1. United States

Harbor porpoises have made a comeback after the banning of gill netting in key coastal communities of California, new research shows. Gill nets are a cheap and effective way for commercial fishers to catch loads of sea bass and halibut by the gills, but they also wreak havoc on other species, including sea otters, some sea birds, and the lesser-known harbor porpoise. The latter exclusively lives in shallow waters. Being unable to detect the nylon mesh using echolocation, the porpoises would frequently drown after getting tangled in gill nets. Aerial surveys for harbor porpoises, which began in 1986, allowed researchers to identify and track four distinct porpoise populations off California’s coast as gill netting bans rolled out over the following decade. The latest assessment of that data shows the groups affected by gill netting have doubled their populations since the bans were put in place, and are now beginning to stabilize. It’s the first documented case of this species rebounding after bycatch from gill nets is eliminated. “Harbor porpoises show that … they’re capable of recovering. They have a resilience and they will rebound if we just let them,” says Karin Forney, a Monterey Bay-based research biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Los Angeles Times, NOAA Fisheries, Marine Mammal Science)

2. Mexico

Mexico City’s ban on most single-use plastics came into effect in January after more than a year of preparation. In 2020, Mexico City’s environmental agency said the capital produced roughly 13,000 tons of garbage per day, including more than 7 million tons of plastic over the course of the year. Single-use plastic bags were banned in 2020, and now the commercialization, distribution, and delivery of other plastic products, including straws, disposable plastic cups, and balloons, is prohibited.

Street vendors in Mexico City are still figuring out how to comply with the broad ban on single-use plastics, on Jan. 1, 2021.

During the first months of the ban, the focus will be on informing citizens – no fines will be imposed on violators. With the lack of strict enforcement and the ongoing coronavirus crisis, change on the plastics front is expected to be slow, but officials hope the ban is a significant step toward a greener Mexico City. (DW, Plastic Oceans)

3. French Polynesia

Some pearl producers in French Polynesia are employing more sustainable practices, helping safeguard the islands’ resources and serving as a role model for other farms. Islands like those of French Polynesia are highly vulnerable to rising sea levels, and quality pearl farming relies on healthy oceans, scientists say. The pearl industry is the second-largest economic driver of French Polynesia, after tourism, and small businesses such as Kamoka Pearl Farm are pioneering environmentally friendly methods. Instead of power-washing algae off oysters, which sprays debris into the ocean, Kamoka lets the lagoon’s native fish clean its mollusks. As a result, fish populations around the island are thriving. The company also uses renewable mother-of-pearl as the nuclei for new cultured pearls. Because of the methods developed by groups like Kamoka, and a rising consumer interest in where jewelry comes from, gemologist and pearl expert Laurent Cartier says sustainable pearl farms are no longer an outlier. “What’s really interesting about pearls is that they are an indigenous resource. … They really come from that island,” he said. “It doesn’t get more sustainable or more circular than that.” (PRI)

4. Estonia

Estonia has sworn in its first female prime minister, making it one of the few countries to have women filling both roles of head of state and prime minister. After a corruption scandal collapsed the previous Cabinet in early January, the country’s top two political parties excluded a far-right party from the new coalition and agreed to create a new government with former European Parliament member Kaja Kallas at the helm. 

Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks at Parliament in the capital of Tallinn on Jan. 26, 2021.

Ms. Kallas, who became the first female chair of the center-right Reform Party in 2018, leads a 15-minister Cabinet of six other women and eight men, divided between the left-leaning Center Party and the Reform Party. The coronavirus crisis will be the first challenge for the Baltic nation’s new government, but Ms. Kallas has also vowed to restore Estonia’s international reputation and address climate change. (The Associated Press, The Guardian, The Financial Times)

5. Africa

The African Development Bank has pledged to invest $12.5 billion and raise an equal amount to help farmers and young people combat climate change. Climate researchers say African countries are among the most vulnerable to climate change, despite the continent only producing 5% of the world’s planet-heating emissions overall. Those risks are increasingly apparent as floods, droughts, and climate-driven locust attacks continue to damage crop yields. To address these challenges, the bank and Netherlands-based Global Center on Adaptation announced a new Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program at a recent global summit. The program is designed to expand farmers’ access to climate-smart technology and digital services, as well as finance young entrepreneurs looking to establish environmentally friendly agriculture businesses. “I don’t buy [youth] ‘empowerment’ language,” said Akinwumi Adesina, a former Nigerian agriculture minister who leads the bank. “What we need is youth investment.” (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

6. Malaysia

An Indigenous-led nonprofit has installed about 40 micro-hydro systems throughout Malaysian Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia, bringing clean energy and a sense of agency to Indigenous tribes. Tonibung – also known as Friends of Village Development – has been working for years to bring electricity to long-marginalized communities in a way that preserves the people’s culture and traditions. Tonibung is known for its emphasis on sustainable technology, and for training and engaging tribe members to create jobs that stay local. Electricity has allowed the 50 families living in Kampung Buayan to build strategic relationships with neighboring villages, create ecotourism jobs, and safeguard the surrounding forest. Despite challenges posed by the pandemic, the group has several projects lined up, with an increasing focus on water and solar hybrid systems that use battery storage to ensure energy security. “We want to advocate for native rights to self-determination and empower Indigenous groups to choose the kind of development that meets the aspirations of their people,” said Adrian Banie Lasimbang, Tonibung’s founder. (Eco-Business)

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