It’s been a year like no other. As challenging as 2020 has been, the past 12 months have also seen big wins for the environment, society and culture, human rights – and even health. Read on for 20 stories of progress that got hidden behind the headlines in 2020
Demand for renewables was growing before the pandemic and has held steady during 2020. Advancements in green tech have rapidly brought down the costs of wind and solar, making them highly competitive with fossil fuels. Renewable energy made up almost half of Britain’s electricity generation in the first three months of 2020, for example, with a surge in wind power helping set a new record for clean energy. Then in April, Britain broke records for going without coal-fired power generation for the longest stretch since the Industrial Revolution.
What’s more, demand for oil likely peaked in 2019 and is now in terminal decline, according to a report released by BP in September. It acknowledged that the pandemic and policies to curb the climate crisis have hastened the demise of fossil fuels. Also in 2020, the EU’s largest oil producer promised to stop drilling: In a move described by Greenpeace as a “watershed moment”, Denmark announced in December that it will cancel all future permits for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, and phase out existing production by 2050.
Image: Andrew Schultz
Efforts to improve access to electricity in developing nations are bearing fruit, according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), published in October. It found that the number of people without electricity dropped from almost 860 million in 2018 to 770 million in 2019, which the IEA claimed was a record low. Electricity projects in India and some African nations have hooked millions up to the grid, with progress needing to be maintained throughout the pandemic and post-pandemic too, experts noted.
As the concept becomes more widely embraced, there was positive news when it came to rewilding and various species reintroductions in 2020. They haven’t roamed the country for thousands of years, but bison are poised to return to English woodland as part of a £1m rewilding project in Blean Woods, Kent, in was revealedin July. A herd of European bison will be in their new home by spring 2022, say conservationists. The breed is the closest living relative to the ancient steppe bison and is attributed with engineering woodland habitats for butterflies, beetles and other species by felling trees and disrupting earth.
Elsewhere in the UK, projects to reintroduce beavers, white-tailed eagles, red kites and the enormous Dalmatian pelican made for exciting updates; volunteers stepped in to look after young trees as part of a rewilding project in the Highlands of Scotland; river restoration projects noted successes; hen harriers enjoyed their best breeding year in England for nearly two decades; Rewilding Britain published a reforesting roadmap, and a new project to launch a Rewilding Network is one to watch in 2021. Further afield, the Iberian lynx is recovering after efforts to save it – the world’s most endangered feline – and the European bison – the same species coming to Kent – stepped back from the brink of extinction.
Image: Dalmatian pelicans, by Birger Strahl
The World Health Organization’s African Region was declared free from wild polio in August following decades of work by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, governments and partners. The announcement came as the virus was finally eliminated in Nigeria. The Africa Regional Certification Commission, a task group appointed by the WHO to eradicate the disease, certified the continent free of wild polio in the summer, four years after the last recorded case.
Polio typically affects children under five and can lead to paralysis and sometimes even death. There is no cure, but the polio vaccine offers lifelong immunisation. In 1996, an estimated 75,000 children in Africa were paralysed by wild polio, prompting a vaccination programme launched by Nelson Mandela. The virus, however, clung on in Nigeria, which less than a decade ago accounted for around half of all global polio deaths. Speaking in 2020, the director general of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described the eradication of wild polio in Africa as a “public health triumph”.
Image: child in Abuja, Nigeria, by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma’aji
There was also positive news when it came to hope for cleaner air in cities. Private vehicles are being designed out of urban areas with encouraging results for communities and businesses. Announced in January, the draft Birmingham Transport Plan paints a picture of a cleaner, greener city with car-free streets, better public transport, more cycle lanes and a ban on through traffic. Supporters say the plan will address the twin perils of toxic air and obesity – both a major concern in Birmingham – and help the city meet its admittedly ambitious target of becoming carbon neutral by 2030.
