On the bright side: Five good things that happened in 2016

Lili Bidwell 31 December 2016

31 December: it’s been a tough year, folks. The planet faced accelerating threats of climate change. Political turmoil surged forth in Syria, the US, Korea, Europe, and more, closely tailed by the death of some of the most capable at combatting despondence with hope – first David Bowie, then Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, Prince, Gene Wilder, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds… and the list goes on. In the face of all the reasons to despair, we have compiled a list of reasons to do just the opposite.

Here’s what went well in 2016:

1. The cure for cancer is ever closer, thanks to immune engineering

Thanks to a new technique of genome editing, we are now able to engineer T cells (a type of white blood cell) to combat leukemia. The process involves extracting T cells from a person’s bloodstream and adding instructions in the form of DNA, which will direct them to the faulty leukemic cells. Better still, immune engineers have overcome a key issue: the non-transplantable nature of T cells. Without engineering, we cannot inject cells from one person to another – once the body detects these ‘non-self’ cells, it will attack everything. Yet for children, who do not have sufficient T cells, transplants are vital to the process. Through gene editing, however, companies not only add the new DNA, but also delete the receptors that T cells typically use to detect ‘non-self’ cells. The possibilities that this development brings are still growing, and can extend to new treatments for HIV and multiple sclerosis.

2. Conservation efforts are prospering – tiger and panda numbers are growing

Giant pandas are no longer endangered. Its population has jumped from 1,596 in 2004 to 1,864 in 2014 due to the efforts of Chinese agencies who worked to enforce poaching bans and expand forest reserves. Global tiger numbers are up for the first time in a century – an estimated 3,890 tigers are alive today, up from 3,200 in 2010. The world’s largest marine reserve, spanning 600,000-square-miles of ocean, has been established in Antarctica’s Ross Sea this autumn. Most commercial fishing will be banned in the newly protected zone, a product of “the first time that countries around the world are coming together to agree not to take fish or other species out of the water, but to leave them in, and to leave them in for a good long period of time,” in the words of Karen Sack, managing director of the conservation organisation Ocean Unite.

3. Solar power is in, fossil fuels are out

2016 has given rise to an unprecedented surge in the solar power industry. In particular, we have two developments to be thankful for. First up, solar power is now the cheapest form of electricity, according to data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). The study looked at the average cost of new wind and solar from 58 emerging-market economies, including China, India, and Brazil. Thanks to huge cost drops in solar equipment, and a 43% growth in investments in utility-scale solar technology since 2015, we are one step further away from dependence on fossil fuels. Next, a $750 million (USD) solar facility in Buffalo, named SolarCity, will produce a gigawatt of high-efficiency solar panels per year, starting next year. It will be the largest solar manufacturing plant in North America, making 10,000 of some of the most efficient solar panels a day. The company predicts that its costs for residential solar will fall below $2.50 per watt at the end of 2017, which, in 14 states, is “at a rate lower than what you’re currently paying the utility”. The Buffalo factory “sets us up for a future where solar plus batteries is cheaper than fossil fuels.”

4. Women of colour made history on Election Night

Four women of colour made political history this year. California Attorney General Kamala Harris became the first black Californian woman elected to the U.S. Senate; Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American lawmaker in the U.S. with her election to the Minnesota legislature; Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Latina senator in history when elected for Nevada; and Pramila Jayapal became the first Indian-American congresswoman in her win in Washington.

5. Hamilton happened; so did Stranger Things, and more

What a year for entertainment. This was the year that gave us Hamilton, which won a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album, whose cast performed at the White House, and album reached gold status. Meanwhile on Netflix, we saw Stranger Things, Black Mirror and the long-anticipated (though disappointing) Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life. The world of Harry Potter was given a jolt with the brilliant Fantastic Beasts, and The Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre and on bookshelves. And, at long last, Leonardo DiCaprio won the Oscar for Best Actor on 28 February. 

Bring it, 2017.