2016 is nearly over. And it is probably fair to say that the year that was won't make it onto many people's list of rosy yesteryears to fondly remember. But what about the stories that captured our attention in 2015; what happened to them in 2016?
1. Refugee Crisis
There are 21.3 million refugees in the world. Predominantly hosted in six countries - Turkey (2.5 million), Pakistan (1.6 million), Lebanon (1.1 million), Islamic Republic of Iran (980,000), Ethiopia (740,000) and Jordan (660,000) - the United Nations Refugee Agency wrote in 2015 that "global displacement" was a central trend.
Unfortunately, not much has changed. And we really shouldn't have expected any change. First off, the factors causing displacement (political violence in Burundi, the Syrian civil war etc.) have not been resolved. Second, there seems to be a significant political paralysis. The UN's latest statement is just a reaffirmation of its commitment to protecting refugees. It's rejection of the Global Compact on Refugees wasted "critical opportunity" according to Amnesty International to try and creative positive action. Maybe we can say that the strategic reviews inbuilt into the 19th September 2016 document represent some willingness to act in 2017.
2. Impact Impact Impact: Greece Finance Influences Greek Politics
Safe to say, these last six years we've learned a lot about Greek's economy. In 2009 their fiscal deficit was double that publicly acknowledged, and an EU Council decision condemning overspending launched a 'speculative' attack resulting in a series of downgrades preventing Greece from borrowing to meet its obligations. By May 2014 Greece's position would begin to improve. 2015 was the year of Syriza's victory at the snap elections held in January but not much changed when the leader of Syriza Tsipras accepted a new bailout on the 13th of July accepting austerity; an increase in VAT, reform of the pension system, and a cut to public spending.
2016 has been a difficult year for Tsipras (who may not have much of a monopoly on the phrase 'hard done by' this year) who appears to have forgotten the fact he campaigned on an anti-austerity platform. For example, taxes to middle and high level income earners have been increased and cuts totalling 3% of Greece's GDP have been passed. In an attempt to ease social pressure the government announced a small bonus for pensioners at Christmas as well as an offer to pay for 30,000 children's school meals in impoverished areas. The European Stability Mechanism (ESM) has consequently suspended relief because of this measure. 2017 is likely to pull Greece away from the shore it had been looking like it would reach: the depths call.
3. Islamic State
The so-called Islamic State (IS) captured international attention through a combination of rapid territorial spread and, in words of Tony Abbott (then Prime Minister of Australia), actions reminiscent of "medieval barbarism, perpetrated and spread with the most modern technology". The New York Times has listed over 100 attacks that have either been carried out by IS or inspired by them - ranging from France to Malaysia, from Australia to Yemen - the most deadly of which was the downing of a Russian passenger jet that killed all the passengers and crew (224 people) in addition to the ground war in the region.
Unlike Al Qaeda sophisticated financing from oil revenue, taxes and property confiscation, and the UN-estimated $35 and $45m from kidnap and ransom. Nevertheless, 2016 has been a year of success for anti-IS forces across Syria and Iraq. At least, if you believe that the end justifies the means. Airwars.org is a website that attempts to keep track of claims of civilian causalities in Iraq and Syria; it estimates a figure between 4,568 and 6,127. There is much to hope that these figures will stagnate if local forces rather than air raids carry the burden of the fight in 2017.
4. Volkswagen Volkscandal
On the 3rd September 2015, Volkswagen - VW a German holding company - admitted gaming emissions test. It emerged that (over the last seven years) the cars had been fitted with a "defeat device" which 'switches' the way a car operates so that it produces fewer by-products when being tested than when it drives on the road. As a result VW has been forced to recall 11 million cars.
The scandal bears a reputational cost (in addition to the huge fines). The reputational cost for VW has been sharp; it has yet to decide whether it will re-enter into the American diesel market and South Korea is now bringing criminal charges against them. But it has largely come out of the pit stop. What appears to be equally significant is the impact on the diesel engine as a whole. VW was caught by a clean air non-governmental organisation (NGO) which was trying to prove that diesel engines polluted less than petrol engines. International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) represents the active role of NGOs in this area, according to Dr. Paul Nieuwenhuis, of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research & Electric Vehicle Centre of Excellence, of Cardiff University. 2017 could well be a promising year for further NGO action in various areas of industry.
5. Paris Accord Strikes the Right Chord
The Conference of the Parties of the UN Forum for Climate Change 21 topped the headlines in 2015. It marked the agreement of 195 countries to make positive steps towards addressing climate change. COP21 is unique insofar as it is bottom up; it is voluntary in imposing targets. It is predicted that this will ensure more genuine engagement. On the 4th of November 2016, enough countries had signed and ratified the agreement such that it went into effect.
