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Future Crunch

99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2021

What if bad news wasn’t the only news?

Image credit: David Wimble

If you were asked to list the top global news stories of 2021, off the top of your head, what would they be? Chances are you’d come up with some combination of COVID-19, economic woes, political conflict, Afghanistan, natural disasters, and maybe some space billionaires and Free Britney thrown in for good measure. Oh, and don’t forget the Suez Canal!

What’s probably missing from your list is any good news, which seems pretty strange. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, surely a few positive things happened this year? Researchers would say it’s because of our negativity bias — we’re wired, apparently, to pay attention to and remember things that are shocking or scary. What if there’s a simpler explanation though? What if the reason we can’t remember any good news is because nobody reported it in the first place?

For the past several years, we’ve been putting that idea to the test, seeing whether it’s possible to carve out a tiny little corner of the internet dedicated exclusively to stories of progress. Not fluffy, feel good stories, but big stories of real, lasting change for people and the planet. Over time, we’ve gotten better at digging them up and this year, managed to find hundreds. Boiling them down to just 99 was a struggle, but we got there in the end, with only a tiny bit of cheating.

We hope you enjoy the list, and while you’re reading perhaps ask yourself: why do so many of these stories come as a surprise? The answer, we think you’ll find, is pretty simple. They never appeared on your screen or in your newspaper at all.

1. Let’s kick off with by far the biggest good news story of the year: the COVID-19 vaccines. Nine billion doses were administered across 184 countries, and almost 60% of the planet has received at least one dose (in four months it’ll be 75%). This is by far the most successful global health initiative ever undertaken. In less than two years not only did we come up with a way to overcome a brand new disease, but rolled it out to more than half of humanity.

The vaccines have been incredibly effective, even against the new variants, with the global death rate falling by more than half from earlier this year. Naturally, the media has focused on all the problems — hesitancy, unequal access, ‘pandemics of the unvaccinated’, resistance to mandates etc. Lost in all the noise is the simple fact that by far the majority of the world’s population has enthusiastically embraced the vaccines, and as a result, for the first time ever we have the chance to end a global pandemic on our own terms.

Don’t take it from us though, take it from this guy, who just got his booster:

“The vaccine is one of the greatest achievements of mankind.”

Donald J Trump
22nd December 2021

2. It wasn’t just COVID-19. The WHO approved a long awaited malaria vaccine, revitalizing the fight against one of humanity’s oldest foes, as well as a new polio vaccine, which was rolled out to over 80 million children in Africa. Other achievements included the introduction of a licensed Ebola vaccine and the launch of a landmark new global plan to tackle meningitis. Liberia became the first African country to introduce the typhoid conjugate vaccine, which was given to over two million children in just weeks, and a new study revealed that the HPV vaccine has reduced cases of cervical cancer in England by nearly 90% since 2008, with over 100 countries now using it as part of a global plan to eliminate the disease. Oh, and this didn’t get a single mention in the news, but back in January, a report in The Lancet looking at ten different diseases estimated that vaccines saved the lives of 37 million kids between 2000 and 2019. Surely that’s worth at least one headline?

3. China successfully eliminated malaria this year (it used to have 30 million cases a year in the 1940s), as did El Salvador, the first country in Central America. Globally, 40 countries have now achieved this milestone. Côte d’Ivoire became the second African country to eliminate sleeping sickness, and The Gambia became the third African country to eliminate trachoma, an amazing achievement given that in the 1980s it was responsible for almost 1 in 5 of the country’s cases of blindness.

4. One of the four major flu viruses that circulate in humans looks like it might have gone extinct this year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Yamagata virus has not been detected since April 2020 anywhere in the world. Together with the Victoria flu virus, it used to be responsible for somewhere between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths every year.

5. The latest data on AIDS (you remember, the other global pandemic) revealed there were1.5 million new HIV infections last year, a decline of 30% since 2010, and the lowest total number since 1990.

6. The same report said that 9.4 million people around the world are now receiving treatment for Hepatitis C, reversing the global trend of increasing mortality from the disease for the first time ever. Egypt has been the standout here — six years ago it had one of the highest Hepatitis C burdens in the world, at 7.6%, or 40,000 deaths a year. Thanks to a huge public health effort, by 2021 the burden had fallen to 2%, and public health officials are saying they are now on track to eliminate it altogether.

7. Lots of good news on cancer this year. The American Cancer Society said there was a 2.4% decline between 2017 to 2018 — the largest one-year drop ever — and that between 1991 and 2018, cancer mortality has fallen by 31%. Similar declines have happened in Europe. A new study showed that 4.9 million cancer deaths have been averted on the continent in the last three decades.