Brighton, York, Ghent, Oslo, Copenhagen, Madrid, Barcelona, Bogotá are among the other cities doing exciting things in this realm, from a ‘superblocks’ car-free scheme in Barcelona and a cycle lane-drive in Paris, to work to get even more people moving by bike in Copenhagen, which is already a world-leader when it comes to two-wheeled travel. During the pandemic, many cities around the world saw dwindling numbers of fossil-fuel powered cars on their streets during lockdowns, and some plan to try to keep it that way.
Image: cyclist in Copenhagen, Denmark, by Darth Liu
“No-one wants to save throughout their life to retire into a world devastated by climate change.” So said Mark Fawcett, chief investment officer of the UK’s largest pension fund, Nest, which announced in July that it was to divest from firms involved in coal extraction, tar sands and Arctic drilling. It was just one of many pieces of positive news when it comes to divestment from fossil fuels. While co-hosting the Climate Ambition Summit in December, the UK vowed to stop funding foreign fossil fuel development. The move comes after the UK government was accused of hypocrisy, having funnelled £21bn of taxpayers’ money into overseas fossil fuel projects, while preparing to host the Cop26 climate summit.
Days later, Lloyds, the world’s biggest insurance market, announced that it would stop new insurance cover for coal, oil sands and Arctic energy projects by 2022. And when the Bank of America announced in December that it will no longer fund oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, it became the final major US bank to make such a commitment, joining Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Chase, Wells Fargo and CitiBank.
Efforts to improve diversity went up a notch in 2020, from the Oscars to the Booker prize, though much more remains to be done. In September, the Oscars introduced new guidelines that are designed to improve diversity and inclusion for its most prestigious award: best picture. Campaigners have highlighted a stark lack of representation at the awards and in recent years the Academy has broadened its membership in a tentative bid to fix the problem. Under the new regulations, which are set to come into effect for the 2024 Oscars, entries for best picture must satisfy two of four criteria in order to be eligible. They include having storylines that focus on one of more underrepresented group, and having actors from underrepresented groups, including women, people from racial or ethnic minority groups, LGBTI or disabled people.
Also in September, the six-strong shortlist for the 2020 Booker prize – one of the most prestigious literary awards in the English speaking world – included four women and four people of colour. And in December, Netflix – the world’s largest streaming service – pledged to diversify its programming to better reflect audiences in the UK. It announced a host of new shows featuring diverse talent.
Image: Leon Ell
With many people confined to their local areas in 2020, nature’s intrinsic importance and role in boosting our wellbeing was noticed like never before. A silver lining of lockdown life was renewed enthusiasm for gardening, among many in the UK at least. And, gardening that takes wildlife’s needs into account seems to have been specifically popular in 2020. Inspired by the likes of Kate Bradbury and her latest book, Wildlife Gardening, mini meadows and verges across the UK have been left unmown, ponds created, log piles left alone to provide insect accommodation, and plants in window boxes, borders and community gardens selected in terms of their value to insects.
The movement has been dubbed ‘ungardening’ and it could have a huge impact: after all, the land taken up by gardens in the UK is greater than the area of all our national nature reserves. Local authorities have also been tentatively getting involved, encouraged by the likes of plant charity PlantLife. Will the momentum be maintained into 2021?
Lockdown also spurred a movement of ‘rebel botanists’. Led by French botanist Sophie Leguil, the #MoreThanWeeds campaign encouraged people to embrace urban nature by naming and learning about the plants that poke up through cracks in pavements and on grass verges in towns and cities.
Image: Keith Davey
Scotland made history in November by becoming the first nation in the world to guarantee free and universal access to period products. Campaigners welcomed the move, claiming Scotland was setting a “bloody great example” for other nations to follow. “Scotland’s decision is a major win for menstrual equity, recognising that the needs of women and people who menstruate matter, and providing products accordingly, for everyone who needs them,” said the charity, Bloody Good Period. “We now need the same kind of decisive leadership and action that we’ve just seen in Scotland, throughout the UK.”
