What went right in 2017

From wrangling over Brexit to war clouds over Korea, 2017 was a tough year on many fronts. But it was full of inspiring stories too. We delve behind the headlines for signs of progress and possibility

1. The value of UK ethical markets grew to almost double that of tobacco

At £38bn, the UK’s ethical goods market is worth twice that of tobacco, research released in January suggested. From electric cars to sustainably sourced fish, 2015 saw an average 8.5 per cent increase in sales of ethical goods.

2. Premature deaths for four major non-infectious diseases dropped

Premature deaths for the world’s four biggest noncommunicable diseases –cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory – have declined by 16 per cent since 2000 according to World Bank data released this year.

3. There has been big progress in treating HIV and Aids

In July, UNAIDS, revealed that half of all people on the planet with HIV are now getting treatment – the first time in history that this has been the case. And, deaths caused by Aids around the world have dropped by half since 2005. The life expectancy of people with HIV in Europe and North America is now ‘near-normal’ thanks to new drugs, according to a study published in The Lancet in May. 20-year-olds who started antiretroviral therapy in 2010 are projected to live 10 years longer than those who began treatment in 1996.

4. Clean jobs cleaned up in the US

Clean energy jobs in the US now outnumber positions in oil and gas by five to one. Jobs connected to solar, wind, energy efficiency, smart grid technology and battery storage outnumber all fossil fuel jobs by more than 2.5 to one.

5. El Salvador became the first country in the world to ban mining

The small Central American country made history in March as the first nation to impose a blanket ban on metal mining. The decision followed a protracted struggle to protect the nation’s diminishing water sources from polluting mining projects.

6. The dementia rate in the UK is set to decline

Fewer people than previously thought will have dementia in the future because of improvements in healthcare and healthier lifestyles, research released by UK experts this year revealed. Academics writing in the British Medical Journal said although people are living longer lives, which is fuelling a rise in the number of people with the condition, the number of newly diagnosed cases of dementia is falling.

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7. Significantly fewer children around the world are dying from diarrhoea

Thanks to better access to clean water and sanitation, the number of children around the world who are dying from diarrhoea has fallen by a third since 2005.

8. A river was awarded the same rights as a human being

A river in New Zealand was granted the same legal rights as a human being. After 140 years of negotiations, the Māori won recognition for the Whanganui river. In December, Mount Taranaki in New Zealand was also granted the same legal rights as a person.

9. Europe is set to act on bee-harming pesticides

Europe is poised for a total ban on bee-harming pesticides. Draft regulations reveal that the European Commission wants to prohibit the insecticides that cause ‘acute risks to bees’. In November, UK’s environment minister Michael Gove confirmed that the UK will support an extended ban against the use of these pesticides.

10. The tide is turning against wasteful plastic bag use

Some 40 countries have now banned, partly banned or taxed single-use plastic bags. In August, Kenya introduce the world’s toughest plastic bag ban: four years in jail or a $40,000 (£30,000) fine. Producing, selling and using plastic bags is now illegal there, though officials say that ordinary shoppers will more likely be warned and have their bags confiscated. China, Rwanda and Italy are among the other nations taking action.

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11. Record-breaking rates of organ transplants are taking place

A record 50,300 people are alive in the UK today thanks to organ transplants, after a surge in donor numbers and progress on survival rates. According to figures released in July by NHS Blood and Transplant, 4,753 people received transplants within 12 months between 2016 and 2017. Organ transplants now help 800 more people per year than they did in 2012.

12. France banned the use of unhealthily thin fashion models

law in France banning the use of unhealthily thin fashion models came into effect in May. Models working in France will now need a doctor’s certificate attesting to their overall physical health, and particularly their body mass index (BMI). Digitally altered photographs have also had to be labelled as such from 1 October 2017.

13. The number of UK smokers fell to a record low

The number of UK smokers has dropped by almost 2 million, 10 years after the UK’s indoor smoking ban came into force, Cancer Research UK announced this summer. A 20 per cent drop in heart disease deaths has been reported.

14. Ireland joined other nations to say ‘frack-off’ to fracking

Ireland joined France, Germany and Bulgaria this summer in pledging to ban onshore fracking. Ireland is set to ban the controversial drilling technique after its senate passed legislation in June outlawing the practice.

15. The first female president of the UK supreme court was sworn in

The first female president of the UK’s supreme court and the youngest lord chief justice in 50 years have been sworn in. Brenda Hale’s appointment to the leading role at the UK’s highest court was announced by Downing Street in July. She is known as a champion of diversity within the judiciary. Sir Ian Burnett, 59, was sworn in as lord chief justice.

16. The EU acted to curb power plant pollutants

The EU imposed new, stricter limits on pollutants such as nitrogen, sulphur, mercury and particulates that will apply to all 2,900 of Europe’s large power plants. Power plants in the EU will have to cut the amount of toxic pollutants they emit under the rules approved by EU member states in April.

17. Global child labour fell

A report released by the International Labor Organization in October revealed that global child labour has declined sharply. There were 98 million fewer boys and girls being exploited in 2016 than in 2000.

18. Denmark announced it had cut food waste by a quarter in five years

The Scandinavian nation has become one of the leading European countries in the fight against food waste. In 2016, a charity in Copenhagen opened Denmark’s first ever food surplus supermarket, which sells products at prices 30 to 50 per cent cheaper than usual retailers.


19. Shareholders of the world’s biggest oil company defied its board to urge better reporting on climate change

In May, a shareholder ‘rebellion’ forced ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, to start reporting on the effect of preventing climate change on its bottom line.

20. Iceland became the first country to make equal pay compulsory by law

On International Women’s Day 2017, Iceland became the first country in the world to make equal pay compulsory by law.


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What went right in 2017. Illustration: Growth of UK ethical markets, by Spencer Wilson