How was it for you? A bit grim? Many people will be eager to see the back of 2017, the year of Trump, Twitter, terrorism, Yemen, Libya and the plight of the Rohingya, as well as environmental degradation and almost daily doomsday warnings about the multiplying threats to sustainable life on earth.
But the big, bold headlines tell only half the story – perhaps not even that much. Away from the hysteria of daily news, it is possible to discern progress, joy, breakthroughs and that rarest commodity of all: optimism.
From the north of England to South Australia, 2017 has proved to the year that large-scale battery storage came of age, smashing cost and scale barriers and breaking into the public consciousness. This is important because storing energy is seen as a crucial complement to the renewable revolution sweeping the world.
Elon Musk’s Tesla, known for its luxury electric cars, now increasingly makes headlines for using batteries to tackle local energy problems around the world. In post-hurricane Puerto Rico, the firm installed solar and batteries to help a hospital. Near Jamestown, South Australia, it completed the world’s biggest battery storage plant in response to a blackout that sparked a political row over renewables and energy security.
In the UK, big utility companies such as EDF Energy are building giant battery plants in Cumbria and Yorkshire to help National Grid manage an increasing amount of renewable power. Tony Cocker, the former boss of energy firm E.ON in the UK, said: “If you’re a large power plant owner today and not looking at batteries, you’re almost negligent.” He believes batteries now stand more chance of being built in the UK than new gas power stations.
The driving force for these batteries is the meteoric rise in renewable power, which they complement. Global clean energy investment this year is expected to narrowly beat last year’s $287.5bn (£215bn) spend.
Another big reason is that the cost of batteries, like those of renewables, is coming down fast. “We’ve seen a halving of battery costs in the last five years. We’re expecting another halving again,” said Mark Futyan, merchant power director at the UK’s biggest energy company, Centrica.
Experts think this is just the beginning. As costs fall, the International Renewable Energy Agency predicts a 17-fold rise in the amount of battery storage installed worldwide, from 2GW today to 175GW by 2030. Adam Vaughan
It was the year that alien life suddenly became a little more possible. Firstly, a space probe detected water, salt, methane and other organic compounds beneath the frosty exterior of a small moon called Enceladus, which is orbiting Saturn.
Importantly, it found molecular hydrogen too, which microbes can use as an energy source. The spacecraft, Nasa’s Cassini, found so much that scientists concluded it must be made in an underground ocean, perhaps in hydrothermal reactions like those seen around hot vents that teem with life on Earth. Now, a Nasa team wants to go back to Enceladus to collect any alien microbes that might find themselves caught up in plumes of vapour and summarily flung into space.
Further discoveries made 2017 a standout year for astronomers. The European Southern Observatory and Nasa’s Spitzer space telescope spotted the largest batch of Earth-sized planets 40 light years away around a star in the constellation of Aquarius. Three of the seven worlds are in the “Goldilocks zone” where the temperature is thought to be neither too hot nor too cold for water to run freely, marking them out as potential homes for extraterrestrial life.
In the world of medicine, it was a “superficial” achievement that provided the biggest wow factor. Faced with a young Syrian boy who had lost 80% of his skin to a devastating genetic disorder, doctors in Germany teamed up with Italian scientists to grow him a new skin. The team took cells from a patch of healthy skin, and modified them to correct the faulty DNA that caused the disease. From these they grew sheets of the skin to patch the boy up. Two years on, he is doing fine: he needs no medicine or ointments and is back at school. The treatment was sought as a last resort, and remarkably, transformed the boy’s life. Ian Sample
Last year Manchester United’s Spain international Juan Mata gave an interview in which he made remarks that were unusual for a footballer. “Real life is the one my friends live,” he told the Spanish television programme Salvados. “They’ve had to look for work, sign on to the dole and emigrate. That’s normal life now. My life as a footballer is not normal. With respect to the rest of society, we earn a ridiculous amount. I don’t enjoy the business side of football, I love the game. I’d take a pay cut if there was less business involvement in the sport.”
This year that conversation crystallised into an idea. In August, Mata announced he would donate 1% of his salary each year to a fund that would support football charities such as Jurgen Griesbeck’s streetfootballworld. He then encouraged other professional footballers to follow suit as part of an initiative he called Common Goal.
