Climate takes centre stage in global development – 2019 in review

Climate Strike - 2019
Protestors during the September 2019 climate strike in Paris, France. Copyright: Bastian Greshake Tzovaras, (CC BY-SA 2.0) This photo has been cropped.

Speed read

  • Grave warnings over climate change and biodiversity loss
  • Calls for drastic action with SDGs ‘in reverse’
  • Breakthroughs in health and agriculture but billions still without healthcare

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Youth protests and rousing speeches by activists such as Greta Thunberg have put climate change at the top of the global news agenda in 2019.

The appointment of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro on 1 January heightened fears for the environment as he quickly moved to loosen regulations in the world’s most biodiverse country. These fears were borne out as wildfires raged for months across the Amazon, peaking in August and prompting warnings from scientists about grave repercussions for the global climate. A landmark IPCC report the same month warned that deforestation and land degradation were fuelling the climate crisis with adverse consequences for communities already living in poverty.

A similarly bleak report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned in May that global biodiversity was threatening the progress of more than 80 per cent of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and putting 1 million animal and plant species at risk of extinction.

Progress on the SDGs came under scrutiny throughout the year. Jean-Paul Moatti, director-general of the French National Research Institute for Development (IRD) and a member of the expert group charged by the UN with evaluating progress on the goals, said progress on most SDGs had gone into reverse. Scientists convened by the UN warned ahead of the UN General Assembly in September that drastic action was needed to meet the 2030 targets.

On a more positive note, world leaders signed a historic declaration on universal health coverage at that UN assembly in New York after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that up to 5 billion people could still be without access to healthcare in 2030 if trends persist.

There were also a slew of success stories in healthcare during the year. Zanzibar cut new malaria cases by 94 per cent, according to a study published in January. And researchers found that a fungus genetically engineered to produce spider toxin could crush populations of malaria-spreading mosquitoes, in a study hailed as a breakthrough by international scientists.

Malaria vaccines were rolled out in April for children in Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya, after what experts described as a long hiatus in progress. In September, Pakistan introduced a new typhoid vaccine to fight a drug-resistant strain of the disease. And the same month Nigeria was declared officially free of wild polio, putting Africa on the brink of eradicating the disease in its wild form.

Despite this progress, UN agencies warned in July that global vaccination rates for the most common childhood diseases had stalled and were far from the 95 per cent needed to prevent new outbreaks. A SciDev.Net data visualisation, published in June, took a closer look at global attitudes towards vaccines, as vaccine hesitancy continues to stymie disease eradication efforts. We also looked at how close scientists are to developing a working HIV vaccine, and we shone the spotlight on the growing crisis of antimicrobial resistance.

Ebola was the big health story of the year, however, as an outbreak raged through the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The WHO came under increasing pressure to declare an international emergency, which it eventually did in July. The following month, two drugs were confirmed to be effective against the virus. Measles meanwhile added to DRC’s woes and cases also spiked in the Philippines and Venezuela.

Configure | Delete In agriculture, there were breakthroughs in the battle against crop diseases too. While Asia was on high alert over the spread of the destructive crop pest fall armyworm, scientists identified a biological weapon to fight the scourge which also threatens the food security an estimated 200 million people in Africa. In Latin America, an AI tool showed promise in tackling the spread of Panama disease, a deadly fungus plaguing banana plantations.

But there were also growing concerns about the spread of African Swine Fever. In November, a special report by SciDev.Net revealed that pork meat shortages caused by swine fever were spurring backyard poultry farming, with the potential to trigger another bird flu pandemic. Meanwhile, conflict took a heavy toll on agriculture in parts of the Middle East, notably Yemen where a fuel crisis left many farmers without irrigation water.

Just as the year started with a focus on climate change, so it ended. The COP25 climate talks in Madrid focused on establishing rules for global carbon markets, with indigenous people clamouring to get their voices heard. In 2020 all eyes will be on Glasgow as it hosts the next round of negotiations, COP26, in November. The landmark meeting will see nations present updated national climate plans amid mounting pressure to address the global climate emergency.