Breast cancer survivors in the United States.

6. A lot of that is down to less smoking. In November, the WHO released its Global Tobacco Trends report, showing that at the turn of the century, around a third of the world’s adults were tobacco users. By 2020, this had declined to under a quarter, and is projected to fall even further to one fifth by 2025. Also, both Japan and New Zealand announced this year they would be completely smoke-free within the next decade.

9. It’s been two years since Canada legalized recreational cannabis, and one of the many positive benefits has been a drastic decrease in opioid prescriptions. This year, a study compared prescriptions before and after legalization and found that average doses of opioids per person have fallen to less than 20% of their former levels.

10. India has the largest public health insurance scheme in the world, providing 500 million people with free healthcare. In its 2021 budget, spending on the program was doubled, from 1% to 2% of GDP, the largest single public investment in the country’s history. Imagine the kind of headlines this would have received if it happened in the United States or Europe?

11. Haiti announced that it had successfully controlled the largest cholera epidemic ever recorded in a single country, while simultaneously improving maternal and child healthcare. There have been no confirmed cases of cholera there since January 2019, and the quality of maternal and child health has improved significantly in the last decade.

12. A new paper in The Lancet showed that de-worming initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa in the last two decades have resulted in a significant decline in cases among children, from 44% in 2000 to 13% in 2019. This is a huge win for one of the world’s most underrated public health problems, improving the lives of millions of people and driving economic development.

13. Stroke is a hidden killer — the second-leading cause of death worldwide, and the third-leading cause of death and disability combined. New research released in September this year revealed that quietly and largely uncelebrated, we’ve made amazing progress, with the age-standardised number of cases decreasing by 17%, and deaths by 36% in the last two decades.

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah

14. Two conservation stories in particular should really have received more coverage this year. September saw the creation of the North-Atlantic Current and Evlanov Sea Basin, a vast, protected area off the south west coast of Ireland, and then in October we got news of the new Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, a mega-MPA linking the waters of Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica, and containing some of the richest pockets of ocean biodiversity on the planet, including the Galapagos Islands. Together, these two protected areas cover more than a million km² of ocean.

15. In 2021 the US government trebled the size of the Gulf of Mexico’s largest coral sanctuary, created the country’s 63rd national park: New River Gorge, in West Virginia, finally banned the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos on food crops, suspended all drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and restored full protections for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

16. The Biden Administration also reversed a Trump era ruling that allowed sand mining on protected beaches, reinstated environmental protections for two major national monuments in Utah and one off the coast of New England, and reintroduced protections for waterways and wetlands across the United States, reversing another Trump era ruling, and ensuring clean drinking water for millions of Americans and safe habitat for thousands of wildlife species.

17. 2021 was a landmark year for conservation in China, with the establishment of a network of five national parks, covering a total of 230,000 km² and containing nearly 30% of the country’s key wildlife species. The national park system, which has been in the works since 2015, will be the world’s most extensive, covering 18% of the world’s third largest country by land area.

18. After nearly 20 years of negotiations, the Peruvian government established the 2.5 million acre Yavarí Tapiche Reserve for uncontacted peoples deep in the Amazon rainforest, the Naso people of Panama secured their ancestral claim to 400,000 acres of some of the most pristine forests in Central America, and a team of conservationists banded together to save a 234,000 acre biodiversity hotspot and wildlife corridor at the intersection of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.

19. Some of Australia’s most beautiful natural sites, including the Daintree, the oldest tropical rainforest in the world, were returned to their traditional owners this year: four parks, covering more than 160,000 hectares, will now be managed by the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people.

ABC report on the return of the Daintree

20. In Montana, 18,000 acres of wildlife reserve, known as the National Bison Range, was formally handed back to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and in Maine, the Passamaquoddy tribe bought back their ancestral land of Pine Island.

21. Ecologists reported that the Mississippi River is the cleanest it’s been in more than a century, with pollution down to 1% of what it was in the 1980s, while the most comprehensive survey of the Thames in 60 years found that the river, once declared biologically dead, is now “home to myriad wildlife as diverse as London itself.” The biggest river success story however, came from China, which passed a landmark environmental law protecting the Yangtze, one of the country’s two ‘mother rivers,’ banning all industrial projects, sand mining and all fishing, including in tributaries and the estuary (more than 400 million people live in the Yangtze basin).

22. Glasgow gave the green light to create a massive urban forest consisting of 18 million trees, a rewilding project in England that’s reclaimed 128,000 acres of industrial wasteland was reported to have created 5,000 new jobs plus a new national forest, and half a million acres of the Scottish Highlands were committed to being rewilded over the next 30 years, becoming Europe’s tenth official rewilding area.

