There was a lot of hope at the start of 2021: Covid-19 vaccines had just arrived, an end to the pandemic seemed on the horizon, and a fresh start for the global economy was ahead. By now, it feels like much of January's optimism was as inflated as today's prices. But in the spirit of starting the new year on a bright and positive note, here are five things to look forward to in 2022 that prove it's not all doom and gloom:
1. The developing world will be vaccinated
In 2021, Covid-19 vaccines were shot into more than 4 billion arms worldwide, with most of those people receiving two or even three doses. But that unprecedented global campaign has also been grossly inequitable, with millions of low-risk people in high-income countries getting their third dose before most high-risk people in low-income countries even received their first. In 2022, this picture will rapidly improve.
By March, as many as 1 billion doses are scheduled to arrive in Africa—in theory enough to fully vaccinate 70 percent of the continent's population, up from only 8 percent at the start of December. Hoarding by rich countries could still slow that down, and the vaccines now arriving are considerably less effective against the omicron variant. There will be logistical challenges getting shots to clinics and further difficulties getting people to take them. (Poor countries have their anti-vaccine movements, too.) But global production capacity has ramped up, and that means two things: Vaccines against new variants will be distributed more rapidly, and the next pandemic should see the unconscionable gap between high- and low-income countries close much faster.
And while we're on the subject of good vaccine news: This year will also see the of the world's first vaccine for malaria, a disease that killed an estimated 627,000 people in 2020. Moderna will also be conducting first-stage clinical trials of an AIDS vaccine based on the same mRNA technology used for its Covid-19 jab. That technology could soon be used against tuberculosis as well. Given the appalling burden of illness and death caused by malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis in the world's poorest countries, our newfound ability to rapidly develop and scale mRNA vaccines is a very bright silver lining in the pandemic storm.
2. We'll add more sustainable power to the grid than ever before
Next year is on track to register the largest increase in global electricity generation from renewables ever. The world's biggest solar farm will become operational in Abu Dhabi, but it's not just wind and solar that will be growing. There has also been a global reappraisal of zero-carbon nuclear power, with countries increasingly drawn to it as part of the solution for cutting emissions. We're also likely to see a growing debate over decisions to prematurely shut down existing nuclear power plants in countries including the United States and perhaps even the poster child of anti-nuclear sentiment, Germany (though we're not holding our breath). Better, safer technology is on its way, too: In the United States, NuScale Power is developing modular reactors and expected to go public this year, and the National Spherical Torus Experiment fusion reactor will finally be fired up.
But even before any new technologies are added to the mix, global carbon emissions from energy are already on a much better track than only a few years ago. In 2021, they remained below their 2018 peak. And while emissions are forecasted to grow in 2022, it is clear they've been plateauing, climbing a total of just 5 percent in 10 years.
That's one reason why the United Nations' highest emissions authority, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), downgraded its widely cited worst-case climate scenarios in its 2021 report. "The likelihood of high emission scenarios … is considered low in light of recent developments in the energy sector," the IPCC wrote. Even if the world still has a long way to go, that's great news—and we don't even have to wait for 2022 to end before celebrating.
3. The world's largest country will be a democracy
No, we're not predicting a revolution in China. Instead, India is on track to take the mantle of the world's most populous nation in 2022. The United Nations expects India's growing population to reach 1.413 billion before the end of the year. China, meanwhile, was home to 1.412 billion people in 2021—and that number is declining due to China's low birth rate. While the South Asian giant's democratic status has been seriously tarnished in recent years with attacks on minority rights and freedom of speech, India is still leagues closer to liberal democratic ideals than increasingly totalitarian China.
India's population numbers also portend greater upside economic potential. Between now and 2050, India's working-age population is projected to increase by 199 million, while China's will fall by 160 million as its workforce ages into retirement. And India—until recently a very poor country—can now build on two decades of strong performance in rolling out the basic services of a modern economy: By 2019, 72 percent of Indian women had their own bank account, up from about 20 percent two decades ago; and 98 percent of households had access to electricity, up from about 50 percent in 1992. Meanwhile, China appears in the throes of a considerable economic hangover, including a deep and ongoing real estate crisis.
All this suggests the 75th anniversary of India's independence in 2022 could signal the high tide of the autocratic governance model worldwide. After years of hearing that the future belongs to a rising, authoritarian China (a narrative much peddled by the country's rulers themselves), it will be a much-needed lift for the democracies to see one of their own rising in importance.
4. The advanced economies will bounce back to their pre-pandemic track
The most recent International Monetary Fund numbers suggest the world's richest economies shrunk by 4.5 percent in 2020 but grew by 5.2 percent in 2021. Barring an omicron-induced collapse, they are projected to grow another 4.5 percent in 2022. Those two years of strong economic performance will not only make up for the 2020 crash, but also put advanced economies back about where pre-pandemic forecasts had them.
The picture is mixed for low- and middle-income countries: Despite stronger growth than advanced economies in 2021 and 2022, they're still not expected to make up the gap to pre-pandemic forecasts. What's impressive, however, is the considerable safety nets countries around the world—not just the richest ones—put in place as part of pandemic response. That these programs had more than 2.4 billion recipients is a sign that the world is getting better at handling poverty and economic shocks in the most direct and effective way possible: giving people cash.
5. It's the year of the tiger
In the Chinese calendar, 2022 will be the year of the tiger. Next year will also mark the completion of TX2, a 10-year program to double the global tiger population involving 13 Asian countries. It's the most ambitious recovery effort ever undertaken for a single species and has had considerable success. We don't know if the program's goal will be met, but we do know progress has been remarkable—including, over the last six years alone, a 40 percent rise in the tiger population in priority conservation areas across six countries.
While global biodiversity is still under threat and remains inadequately protected, the tiger program is a sign we're getting better at saving species in a way that allows coexistence and development. Much credit goes to modern agriculture: New crops, fertilizer, and mechanization allow the same amount of land to produce a lot more food, reducing the pressure to find more places to farm. That is why the world is well past peak global farmland and deforestation is, thankfully, beginning to slow. That could help save other species as well.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.
Charles Kenny is the director of technology and development and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the author, most recently, of The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease.