Even as the pandemic rumbled on and the climate crisis intensified, there was much progress to report on. Here are the big good news stories of 2021
It was a massive year for the climate, and reminders about what’s at stake came thick and fast: the IPCC’s ‘code red’ report, Siberian wildfires, heat domes, floods. Alarm bells became deafening, but there were beacons of hope, too.
In January, the US – the world’s second largest emitter after China – rejoined the Paris agreement, injecting fresh urgency into the climate conversation.
Then there was COP26. Though dismissed (not entirely unfairly) by Greta Thunberg as a load of “blah, blah, blah”, the climate summit offered signs of progress that can’t just be written off as greenwash. It didn’t go far enough, but analysis suggests it may have been enough to keep the climate stable – if countries stick to their commitments.
There were signs of breakthroughs elsewhere, too…
Image: Cassie Matias
In January a report revealed that, for the first time, renewables generated more electricity than fossil fuels in Europe for the whole of 2020 – a sign of how quickly wind and solar are scaling up.
Records also tumbled in the UK, which recorded its “greenest day ever” in April. Meanwhile, another report revealed that wind and solar are now outperforming fossil fuels financially, as the smart money shifts towards renewable energy. All good news for the climate.
Image: Zbynek Burival
To the delight of climate activists, some high-profile fossil fuel projects were canned in 2021. President Biden pulled the plug on the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline; Drax axed what would have been the largest gas power plant in Europe; Shell abandoned plans to exploit Cambo oil field in Scotland; China pledged to stop funding overseas coal projects; and Portugal became the latest European country to quit coal.
The scope of the retreat from coal was revealed in a report in September. It found that three-quarters of planned coal power plants had been cancelled since the Paris agreement – not enough, but a start.
Then there was the landmark court ruling against Shell in the Netherlands. The oil giant was ordered to slash emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. It’s appealing, but the case is likely to set a precedent.
Image: Arvind Vallabh
Once again we find ourselves in uncertain times going into the new year, with a surge in Covid cases driven by the new Omicron variant.
However, many counties are in a stronger position than this time last year thanks to the development and rollout of Covid vaccines, which have significantly weakened the link between contracting the disease and death.
That’s the good news. A major concern is that many poorer nations have not yet had sufficient access to the vaccines. Not only has this created an unjust gulf, but it has stymied global efforts to contain Covid. Much progress has been made, but there remains a long way to go.
An Ebola outbreak that erupted in Guinea in February was declared over by June. It claimed 12 lives. While each death is a tragedy, the toll highlights the progress that has been made tackling the virus in West Africa: by comparison, more than 11,000 people died during the 2013-16 epidemic.
Meanwhile, China’s 70-year campaign to combat malaria paid off in July, as the World Health Organization confirmed that the country had defeated the disease.
Image: Annie Spratt
Researchers examining whether psychedelics can treat depression and other mental health conditions continued to break new ground in 2021.
In March, a potent hallucinogen used in shamanic rituals – DMT – was mooted as a potential cure for depression. A trial launched to find out more.
Other clinical trials showed promise, including one that used talking therapy and psilocybin – the psychoactive ingredient found in magic mushrooms – to treat depression. It concluded in November and was found to have reduced depressive symptoms in participants. More research is needed, but early data looks encouraging.
There was also evidence that social prescribing can reduce depression in people with dementia, while meditating was touted as a way to make your brain quicker.
While Covid dominated health news, there were many other medical developments in 2021. A malaria vaccine was approved, with the potential to save thousands of lives in Africa; a breast cancer vaccine trial launched in the US; and brain-reading computer software allowed a paralysed man to compose sentences on a computer for the first time.
Elsewhere, HIV jabs were approved for use in Britain, negating the need for daily pills; a ‘game changing’ brain cancer drug showed promise; and whole genome sequencing was found to improve rare disease diagnosis.
Image: Angiola Harry
Despite the culture wars, creeping nationalism and rise of authoritarianism, the world has become more socially progressive.
That’s according to the latest Social Progress Index. Since 2011, it has charted the progress of 167 nations, assessing them on things like rights, access to education, quality of healthcare, personal safety and quality of environment.
The result? Good news, largely: 147 nations recorded a better score in 2021 than they did a decade ago, with just four countries (the US, Brazil, Syria and South Sudan) regressing. “Social progress is advancing across the world,” the report concluded.
And in 2021, you didn’t have to look far for proof…
The year saw more nations introduce legislation to tackle discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, although there’s much work to do.