23. Indonesia reported that it has restored more than two million hectares of damaged, carbon-rich peatlands in the six years since the toxic haze crisis of 2015, and last year, the country achieved its fourth consecutive year of decline in deforestation. India announced a 25% increase in mangrove cover since the 1980s thanks to restoration efforts, and China revealed that its coastal wetlands have experienced a significant recovery in the last decade, thanks to several conservation projects started back in the 1990s.

24. Africa’s largest tropical rainforest, Salonga National Park, was removed from UNESCO’s list of threatened sites, following 20 years of sustained conservation work, and a new reserve dubbed the ‘Amazon of Europe’, spanning Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, and Serbia, received official UNESCO heritage status, the first biosphere to cover five different countries.

Salonga National Park in the DRC

25. Three years ago, Pakistan launched the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami, a plan to reforest vast swathes of one of the most deforested countries in the world. Critics scoffed, but they’re being forced to eat their words: the country has now planted 1.5 billion trees, and is also conducting one of the biggest mangrove restoration projects in the world.

26. Three different sites — an Alaskan archipelago dubbed the ‘Rat Islands’, Lehua Island in Hawaii and Redonda Isle in the Caribbean, were all declared rodent free this year after decades of conservation efforts. In all three locations, the pace of ecosystem recovery and increase of native wildlife populations has shocked even the most cynical of conservationists, shining examples of how quickly nature can bounce back if given a chance.

27. A comprehensive plastic ban went into effect in China in January, including items like straws, utensils, nondegradable bags and postal or courier packages, and in July, the EU banned single-use plastic plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks and cotton buds. India announced a ban on a long list of single plastics effective July 2022, the Maldives kicked off the first phase of a plan to completely eliminate single plastics by 2023, and New Zealand announced that single-use plastics would be phased out by 2025, with bans on cotton buds, packaging, cutlery, straws, and fruit labels beginning next year. ABC

28. Barcelona announced a new scheme to give citizens free, unlimited public transport for three years in return for giving up their private vehicles, Paris took back space from cars, opening linear parks on old highways along the Seine, phasing out diesel cars, opening bus lanes, raising parking meter prices and plowing bike lanes down hundreds of streets, and the UK’s second largest city, Birmingham finalized a plan to divert car traffic out of the city and introducing zero-emissions cross-city buses, cycle ways and pedestrian lanes.

Women’s rights activists at a rally in Beunos Aires

29. Abortion rights were consistently in the news this year, for good reason: American women’s right to a safe and legal abortion is in imminent danger of being taken away; Polish women have already lost theirs. Amidst the legitimate alarm however, you might have missed the ‘green wave’ that swept through Latin America in 2021. Argentina formally adopted a new law legalizing abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, both Mexico and Ecuador decriminalized abortion, and Chile took its first step towards legalization by expanding legislation that currently restricts the procedure to special circumstances. Across Latin America it is now legal for women to choose what happens to their bodies in Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana, and three Mexican states.

30. Egypt’s cabinet toughened its laws on female genital mutilation, imposing jail terms of up to 20 years, and Somalia’s Puntland region outlawed the barbaric procedure. Pakistan abolished the outdated practice of virginity tests on rape victims, Iran passed a new law protecting women against domestic and other forms of gender-based violence, and Lebanon criminalized sexual harassment with a new landmark law that drastically expanded its definition.

31. The Dominican Republic definitively banned child marriage this year. Previously, girls from the age of 15 were allowed to marry, and 36% of Dominican girls married before the age of 18.

32. In the Philippines the minimum age of sexual consent was raised in September from 12 to 16 years old, overturning a century-old law on statutory rape, a historic win for child rights advocates who fought for this for years. France also took a major step forward in protecting children against sexual abuse this year by setting the minimum age of sexual consent at 15, and made birth control free for all women aged 25 and under.

33. New Zealand passed world-first legislation for paid bereavement for miscarriage, giving women and their partners time off to grieve before returning to work, New York announced it would no longer prosecute prostitution, and in Mexico the law was amended to give women with disabilities equal access to protection from domestic violence.

34. In July, four women in South Africa successfully overturned a set of apartheid-era marriage laws, giving around 400,000 elderly black women equal access to matrimonial property, and Uttarakhand became the first state in India to grant women co-ownership of land, in a landmark amendment that affected 350,000 girls and women overnight.

35. Tanzania said it will allow pregnant girls and teen mothers to resume secondary education, overturning a four year ban, women in Malaysia finally won the right to pass citizenship onto their children born overseas, Saudi Arabia officially allowed single, divorced or widowed women to live independently without permission from a male guardian, and a new law in the United Arab Emirates allowed non-Muslims to marry, divorce and get joint child custody, making it the first Gulf country to reform marriage laws formerly based on religious principles.

