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16 Things That Happened In 2016 That Will Actually Cheer You Up

If you look beyond Brexit and Trump, some good things happened. Honest.

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1. Half the world became free of war.

Joaquin Sarmiento / AFP / Getty Images

In September, the Colombian government signed a pact with FARC, the communist rebels with whom it had been fighting a bitter civil war for 52 years. That war was the last one in the Western hemisphere – there are now no active conflicts anywhere in the entire half of the world west of Greenwich.

Of course, it's not as simple as that – in a referendum, the Colombian people then voted to reject a peace deal with FARC. (The deal would have given FARC rebels who confessed more lenient sentences.) But the war has not begun again. South and Central America were ravaged by war for the whole of the 1980s; this new era of peace is a big deal for hundreds of millions of people.

2. Global life expectancy is more than double what it was in 1770.

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A child born in 1770 could expect to live, on average, 30 years. Worldwide, according to data released this year by the World Health Organisation (WHO), a child born in 2015 can reasonably hope for 71.4 years. And while there is obviously a better chance of living longer if you're in a rich country, life expectancies have been rising faster in the developing world than in the West.

3. The hole in the ozone layer has shown signs of healing for the first time.

NASA / Via commons.wikimedia.org

More than 30 years ago, it was noticed that a hole had developed in the ozone layer – a thin sheet of atmosphere that protects life on Earth from harmful solar radiation. It was caused by human pollution – specifically, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, chemicals used in aerosol cans (among other things).

But the world took swift action, banning the chemicals. This year, for the first time, scientists have seen signs of the ozone layer repairing itself. The hole is still huge – about the size of the North American continent – and will take decades to disappear altogether, but it is shrinking.

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4. A British guy went to space, where he drank tea and ate bacon sandwiches and was just generally reassuring.

Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Getty Images

Tim Peake, basically a sort of unflappable dad figure, went up to the International Space Station and orbited the planet at 17,000 miles an hour for six months. He was the first British person to go into space since Helen Sharman went to the Mir space station in 1991, and sparked a wave of space-excitement in Britain.

5. Sri Lanka eliminated malaria.

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In the 20th century, Sri Lanka was one of the countries hardest hit by malaria – in 1911, it had 1.5 million cases of the mosquito-borne disease. But since the middle of the century it's been fighting back with enormous success. In 2006, there were just 1,000 recorded cases, and since 2012 there have been none. In September, the WHO declared the country free of malaria – it's just the third South Asian country to achieve that status, after Singapore and the Maldives, and is far bigger than either of those.

6. And malaria is on the wane worldwide.

Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty Images

Malaria death rates worldwide plunged 66% between 2000 and 2015, and in August this year, the WHO was able to report that it "is no longer the leading cause of death among children in sub-Saharan Africa". That's because of a sustained campaign by scientists, medics, governments, and local people; just 2% of African households had an insecticide-treated bednet in 2000; now, more than two-thirds do, and it is saving millions of lives a year.

Now, the WHO is aiming to eradicate the disease from Africa altogether by 2030. It would cost, they think, $66 billion (£52 million). That's about one 30th of the NHS budget for that period.

7. One of the world's most endangered birds, the hilarious kakapo, is now far less endangered.

Chris Birmingham / CC / Via en.wikipedia.org

The kakapo is a comical, flightless parrot that falls out of trees a lot, is only found in New Zealand, and was a huge favourite of the late, great Douglas Adams. It's also one of the world's most endangered species. In the 1970s only 18 were known to exist, and all of them were male.

Since then, some females have been found, and this year has been a great year for the kakapo. Their numbers have gone up by 28% in this breeding season alone after 34 chicks were born; there are now 157 kakapos alive and well.

8. We learned that fewer and fewer children are dying.

Eduardo Soteras / AFP / Getty Images

The WHO reported this year that, in 2015, 5.9 million children died, worldwide, before the age of 5. It is a terrible tragedy, but it is also a huge victory.

That number represents about 43 deaths for every 1,000 babies born. In 1990, about 91 children out of every 1,000 died before their fifth birthday. It means that, since 2000, about 48 million children have survived who otherwise would have died. The progress has been greatest in some of the poorest parts of the world – notably sub-Saharan Africa.