We've heard nothing comparable about COP22. The Economist Intelligence Unit noted that this is because COP22 was focused on the technical challenges posted by two implementation problems; financing and insuring that emission reduction is achievable. What is clear is that 2017 might show the first reports from COP21 coming in, and this will be a valuable ruler against which to measure our progress - we may have more than four minutes to save the world, but only two degrees celsius.
6. Reusable Space Rockets
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, celebrated the successful landing and recovery of a first stage rocket in December 2015 with the Flacon 9 Flight 20. Though SpaceX was piqued to the post by Blue Origin, the latter's journey was only half as long, with Musk's Falcon 9 rocket cruising almost 200 kilometres. Since, SpaceX has had a doubtful run with reports that the company has burnt $2.3 billion in cash in 2016 - which unfortunately is not reusable.
But for the space industry the benefitof having a reusable rocket is the significant cost decrease as was outlined in NASA's report. Space tourism, journeys to Mars, and more reliable links to the International Space Station might well be an option. Eyes to the skies to see whether in 2017 this potential is fully used.
It is not surprising that, as reliance on technology grows, the internet becomes an ever greater part of human life. And as such it made a lot of headlines in 2015: OpenStack, which in 2014 was purported to be the next focus point of cloud computing, has been dramatically cut down. Google's restructuring into Alphabet has shown a company that wants to move away from its traditional business strategy. Amazon Web Service's growth has seen its first ever financial report disclosed: for the first quarter, AWS generated $1.57 billion in revenue. But the way these headlines translate into everyday life is less clear.
For you and me, 2017 will apparently be the year of automated finance. HSBC is joining the large group of banks which are closing large swathes of their branches. In part this is because of the increase of online banking. But crucially it also rests on the fact that moneyless transfer is getting easier and safer to do online banking.
Cuts to the welfare state, initiated by the EU to save Member States have triggered anti-EU populaism throughout the political network, argues Professor Anton Hemerijck (2014). In the United Kingdom these cuts together with a powerful right wing press and a complete failure to address fears of immigrants - which can be done successfully (see The Economist: recently reporting on the success of Canada, which has the same rate of illegal immigration as the UK but national surveys find immigration is two to three times as popular). The vote was lost on the 23rd of June 2016, after David Cameron campaigned in the 2015 general election on the promise to hold an in/out referendum.
The impact of the vote ranges from the economic to the tertiary educational sector. In the three months after the vote, the economy has grown 0.5% (down on the 0.7% estimate). GfK's consumer confidence index is down five points to -8. The private sector is largely holding steady, despite the fact that Lloyd's of London (a 328 year-old firm) is looking to open an office within the EU in order to secure access to 'passporting'. Just at the University of Cambridge, the figures show a 17% drop in applications. It has submitted a report to the Education Select Committee which models a two thirds loss of applicants. This is particularly problematic when coupled with a brain drain as foreign researchers return to their home countries if Brexit Britain becomes more expensive and residence is harder to secure. 2017 is going to be a critical year, particularly if Theresa May does trigger art.50 in March. The Tory government's "negotiating" is certainly one thing that you could get through a lot of popcorn watching.
9. America's Rise to Popularity...
On July 13th, 2015, America concluded a deal with Iran aimed at limiting the latter's nuclear program. For those interested in a closer look at the details, I wrote something here. Simply put, the deal increases breakout time - the time needed to achieve a nuclear weapon - by reducing the maximum stock of enriched uranium. The control measure is a "managed access" route. Despite critics from each side arguing that any compromise is a sign of weakness, this deal seems a significant step forward to resoling one of the fundamental causes of tension in the region.
On the 20th of July 2015, America and Cuba restored diplomatic relations. The "Cuban Thaw" might sound like a 60s film; instead it is the 18 month process (allegedly facilitated by the Vatican) between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. Again, this deal is not devoid of critics. Those on the right of the American political spectrum argued that a higher price should have been extracted from the regime. Yet by re-opening diplomatic relations (and almost exclusively diplomatic relationships: the embargo on commerce remains, though remittances have been green-lighted).
Certainly, with a Trump presidency looming much of this could change. But in 2016 these policies have contributed to providing a type of ice pack to a world with numerous hot spots. Let's hope that they've done their job and the ice doesn't melt in 2017.
10. ...and some less popular populism
There were many notable elections throughout the world of 2015 such as Syriza in Greece. In 2016 Brexit, Trump, and the defeat of constitutional reform in Italy have shown that populism is alive and throbbing. In 2017, this is likely to continue with far-right parties in Spain and France, and worrying tremors in the German political landscape.
And for those of you who skipped to the end of the article, you were quite right; my conclusion is quite simply that 2017 is going to be a bumpy ride.