Alarm bells sounded time and time again in 2021: devastating weather events highlighted the dangers of a rapidly warming planet, greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase and temperatures continued to rise. However, despite these trials there were many moments of hope.
In January, the US—the world’s second largest emitter of CO2—re-joined the Paris Agreement (the framework for global climate action with over 200 signatories). This occurred under the recently elected President Biden, who made this a top priority, signing an order initiating the 30-day process of rejoining the agreement just hours after his inauguration.
Additionally, over 100 countries have pledged to get to net zero by 2050, taking action to neutralise their carbon emissions in order to keep the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C. Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, explains that if this is achieved globally, “surface temperatures will stop warming and warming [will be stabilised] within a couple decades.” If countries stick to their commitments, it may just be enough to keep the climate stable.
Once again the new year brings much uncertainty, this time with a surge in COVID cases driven by the new Omicron variant. Despite this, many countries are in a more secure 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.
While progress has been made, there is still a long way to go. With an ever-widening gap between access to vaccination in high and low income nations, Omicron’s aggressive nature could present a serious challenge, exacerbating poverty in nations already struggling with the pandemic.
The year saw more nations introduce legislation to tackle discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, and although there’s much work to be done, this is a long-awaited step in the right direction.
Switzerland 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.
Indigenous people continued to face persecution worldwide, but progress was made.
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. Compensation won’t make up for the atrocities of the past, but it does mark a shift in tone.
Elsewhere, Indigenous politicians stepped into significant 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).
The UK, Italy, Canada, Germany, Japan, France and the US reached an agreement in June to back a new global minimum tax. The seven nations agreed to tackle tax avoidance by making multinational companies pay more of their income to the governments of countries where they do business. They also agreed to a minimum corporate tax rate of 15 percent.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the deal was “very good news for tax justice and solidarity and bad news for tax havens,” explaining that companies will no longer be able to dodge their tax obligations by “booking their profits in lowest-tax countries.”
The rules will only apply in the G7, and 15 percent is relatively minor compared to existing tax rates; nevertheless, the move was considered a progressive step towards reaching a global agreement on tax reform, which had seemed improbable for a long time.
The list of endangered species continued to grow at an alarming rate, but some animals teetering on the edge of extinction grew in numbers. Tuna, Siberian tigers, European bison and the critically endangered saiga antelope were a few conservation success stories.
Encouragingly, several 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.
These wins in conservation were aided by the launch of ‘Green Status’, an initiative under the IUCN Red List, the official standard for assessing the risk of extinction for species of both flora and fauna. This expansion presents a roadmap for recovery, as well as including new, more positive classifiers such as measuring the conservation impact and the recovery details of species.
With passenger numbers growing and time to slash emissions dwindling fast, the aviation industry has a long way to go to hit net zero: after all, it's responsible for 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Due to advances in low-carbon air travel, sipping piña coladas beach side could soon be that much sweeter for climate-conscious travellers.
In April, aviation start-up ZeroAvia stated that it would get zero-emission, hydrogen aircrafts in the skies by 2026; in May, Hybrid Air Vehicles pledged to launch commercial short-haul routes in 2025; in August, a hybrid plane made a historic flight in the UK; and September saw Rolls-Royce hold a fifteen minute test of an electric plane, calling it a “milestone on the aviation industry’s journey towards decarbonisation.”
In other news, Boeing has committed to ensuring its planes are certified for 100% SAF by 2030, using ‘Sustainable Aviation Fuel’ made from renewable sources such as plants or used cooking oil. The fuel is believed to cut flight emissions by an estimated 80 percent.
Traditionally, incarceration has been the response to criminal activity in many countries, but there were signs that attitudes are shifting—with encouraging results.
The US, which imprisons a greater share of its citizens than any other nation, saw its prison population decline to its lowest level since 1995. Changes in criminal law and shorter sentences for certain offences were key contributors in this reduced incarceration rate.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands has put a greater emphasis on prevention policies, focusing on rehabilitation as opposed to jail sentences and targetting the genesis of crime with youth intervention schemes. The prison population in the Netherlands has declined so significantly that Dutch jails are now being closed and repurposed as schools, refugee centres and hotels.