered a temporary halt to the construction of a steel flyover in Bengaluru that would have led to the destruction of 800 trees and heritage buildings in the city.

4. The creation of the world’s biggest protected area

At a global level, US President Barack Obama created the largest ecologically protected area on the planet when he expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii to encompass more than half a million square miles. With this one order, the US president succeeded in creating the largest swath of protected land or water on Earth, an area roughly twice the size of Texas. Many scientists and environmentalists have argued for more stringent protections for this biologically rich region already under threat from climate change and deep-sea mining.

5. New species continue to be discovered

The discovery of new species every year is a gentle reminder of just how little we know about the natural world. This year too had its share of discoveries—an African damselfly, a ruby sea dragon in Australia, a new species of giant tortoise in the Galapagos in Ecuador and a sundew plant that oozes mucus to trap insects, found on just one mountain in Brazil.

Of course the idea behind this list is not to create a rose-tinted picture of the times we live in. Never before have so many species been lost and never before have our air and water been pounded with so many toxic chemicals. Yet we soldier on, with the sweet memory of the small victories.

As the year draws to an end, what is important to remember is that people have come together to fight for clean air, forests or wildlife, however insurmountable the battle may have seemed. May 2017 bring you clean air and lots of time spent in green spaces.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist who has been writing for Mint for the last two years. This is her last column.

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Published: 23 Dec 2016, 01:30 AM IST
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