Switzerland (finally) said ‘yes’ to same-sex marriages; Canada passed a bill to ban conversion therapy; Montenegro registered its first same-sex partnership; and Botswana upheld a ruling decriminalising homosexuality, rejecting a government appeal to overturn the law.
Elsewhere, members of the LGBTQ+ community rose to prominence in politics. Tessa Ganserer and Nyke Slawik became the first transgender women to win parliamentary seats in Germany; Eduardo Leite became Brazil’s first openly gay governor; and Sarah McBride was sworn in as the first transgender US state senator.
Image: Brian Kyed
Indigenous people continued to face persecution in many parts of the world in 2021, but there were some signs of progress.
Australia finally pledged to pay reparations to Indigenous Australians who had been forcibly removed from their parents as children. More than 100,000 indigenous children – known as the Stolen Generation – were taken from their families between 1900 and 1970. The reparations won’t make up for what happened, but they mark a shift in tone.
Elsewhere, indigenous politicians rose to prominent leadership roles. Deb Haaland became the first indigenous US cabinet secretary; Canada appointed its first indigenous governor general (Mary Simon); and so did New Zealand (Dame Cindy Kiro).
Image: Andrew James
Female politicians were chosen to lead Estonia, Honduras, Samoa, Sweden, Tanzania and Tunisia for the first time in 2021. Meanwhile, Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the first female and first African leader of the World Trade Organization.
In the corporate world, efforts to boost female leadership in UK boardrooms bore some fruit. A report revealed that the number of female FTSE100 directors has doubled in five years.
Among other signs of progress was the Muslim Council of Britain electing Zara Mohammed as its first female leader.
Image: Keren Levand
In March, the most diverse Oscars nominee list in history was unveiled – a sign that the Academy Awards is finally shedding its reputation for being pale and male.
That same month, Wales announced that black history lessons are to be mandatory in schools. And in the UK local elections, Joanne Anderson became the first black woman to lead a major city (Liverpool).
The UK’s Royal Society of Literature also had some good news: in December, it appointed Booker prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo (pictured) as its new president. She is the first writer of colour to hold the position.
Image: Jenny Scott
You’ve heard of the gender pay gap, but what about the socio-economic pay gap? Well, you may hear more about it soon, after KPMG, an accounting firm, became the first major business in the UK to publish one.
The result? An 8.6 per cent median pay gap between employees from working-class backgrounds and those from middle-class families.
The good news is that KPMG promised to address that. It also called on other firms to publish socio-economic pay gaps to help tackle class inequality.
Image: Leon Oalh
The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Canada and the US reached a “historic” deal in June to make multinationals pay more tax. The seven nations agreed to tackle tax avoidance by making companies pay more in the countries where they do business. They also agreed to a minimum corporate tax rate of 15 per cent.
The rules will only apply in the G7, and 15 per cent is on the low side compared to existing tax rates. Nevertheless, the move is considered a progressive step towards a global agreement on tax reform, which once seemed unlikely.
Image: Jason Leung
In September, the UK introduced pioneering legislation to make the digital world safer for children. The Age Appropriate Design Code is the first of its kind in the world and represents a significant taming of big tech.
Among other things, it requires online firms – including social media platforms and search engines – to respect children’s privacy and personal data. Campaigners described the introduction of the law as “a great day for children”.
Image: Carlos Magno
With furlough schemes making the idea of a guaranteed, state-backed salary seem less radical, the concept of a universal basic income moved from the realm of utopian thinkers into mainstream discourse in 2021.
Basic income trials were pledged for Wales, for a South Korean province and for some cities in the US, a country that has not traditionally been a bastion of progressive welfare initiatives. Meanwhile, Ireland announced a basic income for artists to help them recover from the pandemic.
The preliminary results of a basic income trial in Stockton, California, were also published. And there was good news: far from disincentivising work, as naysayers warned it would, people on the income found full-time work at more than twice the rate of non-recipients. They also reported significant improvements in mental health.
In December, the UAE (pictured) announced that it was shrinking its working week to 4.5 days. It wasn’t the only country to be swayed by the idea of a longer weekend. Spain became the first EU country to trial a 32-hour week in September.
Scotland is also mulling a pilot after some businesses there adopted the model and reported no drop-off in productivity, but a significant decrease in stress among employees.
Other companies, such as Unilever, also trialled a shorter working week. Expect more on this in 2022 and beyond.
Image: Fredrik Ohlander
The list of endangered species continues to grow at an alarming rate, but some creatures stepped back from the brink in 2021. Tuna, Siberian tigers, European bison (pictured) and the critically endangered saiga antelope all proved that extinction is not inevitable, and that conservation can be effective.
Encouragingly, species also returned to places they’d long since left: sharks were seen in the River Thames, half a century after the waterway was declared “biologically dead”; sprat returned to Glasgow’s River Clyde; and golden eagles were spotted in Loch Lomond after a 100-year absence. Twitchers were justifiably aflutter.
Image: Šimon Slávik
The global rewilding movement gathered pace in 2021, with a series of headline-grabbing reintroduction programmes.
The jaguar (pictured) returned to Argentina’s Iberá Wetlands for the first time in 70 years; Tasmanian devils bred on mainland Australia for the first time in 3,000 years; and the US state of Colorado recorded its first litter of grey wolf pups since the 1940s.
Meanwhile, beavers continued to recolonise the UK; wildcats were bred for release in Scotland; and a project to bring bison back to England stomped forward. The animals are due to arrive in spring 2022.
Image: Prashant Saini
In May, a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature revealed that an area of land greater than the size of Russia has fallen under some sort of protection in the last decade.
Among the new conservation areas announced in 2021 was a ‘shark superhighway’ in the South Pacific, which will help protect marine life in an area currently plagued by overfishing.
Another report, in May, brought more good news: the world has gained an area of forest the size of France since 2000. It doesn’t come close to offsetting losses over the same period, but it shows that deforestation need not be a one-way street.
Image: Hendrik Cornelissen
Efforts to tackle plastic waste were stepped up in 2021. In July, 10 single-use plastic items that have long blighted Europe’s beaches were outlawed by the EU – good news for bathers and marine life.
The French government went further. It said ‘au revoir’ to plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables, giving retailers until the new year to find alternatives. Spain did the same, with a slightly more lenient 2023 deadline. The UK also mooted a ban on some single-use plastics, although not enough for campaigners.
There was also progress in tackling the plastic that’s already out there. A mission to clean up the Great Pacific garbage patch launched in October, and brought its first haul back to land. And in July, researchers discovered that bacteria living inside a cow’s gut can break down several types of plastic.
Image: Brian Yurasits
Meat, without the guilt: that’s what the founders of the world’s first no-kill, lab-grown meat factory promised in July, as they cut the ribbon on the facility in Israel.
The opening of the factory represented a big leap forward for a technology that could help feed a growing population without slaughtering animals or clearing forests.
Future Meat Technologies, the firm behind the facility, was not the only company breaking new ground in the cultured meat industry. In December, another Israeli outfit, MeaTech, 3-D printed the largest lab-grown steak.
Image: Sander Dalhuisen
The movement to make electronic goods easier to repair advanced in 2021. The EU led the way, introducing pioneering right to repair legislation in March. It obliges makers of washing machines, televisions and other electronic goods to ensure that their products can be easily repaired – and that spare parts are available.
The UK followed suit in July with its own right to repair law. Meanwhile, Apple bowed to pressure and agreed to make parts and tools available for people to fix their own phones. (For some models only, mind).
All of which could be good news for the economy. A report in August estimated that 450,000 jobs could be supported by the repair industry in the UK alone.
Image: Clint Bustrillos
Cargo bikes continued to wheel their way into big cities over the last 12 months. A study in August found them to be the cleanest and quickest way to transport goods across London, which got its first on-demand, e-cargo bike-sharing scheme in September. The same month, one of the city’s busiest streets went car-free.
Paris was among the other major cities embracing the velo. After winning a second term in October, its mayor Anne Hidalgo announced plans to turn the French capital into a “cycle city”.
Image: Hackney council
Beachside pina coladas could soon taste that bit sweeter for climate-conscious holidaymakers, thanks to advances in low-carbon air travel – but don’t pack your suitcases just yet.
In April, an aviation startup said it would put zero-emissions, hydrogen aircraft in the skies by 2026; in May, a UK-based blimp maker pledged it would launch commercial short-haul routes in 2025; and in August, a hybrid plane made a historic flight in the UK.
There was also good news for rail enthusiasts: Europe’s night trains are making a comeback amid concern about the climate.
Incarceration has long been the answer to crime for many countries, but there were signs that attitudes are shifting – with encouraging results.
The US, which locks up a greater share of its people than any other nation, saw its prison population fall to its lowest level since 1995. Changes in criminal law and shorter sentences for some offences helped reduce the incarceration rate. There was also less crime to punish.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands has put a greater emphasis on youth intervention schemes to head off crime in the first place. It has also focused on rehabilitation rather than jail sentences. The prison population there has subsequently slumped to such a degree that Dutch jails are now closing down and being turned into schools, refugee centres and hotels.
Image: Prison Escape
Main illustration: Spencer Wilson