Fed up with news of political chaos? Here's our roundup of 20 top stories of progress from 2019 so far
Veganuary, the movement that encourages people to embrace plant-based diets, attracted a record-breaking 250,000 sign-ups in January this year. The figure exceeded pledges made in the previous four years in total. It comes as more people ditch meat and dairy products from their diets for ethical, environmental or health reasons. The upswell in public awareness has led to a surge in the number and variety of vegan-friendly products on offer from shops, food brands, restaurants. “Veganism is advancing at an incredible rate even in some of the most meat and dairy-loving countries on the planet,” said a Veganuary spokesperson.
Image: Phuc Long
Worldwide terrorist attacks fell by 33 per cent in 2018 compared to 2017, to the lowest level since 2011, a report released in January showed. Major decreases in violence in Syria and Iraq contributed to the decrease. Key findings from the annual Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC) Global Attack Index included that attacks by Islamic State dropped by 71 per cent, and resultant fatalities by more than 50 per cent. “Over the course of 2018, JTIC recorded a worldwide total of 15,321 attacks by non-state armed groups, which resulted in a total of 13,483 non-militant fatalities,” said Matthew Henman, head of JTIC.
Once-endangered otters, polecats and pine martens have staged a remarkable comeback in Britain since the 1960s, a study released in February showed. Each has bounced back from near extinction, meaning the only carnivorous mammal that remains in danger of being wiped out in Britain is the Scottish wildcat. The findings came in a report released by scientists at Exeter University, Vincent Wildlife Trust and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. They discovered that otters have almost completely recolonised Great Britain, polecats have expanded their range in southern Britain from Wales, and pine martens have expanded their range from the Scottish Highlands.
Research published in May found that treatment can prevent sexual transmission of the HIV virus. The study, published in The Lancet medical journal, examined nearly 1,000 gay male couples who had sex without condoms, in which one partner was HIV positive and treating the condition with antiretrovirals. It found no cases of transmission over the space of eight years. Such is the success of the medicine, researchers said, that if everyone with HIV was fully treated, there would be no further infections.
Image: Joyce Mccown
After a grassroots campaign calling for drastic changes in farming practices proved incredibly popular, Bavaria announced in April that it will pass the ‘save the bees’ petition into law. The petition was launched in February to seek better protection of plant and animal species. It became the most successful in the region’s history, garnering 1.75m signatures, more than 10 per cent of voters there. Known locally as ‘save the bees’, it calls for more grassland to be turned into meadow and for a third of farms to be organic within 10 years. Rather than putting the petition to a referendum, Bavaria’s state premier, Markus Söder, announced it would simply be written into law, passing directly through parliament.
Image: Jan Tinneberg
Global executions fell by almost a third last year to the lowest figure in at least a decade, Amnesty International said in its 2018 global review of the death penalty. Published in April, the statistics assess known executions worldwide. Following a change to its anti-narcotics laws, executions in Iran – a country in which Amnesty believes the use of the death penalty is rife – fell by 50 per cent. Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia also showed a significant reduction in the number they carried out. As a result, execution figures fell globally from at least 993 in 2017 to at least 690 in 2018. “The dramatic global fall in executions proves that even the most unlikely countries are starting to change their ways and realise the death penalty is not the answer,” said Kumi Naidoo, (pictured) Amnesty International’s secretary general.
Image: Amnesty International Turkey
Years before symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease manifest, the brain starts changing and neurons are slowly degraded. In January, scientists from the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases, the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research and the University Hospital Tübingen published a study that suggests a protein found in the blood can be used to precisely monitor disease progression long before the first clinical signs. It offers new possibilities for testing therapies, they say. “We were able to predict loss of brain mass and cognitive changes that actually occurred two years later,” said Mathias Jucker, senior researcher.
Image: Matthew Bennett
Couples wishing to divorce will soon benefit from a less confrontational process, under proposals confirmed by the UK justice secretary David Gauke in March, no longer having to allocate blame or mutually agree to end their marriages. Gauke agreed to introduce legislation to remove the need for separating couples to either allocate blame or wait for years in order to get a divorce. Supporters, who say the current law fuels acrimony and encourages false allegations, hope that the change will prevent unnecessary conflict and family upset. Gauke said: “Marriage will always be one of our most important institutions, but when a relationship ends it cannot be right for the law to create or increase conflict between divorcing couples.” The change would help families “look to the future”, he added.
Image: Gianni Scognamiglio
In a landmark victory for Africa’s LGBT activists, Botswana’s high court decriminalised homosexuality in June, overturning a colonial-era law. It was celebrated by activists as a shift towards “pride, compassion and love.” The country’s high court said in its ruling that penalising people for who they are is disrespectful, and the law should not deal with private acts between consenting adults. The right to privacy includes sexual orientation, which is innate, it continued. More than two dozen countries in sub-Saharan Africa still have laws that criminalise gay sex.
