The ‘golden age of medicine’ arrived, animals came back from the brink, the renewables juggernaut gathered pace, climate reparations became reality and scientists showed how to slow ageing, plus more good news
The 2023 good news roundup
The burgeoning medical revolution was a major theme of 2023. “We are seeing a pace of progress that has not been witnessed for 100 years,” Bertalan Meskó, director of the Medical Futurist Institute in Budapest, told Positive News in October.
Meskó is among a chorus of voices hailing a new ‘golden age’ of medicine – thanks, in part, to Covid-19. “Breakthroughs in mRNA technology first applied in Covid vaccines could soon help eradicate certain types of cancer,” he said. “Then there’s the huge potential of AI and 3D printing and, most excitingly, advances in genomics, which will unlock the genetic bases of many diseases, leading to new and more targeted treatments.”
Chris Stokel-Walker, who writes about the medical applications of AI for the British Medical Journal, predicted AI would “supercharge the pace of novel drug discoveries” and analyse and identify tumours in scans “more effectively than humans can”.
Added Meskó: “It’s an amazing time. I feel lucky to be living through it.”
Image: Sam Peet
There’s a clear pathway to ending Aids transmission by 2030, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) announced in July. It said that improved access to HIV treatment has averted almost 21m Aids-related deaths in the past 30 years, with 2022 marking the lowest number of new HIV infections (1.3m) in decades.
The response has brought add-on benefits, it added, including stronger health and community systems, which helped shield millions from poverty and food insecurity.
Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, cautioned against “relaxed optimism”, and said that success would be dependent on sustained action. “The end of Aids is an opportunity for a uniquely powerful legacy for today’s leaders,” she said. “They could be remembered by future generations as those who put a stop to the world’s deadliest pandemic.”
Image: Mauro Mora
Nations defeated various debilitating and deadly diseases in 2023. In what was hailed as a “monumental achievement”, Bangladesh became the first country to eliminate visceral leishmaniasis– a life-threatening illness caused by a parasite – as a public health problem.
Also chalking up a public health win was Iraq, which become the 17th country to eliminate trachoma, the world’s leading cause of infectious blindness.
In further good news, Belize was finally declared malaria-free in July by the World Health Organization. It came as nations approved a new malaria vaccine tgat is believed to offer up to 80% protection from the disease. Experts claim it could save thousands of lives annually, many of them children’s.
Image: Bennett Tobias
Did 2023 mark the beginning of the end for Alzheimer’s? There was reason for optimism, after two drugs were found to slow the disease.
Donanemab and Lecanemab work by clearing the amyloid protein that builds up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Trials suggest they can slow cognitive decline, but not halt the disease. The drugs – set for UK approval in 2024 – mark a turning point in treating a disease that is expected to affect 1.7m Britons by 2040.
“We’re now on the cusp of a first generation of treatments for Alzheimer’s, something that many thought impossible only a decade ago,” said Dr Susan Kohlhaas, executive director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “People should be really encouraged by this news.”
Image: RDNE Stock project
There were some notable breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer in 2023. A new cervical cancer treatment using cheap, existing drugs was described as “the biggest improvement in outcome in this disease in over 20 years”. Scientists also made a “tremendously exciting” breakthrough in treating prostate cancer. England, meanwhile, approved a drug shown to prevent breast cancer.
All this came as researchers at University College London developed a “cancer-busting guided missile” using ‘clink chemistry’, which is likely to emerge as a potent force for tackling cancer in the future.
There was also progress in diagnosing the disease. A 10-minute MRI scan for prostate cancer was shown to be more reliable at detecting the disease than existing blood tests. Meanwhile, England’s roaming ‘lung trucks’ improved early diagnosis for lung cancer among deprived groups.
And in the US, data offered a welcome reminder of the progress that has been made already, revealing that cancer death rates have plummeted by a third since 1991.
Image: National Cancer Institute
How can we live longer? It’s a question that’s occupied humanity through the ages, and this year scientists offered up more clues.
Contributing to a growing body of research, they nailed down eight healthy lifestyle habits that could add up to 24 years to your life. They include being physically active, having a good diet, sleeping well and having positive social relationships.
Image: RDNE Stock project
Oil-rich Dubai was a controversial host for December’s Cop28 climate summit, but despite various controversies it chalked up a few achievements.
One was the final agreement, signed by almost 200 nations, to “transition away from fossil fuels”. It was a historic moment for climate rhetoric and particularly significant given that petrostates signed up. However, scientists said the agreement lacked ambition and is riddled with loopholes.
Perhaps a greater achievement was the launch of the loss and damage fund, which countries worst-hit by climate change can now access. Wealthy nations, including the UK, UAE and Germany, made significant contributions. Nevertheless, questions remain, such as how it will be funded in the future.
Image: Ana Pessoa/Midia Ninja/CopCollab25
In a historic referendum that pitted people against big oil, Ecuadorians voted to halt drilling in a protected region of the Amazon in August.