36. Same-sex relations were decriminalized in Angola, overturning a 134 year old colonial statute, and in September, Switzerland became the 30th country to legalize gay marriage, followed by the 31st, Chile, in December. Across Catholic Latin America, same-sex marriage is now legal in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and 23 of Mexico’s 32 states. Love is love.

Swiss couples celebrate the legalization of gay marriage. That balloon by the way, says Gleiche Liebe, Gleiche Rechte… “Same love, same rights.”

37. Attitudes to sexuality can and do change, sometimes in the space of a single generation. Support for same-sex marriage in the United States in 2021 reached an all time high of 70%, up from 60% in 2015 when it was legalized, and from 27% in 1996, when Gallup first started asking the question.

38. Attitudes to race can change too. In one of the largest shifts of public opinion ever recorded, Gallup said this year that 94% of American adults now approve of interracial marriage, a huge leap from 4% when the poll began in 1958. People over the age of 50 reported the biggest shift, increasing their approval by 64% in the past 30 years.

39. Kazakhstan abolished the death penalty, making permanent a nearly two-decade freeze on capital punishment in the authoritarian Central Asian country. More than two-thirds of the countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice, according to Amnesty International. EJI

40. Kazakhastan also announced that it is officially nuclear free, after scientists ground down the last 2.9 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, rendering it useless for bomb-making. The historic moment comes after 30 years of denuclearization, and represents one of the least celebrated, yet most successful examples of post-Cold War diplomacy.

41. The United Nations ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons this year, the first ever global treaty to ban nuclear weapons and all activities related to them. It’s not the end of nuclear weapons — none of the nuclear-capable countries signed on — but it is a historic milestone in the decades long campaign by civil society groups for disarmament.

42. A new report on cluster munitions revealed that more than 110,000 landmines covering 135 km² were destroyed globally last year, a new annual record, and that over a million landmines have been cleared in the last decade.

Members of all-female landmines clearance team search for unexploded ordnances in Vietnam. Image credit: Reuters

43. Worldwide, democracy appears to be under threat, but remember — bad news travels, good news doesn’t. When Afghanistan’s government collapsed, the whole world watched. But when Indonesia, the most world’s most populous Muslim country, produces the planet’s most effective democratically elected leader — Joko Widodo — almost no one hears the story.

44. In a mountainous, desert nation of 35 million people known for its mosques, mausoleums and ancient Silk Road sites, 80% of eligible voters cast votes this year, showing the strength of emerging democratic norms in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan’s neighbour. There was also a welcome win for democracy in Zambia, with voters peacefully electing a new president for the third time in the country’s history.

45. The European Parliament voted in support this year of banning biometric mass surveillance, stating that individuals should only be monitored if they have been suspected of a crime. The landmark resolution should put an end to the automated recognition of people in public spaces through biometrics, and also prohibit predictive policing which increases the risk of discrimination.

46. Incarceration rates in the United States fell to a 24 year low in 2019, plummeted a further 14% in 2020, to 1.81 million people, and then fell again in 2021, to 1.77 million. There are now half a million fewer people in prison in America compared to 13 years ago, and empty prisons are being repurposed into homeless shelters, educational farms, and even movie studios. These changes are due to incredible, uncelebrated activism, and largely unheralded changes in criminal laws, sentencing patterns and a decline in violent crimes.

47. New Jersey became the 14th US state to legalize marijuana this year, dismissing 362,000 related cases and releasing 1,200 people from probation. New York legalized it in April, as well as New Mexico, and both states also immediately started expunging the criminal records of individuals with past marijuana-related convictions. A new poll showed that more than two in three Americans now support legalizing marijuana (a decade ago less than half of the country was in favour). This might just be one of the most successful rebrands of all time. It’s not weed or pot any more, it’s medicine.

48. A significant majority of people in wealthy countries now believe that having people of different ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds improves society. In the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan, 8 out of 10 people believe greater diversity is a benefit, and even in relatively culturally homogenous countries like Japan and Greece, the share has increased by double digits in the last four years.

New water tap installed in Goa, India

49. Bangladesh, home to 160 million people, celebrated a ‘development miracle’ in 2021, its 50th year of independence. In the last three decades, GDP per capita has increased seven fold, 24 million people have been lifted out of poverty, life expectancy has risen to 73 years, infant and maternal mortality rates have fallen by a factor of five, the literacy rate has increased from 35% to 74%, and more than 97% of the population now has access to electricity, up from 62% in 2014.