Image: Cecilie Johnsen
A living member of a species of tortoise not seen since 1906 – and feared extinct – was discovered in a remote part of the Galápagos island of Fernandina. An adult female Chelonoidis phantasticus, also described as the Fernandina giant tortoise, was found in a patch of vegetation in the lower area of the island by a joint expedition of the Galápagos National Park and the US-based Galapagos Conservancy. She is thought to be at least 100 years old. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has the Fernandina giant tortoise listed as critically endangered and possibly extinct. The discovery of tracks and faeces lead investigators to think there may be more members of the species on the island.
Image: Galapagos National Park Directorate and GNPD, W. Tapia
The plan, proposed over a year ago by governor Andrew Cuomo, follows the example of California, which banned bags in 2016. Hawaii also effectively has a ban in place, as all of the state’s counties bar such single-use bags. If passed, it will begin in March 2020, forbidding shops from providing customers with single-use plastic bags. “These bags have blighted our environment and clogged our waterways,” said Cuomo, adding that the proposal would help “protect our natural resources for future generations of New Yorkers”.
Image: Dan Gold
The world is five per cent greener now than it was two decades ago, according to a study by Nasa. The US space agency claims that leaf cover on Earth has increased by two million square miles since the early 2000s, which is roughly equivalent to the area covered by the Amazon rainforest. Around a third of the greening is attributed to ambitious tree-planting schemes in India and China, the world’s most populous countries. Intensive agriculture has also contributed to the increase in leaf cover, says Nasa. The agency stresses that the net gain in foliage does not neutralise the loss of natural vegetation in tropical regions like Brazil and Indonesia, where deforestation has had dire consequences for biodiversity.
Image: Jaydeep Gajera
In a first, scientists have turned human stem cells into insulin-producing cells, raising hope for a cure for type 1 diabetes. Experts at the University of California San Francisco say they have created healthy, functioning beta cells in a petri dish. “We can now generate insulin-producing cells that look and act a lot like the pancreatic beta cells you and I have in our bodies. This is a critical step towards our goal of creating cells that could be transplanted into patients with diabetes,” said Matthias Hebrok, director of the UCSF Diabetes Center.
Image: Louis Reed
Some 93 per cent of households in India now have access to toilets, and 500 million people have stopped having to go to the toilet out in the open, according to research published by The Economic Times. Around 500 million people have stopped defecating in the open, taking the number of people doing so from 550 million at the beginning of the programme to less than 50 million today.
Image: Himanshu Singh Gurjar
Israel will work with the seven, mostly Muslim nations, in a bid to save the colourful corals that dot the shores of the Red Sea. The Red Sea Transnational Research Center will be managed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and will study the Red Sea’s vast coral reefs. The project will particularly explore how they have managed to resist bleaching effects that have plagued other reefs around the world. The partnership between Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan is thought to be the largest regional project of its kind.
Image: Shaun Low
Following decades of deforestation, Costa Rica doubled its forest cover in the last 30 years. Half of the country’s land surface is now covered with trees, creating a huge carbon sink and a big draw for tourists. Extensive, uncontrolled logging meant that by 1983, only 26 per cent of the country had forest cover. Today, it has increased to 52 per cent. What’s behind the dramatic reversal of fortune? Costa Rica began to realise the potential of its rich ecosystems and set about safeguarding them. Policy-makers restricted the number of logging permits and created a national forestry commission to police forest activity.
Image: Trevor Cole
China currently legally requires cosmetics brands to submit products for animal testing, before they can be sold there. But from January 2020, non-animal tests will be the preferred method. After years of lobbying, the Institute for In Vitro Sciences says the Chinese government has approved nine new alternative testing methods.
Image: Analia Baggiano
Malaria has been eliminated from Algeria and Argentina, an important milestone in fighting the mosquito-borne disease, revealed the WHO. The body said there were now 38 countries and territories that have been declared free of the disease, which has been making a comeback globally. “Algeria has shown the rest of Africa that malaria can be beaten through country leadership, bold action, sound investment and science. The rest of the continent can learn from this experience,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa.
Image: Khaoula Ben
With the help of campaign group A Plastic Planet, Thornton’s Budgens created plastic-free zones in its Belsize Park shop in just 10 weeks. The aisles feature more than 1,700 plastic-free products. Customers can pick up everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, bread and cheese, to wild squirrel meat, all free from plastic packaging. Plastic-free materials are being used instead, including beechwood nets, pulp, paper, metal, glass, cellulose and cartonboard. Budgens say such materials are capable of transforming how wet goods like meat and fish are packaged.
Europe could be farmed entirely through agroecological approaches and still feed a growing population, as long as diets shift to being more plant-based, according to the study by European sustainable development thinktank IDDRI. The Ten Years for Agroecology report suggests that pesticides could be phased out and greenhouse gas emissions radically reduced in Europe through agroecological farming, which is based on ‘ecological principles first, chemicals last’. Using fresh modelling, the report’s authors examine the reduction in yields that would result from a transition to agroecological farming. These can be mitigated by reorienting diets towards plant-based proteins and pasture-fed livestock, and away from grain-fed white meat, they say. More than half the cereals and oilseed crops grown in the EU are currently fed to animals.
Image: Annie Spratt
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