Some 60% of voters said ‘no’ to oil exploration in Yasuní national park, which is home to uncontacted Indigenous communities. The territory spans 1m hectares (2.5m acres) and contains Ecuador’s biggest reserves of crude.
Indigenous leader Nemonte Nenquimo hailed the victory. “Although big oil and politicians think that they can decide over our lives, we can defeat them through unity,” she said.
Litigation has emerged as a vital tool for ramping up climate action. So read a report by the United Nations, which found that the number of climate court cases being brought have more than doubled in five years.
The report, released in July, highlighted a series of landmark rulings, including a Dutch court ordering oil giant Shell to cut its emissions.
The UN said that as climate litigation becomes more common, the body of legal precedent grows, forming an increasingly well-defined field of law.
A month after the report came out, young environmentalists successfully sued the fossil fuel-rich US state of Montana for violating their right to a clean environment. It was the first time a US court has ruled against a government for a violation of constitutional rights based on climate change.
Image: Li-An Lim
An investigation by Oxfam in November revealed that the richest 1% of humanity belched out more emissions in 2019 than the poorest 66%.
That might not sound like good news, but it paves the way for the kind of targeted climate solutions that Paris is pioneering. Billing it as a form of “social justice”, the French capital plans to triple parking rates for SUVs. Research shows that carbon emissions from the global SUV fleet outweighs that of most countries.
Curbing private jet use is another high-impact climate policy that wouldn’t affect ordinary citizens. According to a study commissioned by the UK government, 75% of aviation’s emissions come from private jets. “Reducing these flights by half would reduce the sector’s emissions by approximately 37% ,” the study said.
Image: Nils Nedel
Most people are familiar with climate tipping points: one component of an ecosystem collapsing, sparking a chain of irreversible disasters.
But in 2023, academics from England’s University of Exeter (led by Prof Tim Lenton, pictured) tipped the notion of tipping points on its head, claiming breakthroughs in low-carbon technologies could soon trigger an unstoppable wave of decarbonisation, or what they call positive tipping points.
Researchers said that small policy interventions to promote electric cars, green fertilisers and plant-based alternatives to meat could give low-carbon solutions the edge over their CO2-emitting equivalents, unlocking rapid emissions cuts. Read more here.
Image: James Bannister
China’s emissions are forecast to start falling in 2024, thanks to the country’s rapid rollout of renewables.
The world’s biggest polluter saw a spike in emissions in the first few months of 2023 as it bounced back from Covid. But it also installed a record amount of green energy infrastructure, which experts predict will tip fossil fuel use for electricity generation into an era of structural decline in China.
Meanwhile, in the EU, burning coal and gas for generating electricity fell to record lows this year, according to a report by the energy thinktank Ember, published in August.
Falling demand for electricity paired with a renewables surge drove a 17% “collapse” in fossil fuel generation for the first six months of the year, Ember said. Meanwhile, solar increased by 13% and wind by 5%.
Renewables will provide half the world’s electricity by 2030, according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in October.
The global energy watchdog said that major shifts will mean a “considerably different” global energy system by the end of the decade, with demand for oil, coal and gas forecast to peak within seven years.
“The transition to clean energy is happening worldwide and it’s unstoppable. It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s just a matter of ‘how soon’ – and the sooner the better for all of us,” said IEA executive director Fatih Birol.
The report was published before Cop28, at which nations agreed to work to triple renewable capacity by 2030.
The prospect of near-limitless clean energy moved a step closer in 2023 as scientists achieved ‘ignition’ – getting more energy out than you put in – using nuclear fusion.
Fusion harnesses the heat produced in merging atoms together. Unlike fission, or ‘splitting the atom’, which is used in existing nuclear power stations, there’s no risk of a chain reaction meltdown, and no dangerous radioactive waste.
It was the second time that scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, achieved ignition. Dr Robbie Scott, from the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, collaborated closely with the Livermore team. He told Positive News that repeating the experiment proved an understanding of its underlying physics. “Now we can go on to improve it with the ultimate goal of one day generating electricity using fusion,” he Scott.
Image: Hal Gatewood
The Amazon breathed a little easier in 2023 following years of rampant deforestation. Analysis by Amazon Conservation, a nonprofit that monitors the rainforest across nine countries, said that deforestation rates are down 55.8% compared to last year.
It follows efforts to halt tree loss, notably in Brazil, where president Lula has ramped up environmental enforcement and got tougher on illegal mining. Rômulo Batista, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Brazil, described the trend as “good news”.
The list of endangered species continued to grow in 2023, but some creatures bounced back from the brink. One of them was the scimitar-horned oryx, which until 2023 was listed as ‘extinct in the wild’ but has been successfully reintroduced to Chad using captive animals.
Brazil’s golden lion tamarin was another source of good news. The rare monkey, found only in Rio de Janeiro state, was poached almost to extinction. Now more of them are jumping around the Atlantic rainforest than at any time in the last half a century, thanks to conservation efforts.