Friends of the Earth said Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election in November “offers a glimmer of hope” for addressing the climate crisis. “Campaigning on the strongest climate change platform in presidential history, president-elect Biden now has a mandate to take bold action on climate change,” said the charity’s Erich Pica. Biden’s win means that the US – the world’s second biggest CO2 emitter – is now set to rejoin the Paris agreement.
US climate leaders who were re-elected include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – the youngest woman ever elected to the US Congress – and Senator Ed Markey. Together, they introduced the 2019 resolution on a Green New Deal. With action needed like never before, many eyes will be watching what happens in the States in 2021.
Image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, by Jesse Korman
New diagnoses of HIV among gay and bisexual men in England have dropped to their lowest level in 20 years, according to a Public Health England update in November. A PHE report revealed that overall, across all genders and sexualities, the number of people with a new HIV diagnosis dropped by 10 per cent, from 4,580 cases in 2018 to 4,139 in 2019.
Since 2010, new HIV infections have fallen globally by 23 per cent. At the end of 2019, approximately 25.4 million people were accessing antiretrovirals – a figure that has more than tripled since 2010, according to research by UNAids.
There were also major breakthroughs in the development of HIV prevention methods in 2020: Cabotegravir, developed by ViiV, was recognised as a drug that could prevent HIV infection with only six injections per year. “This is a major, major advance,” said Dr Anthony Fauci, the US infectious disease expert.
The dapivirine vaginal ring, which needs to be replaced only once a month, received a positive opinion from regulatory authorities. And starting in 2021, a new drug developed by Merck, islatravir, will be evaluated in clinical trials as an oral pill to be taken once a month.
Despite the progress on many fronts, concerns have been raised that coronavirus has blocked access to drugs and that various missed targets threaten to derail progress on HIV.
Kenya reported in August that its elephant population has more than doubled from 16,000 in 1989 to 34,000 today. The number of elephants being killed by poachers is also down significantly on previous years – just seven were reported in 2020, compared to 34 in 2019 and 80 in 2018. The number of lions living in Kenya has increased by 25 per cent too, from 2,000 in 2010 to 2,489 in 2020.
Meanwhile, Uganda reported a gorilla baby boom. Mountain gorillas in the country have been breeding in “unprecedented” numbers, according to conservationists at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. They announced in September that seven infants had been born there to date in 2020 – more than double the number for all of 2019.
“This flourish of deliveries is unprecedented,” Simplicious Gessa, from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, told The Times. Mountain gorillas are found in only three countries – Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – and have been the subject of prolonged conservation efforts, which saw the great apes moved off the critically endangered species list in 2018.
Image: baby elephant, by Sarah Kilian
More than one million people have given up smoking since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, a survey for charity Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) released in July suggested. Just under half of people who had ditched the habit in the previous four months said the pandemic had played a role in their decision to stop. A range of factors were suggested, including health concerns, access to tobacco while isolating or no longer smoking socially.
Separately, University College London found more people quit smoking in the year to June 2020 than in any year since its survey began in 2007.
Image: fresh air on the beach, by Frank McKenna
The Global Terrorism Index reported that deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year in 2020. The number of deaths caused by terrorism has now decreased by 59 per cent since 2014, to 13,826. Researchers also found that the terrorism situation had improved in 103 countries – the highest number of nations to record a year-on-year improvement since the index began.
Terrorism remains a significant and serious threat in many countries, but the news was cautiously welcomed as a positive development. The largest decreases in deaths were in Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Image: children playing in Kabul, Afghanistan, by Sohaib Ghyasi
The World Health Organization revealed in November that malaria deaths have reached the lowest level ever recorded, a drop of almost 60 per cent in the last 20 years. It means that between 2000 and 2019, 1.5 billion malaria cases and 7.6 million malaria deaths were averted globally. However the WHO warned that Covid-19 threatened global progress against the disease, urging countries to better target interventions, roll out new tools and increase funding.
The WHO also published its annual tuberculosis report in November, showing that between 2015 and 2019, global deaths fell by 14 per cent. Since 2000, treatments have averted more than 60 million deaths: a staggering number.