At the time of writing, Common Goal has 33 members. They include some of the biggest names in football, including the Italian international defender Giorgio Chiellini, Germany’s Mats Hummels and the Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa. Charlie Daniels, Bruno and Alfie Mawson have signed up from the Premier League, as has Duncan Watmore from the Championship (the greatest contingent of players are from the German Bundesliga). There are also nine female professionals committed, one manager and – perhaps most significantly – Aleksander Čeferin, the head of European football’s governing body, Uefa.
Common Goal has not immediately been embraced by the wider football community, but the number of players who have taken the pledge continues to grow. Griesbeck has said: “This is an attempt to embed philanthropy at the core of what football is about.” It’s an idea worth shooting for. Paul MacInnes
The global economy is arguably in the best shape for about a decade. In its annual health check in October, the International Monetary Fund said the trade in goods around the world would grow by more than 6% next year and generate GDP growth at a rate that matched this year’s 3.7%.
As so often in the past, the US economy is the engine for this expansion, but the first real burst of synchronised global expansion since the 2008 financial crash has also needed Europe, Japan and China to leap into action, and to a great extent they have.
The World Bank also counted sub-Saharan Africa among the regions to see a jump in growth, from 1.3% in 2016 to 2.4% this year after a modest turnaround in recession-hit Nigeria and South Africa. The only drag on the global average – because its growth rate has gone backwards – was the UK, which was growing at about 3% in 2014 and must survive on half that this year.
While the endless stories of sexual misconduct that dominated the news cycle made for grim reading, some solace was found in the global #metoo movement. As allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein opened the floodgates on other accusations against men, personal stories began pouring in from women – and men – in all industries around the world.
The origins of #MeToo can be dated back to more than a decade ago, when Tarana Burke created the campaign as a grassroots movement to reach sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities.
But the current movement began on social media after a call to action by the actor Alyssa Milano, one of Weinstein’s most vocal critics, who wrote: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
In the space of days, millions of people used Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to disclose the harassment and abuse they faced in their own lives, and the story became a conversation about men’s behaviour towards women and the imbalances of power at the top.
More than 68,000 people have replied to Milano’s tweet, and the #MeToo hashtag has been used more than a million times in the US, Europe, the Middle East and beyond. The French used #balancetonporc, the Spanish #YoTambien, and in Arab countries the hashtags وأنا_كمان# and وانا_ايضا# were predominant.
Facebook said that within 24 hours, 4.7 million people around the world had engaged in the #metoo conversation, with more than 12m posts, comments, and reactions.
“I don’t think we [should] underestimate how much of an impact is being made by the way in which women can just speak out about their experiences, because we’re just not represented in the news media, and films and literature,” said Caroline Criado-Perez, feminist campaigner and co-founder of The Women’s Room. Nadia Khomami
It was the year that was going to mark the beginning of the EU’s demise. In January the continent was reeling, seemingly on the ropes after the twin body blows of the UK’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory in the US. A wind of anti-establishment, Eurosceptic change was set to blow across the continent.
The Dutch and French governments would inevitably fall like dominoes to the forces of Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, then riding high in the polls. In Germany, the far-right AfD would sweep triumphantly into the Bundestag. And with the populists in the ascendant, a beleaguered EU, shaken by the migration crisis and a wave of bloody terror attacks, unable to shake off a stagnant economy and stubborn unemployment, would crumble.
The heavy defeats of Wilders’s Freedom party and Le Pen’s Front National (now foundering) in March and June put an end to that narrative, helped by municipal election losses by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy.
The momentum had swung the other way: in Europe, or at least western Europe, populism was in decline. Not only that, but Europe’s economy was emerging from its torpor, growing at its fastest rate for five years – and twice the rate of the UK’s.
Unemployment across the bloc fell below 10% for the first time since the start of the eurozone crisis. The public had stood up to terror. The migration issue was still far from resolved but was not the continent-consuming crisis it was in 2015.
With Britain’s Brexit turmoil instilling a new sense of unity and purpose in Europe’s leaders, and Emmanuel Macron and his transformative pro-European agenda in charge at the Elysée, the EU was back. Approval ratings for the bloc soared, as did hopes that Macron’s economic reforms at home would kickstart the stalled Franco-German engine that has historically powered the union and produce far-reaching reforms in the EU itself.