Other notable successes include: the return of blue whales to waters off the Seychelles; Scotland’s surging golden eagle population; the return of the Takahē, a flightless bird, to New Zealand; India and Nepal’s burgeoning tiger populations; the reintroduction of Przewalski’s horses to Spain; the return of the bittern to England; and the barren Caribbean island that came back to life.
A “historic” pledge to safeguard the world’s oceans was signed by UN member states in September after two decades of talks.
Nearly 200 countries signed up to the legally binding High Seas Treaty, which aims to grant protected status to 30% of oceans outside national boundaries. Currently, just 1.2% of international waters are protected, with most threatened by overfishing.
Meanwhile, in a first for Europe, Albania designated the continent’s “last wild river” a national park. The free-flowing Vjosa supports many endangered species, including the European eel, Egyptian vulture and Balkan lynx. Plans had been submitted to dam the river, but national park status protects it from such developments.
Image: Sebastian Pena Lambarri
There were notable wins for the LGBTQ community in 2023, as a clutch of countries broke down some of the barriers to same-sex partnerships.
Nepal registered its first gay marriage in November, becoming one of the first Asian nations to do so. Latvia, a laggard in relatively liberal Europe, also voted to legalise same-sex partnerships. Meanwhile, a court ruling in Peru and another in South Korea recognised the legal status of same-sex couples for the first time.
Image: Anna Shvets
More than 100m hectares (254m acres) of land across 39 countries have been restored to Indigenous communities over the last five years, according to the latest Who owns the world’s land? report.
Compiled by the Rights and Resources Initiative, it credited progress to the UN’s sustainable development goals strategy, the Paris agreement, and campaigning by Land Rights Now.
There is still much to be done, however. Indigenous communities face many threats to their ancestral lands, including in Brazil, where congress is trying to strip back land rights for Indigenous people.
The pay gap between full-time working women and their male counterparts in the US is now narrower than ever, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics – but there’s a way to go before parity is reached.
Many feared that the pandemic would reverse pay gap progress, but the opposite appears to be true, with women now making 84 cents (£0.74) for every $1 (£0.88) that men earn for similar work – the closest it’s ever been.
Here, the proportion of women in boardroom roles at listed British firms rose above 40%, data published in February revealed. FTSE 350 companies were set a 2025 deadline to achieve the 40% target, hitting it three years early. Just over a decade ago, 152 of the 350 listed firms had no women on the board at all.
Image: Brooke Cagle
Concern about the power of artificial intelligence was a key theme for 2023. Enter the EU, which in December agreed the world’s first comprehensive laws to regulate AI.
The agreement puts restrictions on the use of AI in surveillance, and means that makers of AI systems, like those powering ChatGPT, will face transparency requirements.
The new law still needs final approval, and many aspects of it are not expected to come into force for up to two years, which is a long time in the world of AI development.
In the US, there was good news for privacy campaigners as California’s Delete Act edged closer to law. The bill will make it easy for residents to request their personal information be deleted by all data brokers in the state.
Image: Moor Studio/iStock
Amid much fanfare, some key rail routes launched in Europe this year, as eco-minded travellers took trains in ever greater numbers.
A new sleeper between Brussels and Berlin set off into the night for the first time in October (it will go all the way to Prague from 2024). And in December, a new Paris-Berlin sleeper launched, providing a much-needed nocturnal route between the two capitals.
The EU has liberalised its rail network to foster competition, drive down fares and tempt more travellers away from the skies.
Food experts have cooked up a substitute for one of the world’s most environmentally contentious ingredients: palm oil. Developed using linseed and rapeseed, its makers say it can be made locally at scale, avoiding the deforestation and habitat loss associated with palm oil production in countries including Malaysia and Indonesia.
Scientists from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland, have already patented the substance – PALM-AT – and are in talks with potential industry partners.
Catriona Liddle, head of the Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation, told Positive News: “Palm oil itself is kind of a magic ingredient – it’s a shame that it’s unhealthy and bad for the environment. We’ve replaced it with something significantly healthier using clean label ingredients available in the UK and Europe.”
Image: Malcolm Cochrane Photography
In a watershed moment for consumer rights – and a win for the planet – electronics giant Apple has backed plans for a right to repair law in the US, after years spent doggedly lobbying against it.
In further signs that the right to repair movement is heading into the mainstream, France introduced a ‘make do and mend’ bonus, offering citizens rebates on clothing and shoe repairs.
Meanwhile, in London, a repair centre launched to slow down fast fashion. The United Repair Centre employs refugees and other people who struggle to access the jobs market.
Image: cottonbro studio
It has often been dismissed as utopian thinking, but the four-day week silenced some critics in 2023. The results of the world’s largest trial, which took place in the UK, suggested it was a win-win for employees and bosses.
And there was more good news to come for advocates of a longer weekend. Similar trials in the US and in South Africa, where participants worked fewer hours for the same pay, suggested a shorter working week brought “huge benefits”. Critics questioned whether those benefits can be sustained long term.
Main image: Spencer Wilson
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