Image: children in Tanzania, by Toby Wong
Kazakhstan joined an international protocol on the abolition of the death penalty in September, becoming the 88th signatory nation. Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for eastern Europe and central Asia, said it was encouraging news – describing the “ever-growing family of nations that have left this shameful punishment behind.”
Amnesty International’s 2019 annual Global Report on Death Sentences and Executions reported that more than two-thirds of the world’s countries had abolished the death penalty, either in law or in practice. Some 142 nations had either abolished the death penalty under the country’s constitution or laws or had not carried out an execution in more than a decade. Some 56 nations retain capital punishment.
In 2019 the number of confirmed executions was the lowest recorded in at least 10 year. And the number of states voting for UN resolutions on halting executions worldwide continues to grow, suggesting that consensus is building towards ending the death penalty once and for all, Amnesty International said in December.
Image: a flower in Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanon was among the nations to support the UN General Assembly’s resolution on a moratorium on executions for the first time this year. Photograph by Rashid Khreiss
Saudi Arabia banned child marriage in 2020, making 18 the minimum age to be married. In 2019, the government banned marriages for children under the age of 15. Before that, there were no age limits on marriage for boys or girls. The new ban has a loophole: teenagers under the age of 18 can still get married if they are granted approval by a special court. But it is still seen as positive news in such conservative countries, both of which have deep historical, religious and cultural roots.
Palestine also banned child marriage in 2020, while Bangladesh reported progress on child marriage too. The proportion of girls being married there before the age of 18 has dropped from 64 per cent in 2010 to just over 50 per cent today, according to research by Unicef. In actual numbers, that means 10 million girls in Bangladesh have been saved from child marriage in the past decade.
Image: Loren Joseph
Costa Rica legalised same-sex marriage in May, becoming the 28th country to do so. In June, the US Supreme Court passed a landmark ruling protecting LGBTI citizens from workplace discrimination. It was described as a “long sought and unexpected victory”.
Later the same month, lawmakers in Gabon voted to decriminalise homosexuality, reversing a law that was drafted in 2019. In July, Montenegro became the first country in the Balkans to allow same-sex civil partnerships. It made Montenegro the first European country outside of both western Europe and the EU to legalise same-sex civil partnerships. And then in Taiwan in October, two same-sex couples joined a mass wedding hosted by the military for the first time, another gay rights landmark in Asia.
In December, Bhutan became the second Asian country after Taiwan to legalise same-sex relationships and in Nepal, authorities said they would count LGBTI people for the first time in the national census in order to help people from ‘sexual minorities’ gain better access to education and health schemes.
Image: Alice Donovan Rouse
More countries made net-zero pledges in 2020. South Korea became the first Asian country to set a 2050 net-zero emissions goal, followed by Japan, and China, which committed to reaching net zero by 2060. China is the world’s biggest emitter and had previously committed only to aim for peak emissions in about 2030.
“Xi’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 is a gamechanger,” Thom Woodroofe, a former climate diplomat and senior adviser at the Asia Society told the Guardian.
Argentina also pledged to aim for net zero by 2050, while Finland, Austria and Sweden brought their net zero-dates forward. The UK pledged to reduce emissions by 68 per cent in the next decade, and the EU set a new goal of reducing emissions by 55 per cent within a decade. What does all this add up to? Countries that together represent around 42 per cent of global carbon emissions now have ‘somewhat credible’ net-zero targets, according to Future Crunch.
Image: the Great Wall of China, by Robert Nyman
The emergence of Covid-19 has led to loss and heartbreak all over the world, but it also prompted a wave of unprecedented global collaboration. Within the space of a year, several vaccines have not only been developed, but authorised for use, and have begun to be administered. As one scientist put it: “In the last 11 months, probably 10 years’ work has been done.”
Francis Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of biomedical research in the world told the Guardian it has been a phenomenal effort. “I have never seen anything like this,” he said. “It has been all hands on deck.”
Image: Markus Spiske
Main illustration: Spencer Wilson