50. Infant mortality rates in the Philippines were reported to have dropped by 25% in the last decade, and in Cameroon, the country’s latest demographic and health survey rerevealed that pregnancy related mortalities had fallen by 40% since 2011.

51. The UN released its latest data on family planning. The total number of women and girls around the world using modern contraception now stands at 320 million, with 60 million new users in the last seven years, and nine million in the past year alone. Progress has been particularly strong in Africa, where the number of modern contraceptive users has grown by 66% since 2012.

52. Air pollution is falling across a vast swathe of 15 countries in Africa, from Senegal in the west to South Sudan in the east. It’s the result of rapid urbanization and economic development, leading to a significant decrease in fires traditionally used for land management. “As middle and low-income countries grow you often see more emissions. It’s nice to see a decline occurring when you’d expect to see pollution increasing.”

53. A massive, bipartisan clean water bill was approved 89–2 by the US Senate. The legislation will improve water quality, remove lead pipes from schools, and update infrastructure for the impacts of extreme weather and climate change. 40% of the funds will target underserved, rural, and tribal communities.

54. In India, millions of people have gained access to clean water in the last two years. About 11.2 million, or 38% of all households in disease-vulnerable regions now have access to clean water, up from 2.9% in 2019, and another 11.8 million now have running tap water, up from less than two million in 2019.

55. In the past two decades, almost every country in sub-Saharan Africa has made gains in female literacy. In 2000, the proportion of women who could read and write was around 46%; today, it’s close to 60%. Even more encouragingly, the literacy rate for young women (15–24) has soared to 72%, and is now just below their male peers.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo tens of thousands of former child miners are now attending school, two years after the government made primary education free for all. An additional 2.5 million children have been able to go to school there since 2019.

56. US poverty was reported to have fallen to 9.1%, the lowest level ever recorded, and childhood poverty experienced its largest ever one year decrease, dropping from 15.8% to 11.9%. The US government also launched the most ambitious food assistance program in its history to help the 25 million Americans who still don’t have enough to eat.

57. Further north, Canada revealed that the number of children below the poverty line had plummeted from 1.1 million to 680,000 since 2015, and said it was on track to halve domestic poverty by 2030.

58. 100 of the world’s biggest companies will now pay a minimum tax rate of 15% after the first global revamp of corporate tax rules in over a decade. 136 countries signed the new global tax agreement this year, which will raise an additional $150 billion for governments per year.

59. A study in The Lancet of 21 low, medium and high income countries found that there had been no increase in suicide rates during the pandemic and that 12 countries (including the United States) actually recorded a decrease.

60. There was an update on Sustainable Development Goal Number 7 (access to electricity). Naturally, not a single media outlet reported on it. Good news: the number of people without access to electricity has declined from 1.2 billion to 759 million in the past decade, access to clean cooking solutions has grown by 1% annually, and 420 million people now get their electricity from off-grid solar systems.

61. The Social Progress Index measures health, safety, education, technology, and human rights across the world’s population. This year’s edition said that 147 nations recorded a better score than they did a decade ago, with just four countries (the US, Brazil, Syria and South Sudan) doing worse. “Progress is advancing across the world, but it remains slow and uneven.”

On the surface, it felt like we went backwards on climate this year. Catastrophic heat waves, floods and hurricanes, rebounding emissions from a global economic recovery and the fuel crisis, a sobering IPCC report and a much-anticipated meeting in Glasgow that ended up being disappointingly light on action. Doom and gloom however, is never the full story. Underneath all of that, the tectonic shifts of the energy transition continued, driven by a simple piece of economic logic: it is now cheaper to save the world than it is to ruin it.

62. 2021 was a record-breaker for renewables globally, with 227 GW of new capacity installed, a 4.7% increase over 2020 levels. Storage grew three-fold, while offshore wind installations doubled compared to 2020. Solar additions of 180 GW meant more solar was added this year than the combined record for coal and gas capacity additions this century. 245 GW of global giga-scale green hydrogen was announced worldwide in 2021 too, six times the levels seen in 2020.

63. Early-stage investment in climate tech companies skyrocketed, tipping over $50 billion in 2021, and the proportion of venture capital dollars going into climate tech soared, from around 6% to 14%. On the flipside, finance continued to flee fossil fuels. Swiss Re closed a major loophole in the reinsurance market, Citigroup become the first major US bank to rule out coal plant expansions, the Asian Development Bank ended all financing for coal mining and plants, and the Federal Bank of India said it would not finance any new coal, a first for an Indian financial institution.

61. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, sold its entire portfolio of companies focused on oil exploration and production, the Dutch ABP, the world’s fifth largest pension fund, said it was divesting from all fossil fuel companies, South Korea’s National Pension Service, the world’s third largest pension fund, ceased all coal investments, as did FirstRand, Africa’s biggest bank, and the AIA Group, Asia’s largest Asian insurance company.

62. Following the COP meeting in Glasgow, 90% of the global economy is now covered by national net-zero emissions targets, up from 68% in 2020. “We now have almost universal acceptance of the 1.5C target — that’s a big step forward.” More than 450 firms with $120 trillion in assets also joined former Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney’s Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero,committing to steer the global economy towards net-zero emissions and a 1.5° C limit.

63. This might have been our favourite (and most wonky) energy news this year: Goldman Sachs, the notorious tree hugging, left-leaning woke investment bank, said that financial markets have starting pricing in climate risk, effectively creating their own carbon price. It’s pretty much impossible to now finance new coal, and the cost of capital is more than 20% for offshore oil, 12% for LNG and just 4% for renewables. Like we said: it’s cheaper to save the world than it is to ruin it.

64. A new report showed that in the six years since the Paris Agreement was signed, more than three quarters of planned coal projects have been shelved, 44 governments have committed to ending coal, and a further 33 have cancelled their pipelines. The remaining pipeline is now spread across just 37 countries, 16 of which have only one project.

65. According to the latest estimates from the Financial Times, almost no new coal-power plants will make back their upfront costs. Specificially, 92% of facilities proposed or under construction globally would cost more to build than the future cash flow they would generate. Pipelines? More like pipe dreams.

66. The biggest energy story you didn’t hear was that Guangdong, China’s most populous province and one of its most industrialized, banned the construction of coal plants in the Pearl River Delta, the first ever crackdown on coal by a major Chinese province. Then there was the one you did hear about — Xi Jinping announced that China would not finance or build any new coal-fired power projects abroad, a huge deal for the world’s biggest coal financier.

67. Things then got even worse for coal at COP26. Thanks to Glasgow, 90 new coal power projects will be cancelled, another 130 are looking highly questionable, and 750 coal-fired power plants around the world now have phase-out dates, up from 380 before. A further 1,600 coal plants are now covered by carbon neutrality targets, 95% of the world’s total. Not bad for two weeks right?

68. But wait… there’s more. Hungary and Greece said they would close their last coal plants in 2025, Portugal shut down its last coal plant nine years ahead of schedule, Romania said it would close all coal mines by 2032, Canada said it would no longer approve coal mining projects, Sri Lanka stopped building new coal plants, North Macedonia and Montenegro became the first countries in the Western Balkans to announce coal exits, Spain said it would stop coal consumption completely by 2030, Germany’s newly formed coalition government announced a plan to quit coal by 2030 too, eight years ahead of schedule and at the end of the year, India announced it was considering a proposal to halt all new coal plants.

69. Climate activists had a great year, finally forcing Harvard, the richest university on earth, to divest from fossil fuels, Chubb, the world’s largest property and casualty insurer, to walk away from Canada’s tar sands expansion. Endowments, portfolios and pension funds worth $40 trillion have now partially or fully divested from coal, gas and oil stocks.

70. The Keystone XL pipeline was officially terminated, cementing one of the biggest environmental victories of all time. Activists managed to delay the $9 billion, 830,000 barrel per day, Alberta oil sands ‘dirty climate bomb’ for 12 years, and in the process, give birth to much of the modern climate movement.

71. While climate politics at the federal level in the United States was disappointing, 28 different states passed either comprehensive climate or clean energy legislation, stopped fossil fuel industry backed efforts, or made major advancements through statewide boards. Thanks to policies passed in 2021, nearly 40% of people in the United States now live in a place dedicated to 100% clean electricity.

72. The US EPA issued its first major regulation directly limiting greenhouse gases, requiring an 85% reduction of HFCs by 2036. This will eliminate the equivalent of 4.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide, three years’ worth of emissions from the electricity sector. Fridge and air conditioning lobbyists, it seems, don’t have quite the same clout with Joe Manchin. China also agreed to limit emissions of HFCs, as the country began enforcing its obligations under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which took effect in September.

A charging station in Baker, California. Credit: Philip Cheung/The New York Times

Solving climate change isn’t just about decarbonizing electricity, industry and agriculture, but also transport, which accounts for a third of global carbon emissions. On that front, it’s been a standout year. So good in fact, that for the first time ever we’re giving EVs their own section (we usually include them with clean energy).

73. 2021 was the year that the world’s carmakers finally seemed to accept the inevitability of an all-electric future. General Motors said it would eliminate the sale of all fossil fuel powered cars and SUVs by 2035, Jaguar said it would stop selling them within the next five years, and Hyundai said no more after 2040.