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9. Gun violence in the US has stayed historically low.

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There's been a lot of focus on gun violence in the US recently, and it's true that mass shootings – appalling events like the massacres in Charleston and Orlando – seem to be becoming more common. But the general story is that shootings are down.

The total number of US homicides by gun will probably end up a little above 12,000 this year. That's in keeping with the last few years – and way down on the years before. The Pew Research Centre says that between 1993 and 2014, the rate of murders by gun dropped from 7 to 3.8 per 100,000 people per year.

10. Beavers are back in Scotland and doing well.

Per Harald Olsen / CC / Via commons.wikimedia.org

This year the beaver was declared a "native species" in Scotland again, 300 years after it was eradicated in the country. Three beaver families were introduced in 2009 under a government licence, and many more were released illegally or escaped from private collections. Now there are about 250 beavers living in Tayside and Perthshire.

11. The number of AIDS deaths was way down.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The UN said this year that HIV/AIDS deaths were 45% down on their peak in 2005. It's still the most deadly infectious disease in the world, killing about 1.1 million people in 2015. But that's 100,000 fewer than the year before, and about 25% fewer than in 2009. The WHO estimates that antiretroviral treatments for AIDS saved about 7.8 million lives between 2000 and 2014.

12. Fewer people are starving. In fact, for the first time, more people are obese than are underweight.

Gianluigi Guercia / AFP / Getty Images

A study published in March found that there are more people with a BMI over 30 than there are with one below 18.5 – that is, there are more people who are medically defined as obese than are medically defined as underweight.

That's partly because people are getting fatter, of course, which isn't good news from a public health point of view. But it's also because there's more food for people to eat, so fewer people are starving or malnourished. The amount of food per person is up about 25% since the 1960s, even as the population of the world has doubled.

13. More children got an education than ever before.

Brent Stirton / Getty Images

A study published in January found that educational levels are at an all-time high. In 1950, barely half of children went to primary school and just 12% went to secondary – in 2010, the most recent year for which the study had data, 99% reach primary, and 74% secondary. The story is even more dramatic for girls. As recently as 1940 just 7% of female children went to secondary school. In 2010, it was 72%, barely below the boys.

This matters. A country's levels of education are associated with its economic growth and with its levels of democracy. And higher levels of female education are associated with lower levels of child mortality. It's also linked to women having fewer children; birth rates are at a record low worldwide, and the risk of global overpopulation is receding.

14. Global carbon dioxide emissions have stopped going up.

Frank Rumpenhorst / AFP / Getty Images

They've stayed steady for the last two years, after going up an average of 3.5% a year during the 2000s.

It's a product of a growing reliance on renewable energy and much slower growth in coal and oil use. We're still pumping huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into in our atmosphere, and the stuff that's already there will hang around. But if you were optimistic, you could see this as the peak; maybe emissions will start to drop.

15. Israel has made large-scale desalinisation work, meaning that water is cheaply available in one of the driest parts of the world.

Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images

In 2008, Israel was on the edge of a catastrophic drought. It's a populous country in a desert and not on the best terms with its neighbours, and water was hard to come by. So it invested in desalinisation technology.

Now it gets 55% of its water from seawater, cheaply and efficiently. It has so much, in fact, that it is starting to use it in "water diplomacy". It plans, along with Jordan, to build a new, huge plant on the Red Sea, to provide water for the two countries and the Palestinian territories. The leftover brine will go to replenish the falling Dead Sea.

As climate change encroaches, wars over water are expected to become common. Israel may have found a way to avert them.

16. And most importantly, all the turtles in that bit that made everyone cry in Planet Earth II were rescued.

BBC / Via bbc.co.uk

The little turtles setting off the wrong way because they thought the town was the moon! Getting eaten by crabs! It was all too much.

But it's sort of OK, because the Planet Earth II team rescued all the ones they found, so all the ones you saw alive, at least, survived the journey to the sea.

Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Tom Chivers at tom.chivers@buzzfeed.com.

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