The setback for Angela Merkel provided a reality check. Even now, Germany is still struggling to put together a government. Nonetheless, Europe closes 2017 in far ruder health than it started. Jon Henley
Like the proverbial glass, is the planet half empty or half full? This year it was reported that up to 50% of all individual animals had vanished in recent decades, and scientists said Earth’s sixth mass-extinction event was happening more rapidly than previously thought. And yet, we’ve become more cognisant than ever of the species with whom we share our planet – as well as ones we don’t.
A bad year for imaginary animals was a good year for real Asian black, Tibetan brown and Himalayan brown bears, all cited by scientists as the source of supposed sightings of Yeti in the Himalayas.
We learned that we are one of not seven but eight surviving great apes, after the discovery of a new orangutan in Indonesia. The Tapanuli orangutan, Pongo tapanuliensis, has frizzier, more cinnamon-coloured fur than Sumatran orangutans. The smaller-skulled Tapanuli males possessing large moustaches while the Tapanuli females sport beards. A new species of gibbon discovered in the rainforests of south-west China was named after Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.
In a galaxy far, far below, the fragile-looking Mariana snailfish became a star of Blue Planet II. This year it was officially judged to be the deepest-living fish in the ocean, able to survive at depths of 8,000 metres. More mundanely, a better regulation of fishing has helped North Sea cod stocks recover from near collapse. The fishery was awarded sustainable status by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Of the species that endure in the Anthropocene, many are being resurrected with dedicated conservation action. More than a century after its extinction from mainland Australia, the banded hare-wallaby has been brought back, with 60 individuals reintroduced from small islands to repopulate 7,800 hectares (19,300 acres) of mainland cleared of feral predators such as foxes and cats that caused its demise.
There is hope for the snow leopard, moved from endangered to vulnerable on the IUCN’s red list of most vulnerable species. Another moving in the right direction is the Rodrigues flying fox from Mauritius, brought back from danger of extinction by reforestation programmes and better legal protection against hunting.
A “back from the brink” conservation programme was launched in England to save special habitats and 20 overlooked species including the bearded false darkling beetle and the shrill carder bee.
Our biggest land mammal will be helped by another ban. The British government’s outlawing of pre-1947 ivory sounds trivial but the UK is the biggest exporter of legal ivory in the world and this shutdown will prevent illegal ivory being laundered by criminals, with more than 50 elephants killed by poachers every day. Patrick Barkham
Environmental defenders have notched up several heartening victories this year despite the powerful and sometimes murderous forces they are up against.
In Ghana and the Ivory Coast, governments are drawing up plans to prevent the clearance of forests for cocoa plantations after Mighty Earth campaigners exposed the links between illegal deforestation and the chocolate produced by Mars, Hershey’s, Nestlé and other global brands.
In Brazil, President Michel Temer was forced to backtrack on plans to open up swathes of the Amazon rainforest to mining companies after a global outcry led by indigenous groups, conservation groups, climate activists, the Catholic church and anthropologists.
But such campaigns are fought at a heavy price. So far this year, 170 environmental and land defenders have been killed, according to Global Witness, which is collaborating with the Guardian in tracking the victims. Jonathan Watts
While other sectors of technology had their ups and downs in 2017, the smartphone category reached a new level of maturity which means there has never been a better time to be a buyer.
With the introduction of the £999 iPhone X and the £869 Samsung Galaxy Note 8, the top end of the market has become more expensive than ever. Simultaneously, features that were once considered the realm of the flagship phone are now available at prices less than a fifth of an iPhone X.
The fingerprint scanner, the quality camera, the high-res screen, day-long battery life, on-device encryption and 4G connectivity are all now ubiquitous. Highly capable phones are now available for as little as £150, performing as well as, or better than, top-end devices did four years ago. When functional devices start at just £50 it means the smartphone has been commoditised.
Developed markets, such as the UK and western Europe, have reached smartphone penetration in excess of 80% of the population, but the availability of mobile internet services in less developed and developing nations is still growing. According to data from the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, mobile broadband subscriptions are increasing in excess of 30% in developing nations and in excess of 50% in less developed nations annually, where the phone is the primary internet device and mobile broadband is more affordable than fixed.
Thanks to the smartphone, the internet is now mobile-first and reaching more people in more places. Samuel Gibbs
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010