74. Ford said it would sell only EVs in Europe from 2030, Fiat said it would be an all electric company by 2030, Volvo said its entire car line-up would be fully electric by the same year, and both Audi and Daimler-Mercedes announced they were no longer developing new combustion engine models.

In terms of products, there is no longer any rational reason to opt for a combustion engine in the near future.

Wolf-Henning Scheider
CEO, Mercedes Benz

75. In March, the IEA said that the global demand for gasoline had peaked, and was unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels given the shift to electric vehicles, and in July, the world officially rid itself of leaded gasoline, after a refinery in Algeria used up the last stockpile. It took a 40 year campaign by the UN to achieve this, and it’s estimated elimination will prevent more than 1.2 million deaths annually.

76. If you remember just one number from this section, make it 10%. That’s the proportion of global vehicle sales that are now electric. To put this in perspective, in the first quarter of 2010, 395 electric vehicles in total were sold worldwide, 0.002% of passenger car sales. In the last quarter of this year, 1.7 million were sold, of which more than half were in Asia.

77. Sales in Germany and China were particularly mindblowing. More than a third of new German cars sold are now plugins, while in the world’s largest car market EV sales have reached nearly 20%. In October, the Tesla Model 3 was the best selling car in Europe (not the best selling electric vehicle — the best selling car, overall), and Hertz bought 100,000 of them for its new fleet, the largest electric car order of all time.

78. In May, Ford unveiled its new electric pickup truck, the F-150 Lightning, whose petrol-powered counterpart, the F-150, is the biggest selling pickup truck in the United States. The real gamechanger however, were the first customer deliveries for all electric carmaker Rivian’s new truck, and the company’s subsequent $100 billion plus valuation, higher than GM or Ford.

79. It wasn’t just passenger vehicles that had a good year. Ebike sales continued to boom, and trucks also proved they were poised for electrification, as 13 models were released in the US alone. Also, we heard that the global fleet of battery powered buses has increased by 22% since 2019, and 18% of all municipal buses on the road worldwide are now zero-emissions.

80. Canada and Chile announced bans on sales of combustion vehicles by 2035, the EU proposed a plan to do the same (although it’s not law yet) and then the really big one: at COP26, 37 countries, including the UK, India, Mexico, Morocco and Turkey, committed to phasing out gas car sales by 2035 in rich countries, and by 2040 in poorer ones.

81. Thanks to progressive policies over the past 24 years, California announced that it had clocked up a 78% reduction in diesel particulate pollution, the toxic black stuff from car exhausts, and that the cleaner air had resulted in 82% fewer deaths from heart and lung disease. New York also became the second state after California to announce combustion engine ban, after governor, Kathy Hochul, signed a bill requiring all passenger vehicles sold in the state to be emissions-free by 2035.

82. In December, the US EPA issued new rules that significantly tighten greenhouse gas emissions levels for new cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks sold in model years 2023 through 2026. All told, these standards will cut carbon emissions by 3.1 billion metric tons by 2050, equivalent to two full years of emissions from all transportation in the United States.

Tiger mother and cub in Nepal

83. Animal rights activists in the UK and Spain won major victories this year with landmark reforms that legally recognize animals as ‘sentient beings, preventing cruelty and mistreatment, and in the United States, activists celebrated big wins on trophy hunting, state-funded wildlife killing experiments, cage confinement, and a historic ban on fur.

84. The EU voted to phase out the use of animals in laboratory experiments, saving eight million monkeys, dogs, cats, rabbits, mice and rats a year, Virginia became the fourth state in America to ban cosmetic animal testing and Mexico became the 41st country to do the same, after Save Ralph, an animated film about a rabbit cosmetic tester, spurred 1.3 million people to petition for new legislation.

85. Consumption of wild animals was reported to have dropped by almost 30% across China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and the USA due to shifting cultural tastes and concerns about COVID-19, and an undercover investigation forced South Korea’s largest dog meat auction house to close, with advocates now calling for a permanent ban on all slaughtering and processing of dogs for food.

86. Tanzania said it was hopeful of reaching its ‘zero-elephant-poaching’ target after making thousands of arrests, including 21 kingpins of the illegal trafficking trade. Since 2014, its elephant population has increased by 17,000. Malawi also reported a dramatic reduction in wildlife poaching and trafficking, thanks to tougher penalties, with 90% of wildlife criminals serving an average of four and half years in prison since legislation was amended in 2017, and no international ivory seizures linked to the country since.

87. Good news for the global dawn chorus (go on, open it, trust us). 400 years after being wiped out, the UK’s crane population has passed a crucial milestone on its road to recovery, in Chile, the population of the Burrowing Parrot was reported to have increased from 217 in 1986 to over 4,000 today, and in Namibia fisherman said they have reduced the accidental deaths of seabirds from 30,000 per year in 2009 to just 215 at last count, thanks to bird-scaring lines (a sort of nautical scarecrow) on fishing boats.

88. The bald eagle has quadrupled its population in the past decade with more than 300,000 birds soaring across American skies, the California condor is returning to its home skies after nearly a century thanks to the efforts of the Yurok Tribe, and Bulgaria now has a stable population of around 80 griffon vultures, more than 40 years after the birds were declared extinct.

89. Turning the tides, Gabon passed landmark measures to protect the country’s 69 species of sharks and rays, and Mozambique passed a powerful new fisheries law protecting dolphins, whale sharks and manta rays, off the back of news that the country’s largest marine conservation area has cut illegal fishing by nearly half.

90. The population of four endangered tuna species — Atlantic bluefin, Southern bluefin, Albacore and Yellowfin — are all showing signs of recovery thanks to the enforcement of fishing quotas over the past decade, and in the United States, overfishing has essentially ended with 91% of stocks now reporting recoveries. Not just good news for the planet, but for fishing communities too. “We’re catching bigger fish and getting more bang for our buck.”

91. In North Cyprus, nest counts of green turtles have increasing by 162% and loggerhead turtles by 46% since 1993 and in Cape Verde, the number of nests has increased from 10,000 to almost 200,000 in the past six years, thanks to conservation measures and new laws to criminalise the killing, trade, and consumption of sea turtles.

92. The US government ramped up its protection of endangered humpback whales this year, declaring 300,000 km² of the Pacific Ocean as critical habitat. It’s a big win for conservationists who sued the federal government in 2018 over its failure to designate protected areas, which are proven to double the chance of species’ recovery.

93. Animal rights activists in China pulled off an incredible rescue mission, removing 101 moon bears from a bile extraction facility and transporting them over 1,200 km to a rehab centre. It took years of planning, and involved three convoys of nine trucks each, and a dedicated team of vets and carers who will continue to rehabilitate the bears as they settle into their new home.

Arguably one of the most amazing animal rescues ever pulled off.

94. China doubled the number of wild animals protected under its conservation rules, imposing hefty fines on the trading and consumption of 500 species, including many birds and wolves. It comes after 30 years of Chinese environmental groups fighting for animals to be added to the protected list.

95. Chinese officials also announced that they no longer consider giant pandas an endangered species. There are now 1,800 giant pandas living in the wild, thanks to a series of conservation initiatives in recent years. Those initiatives have also benefited other species: Siberian tigers, Asian elephants, and crested ibises are all seeing population increases too.

96. The population of the critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla has doubled, with numbers up from 3,800 in 2016 to 6,800 today, thanks to conservation efforts in the Oku Community Forests in the Congo. Across Europe, the population of European bison has tripled in the last 17 years, in Vietnam, the population of the Delacour’s Langur, a critically endangered monkey, has quadrupled in the past 20 years.

97. In Kazakhstan, the Saiga antelope has more than doubled its numbers since 2019, in the UAE, the population of the Arabian oryx has increased by 22% in the last four years, and the mhorr, or Dama gazelle, is on the road to recovery thanks to a rescue mission by an army captain from Spain 50 years ago. The descendants of the rescued gazelles now number 4,000 and have been reintroduced in Tunisia, Morocco, and Senegal.

98. The Polish wolf has recovered to an estimated population of 3,000, a massive leap from the 60 in existence in the early 1970s, and in Scotland, the number of beavers has more than doubled in the last three years, thanks to illegal re-wilding efforts by environmental activists.

99. Nepal revealed it is on track to become the first country to double its tiger population. It’s part of TX2, a global imitative supported by Russia, Nepal and 13 other countries. Nepal’s tiger population has grown steadily from 121 tigers 11 years ago, to 235 tigers 3 years ago and the country is likely to reach the 250-mark next year.

100. One more, just for good measure. Did you hear that humanity invented the first new pasta shape in over a century? It’s called Cascatelli, which means little waterfall in Italian — designed for maximum sauceability, forkability and tooth sinkability. Don’t say we don’t bring you the big stories here.

Need we say more?

 by the author.

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Intelligent, optimistic thinking for the future. We help people understand what's on the frontiers of science and technology, and what it means for human progress.

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Angus Hervey

Angus Hervey

From Melbourne and Cape Town, with love. Political economist and journalist, and co-founder of futurecrun.ch

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