Places where the world saw progress, for the May 18, 2020 Monitor Weekly.

Points of Progress: Austria shuts down last coal-fired plant, and more

1. United States

Scientists at The Florida Aquarium have figured out how to get ridged cactus coral to reproduce in the lab for the first time. It was one of the many species rescued from Florida’s waters after a major disease outbreak in 2014 wiped out nearly 35% of the reef. Since the lab’s spawning success in early April, more than 350 coral babies have been released into the ocean, where scientists hope they will get to work rebuilding the third-largest coral reef in the world. “Scientific breakthroughs that have a direct impact on protecting and restoring our natural environment is why we exist,” said Roger Germann, president and CEO of The Florida Aquarium. The aquarium participates in Project Coral, a program that aims to repopulate the world’s diminishing coral reefs. (CNN, Yale Environment 360)

2. Chile

M. Weiss/CXC/NASA/Reuters/File
In this artist’s image, a ring of stars circles the Milky Way’s central black hole. The latest discovery by ESO gives further confirmation of Einstein’s theory.

Why We Wrote This

This is more than feel-good news – it's where the world is making concrete progress. A roundup of positive stories to inspire you.

European Southern Observatory (ESO) astronomers in Chile found a star “dancing” around a black hole in the Milky Way on April 16, as predicted by Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Einstein’s theory, published in 1915, posits that what we perceive as the force of gravity arises from the curvature of space and time. The ESO discovery is a result of astronomers precisely measuring the orbit (at 16 years per orbit) of a star tracing a rosette-shaped pattern around a massive black hole, rather than the elliptical orbit predicted by Newtonian physics. The star is circling the black hole Sagittarius A*, located at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The black hole has a mass estimated to be 4 million times that of the sun. (Reuters)

3. Austria

Helgo Sommer/AP/File
Swans swim near a power plant in Mellach, Austria. Austria closed its last coal-fired plant, a Mellach facility, on April 17, 2020.

Austria shut down its last coal-fired power plant on April 17, as part of the country’s plan to end the use of fossil fuels by 2030.  The government plans to shutter the remaining gas-fired and oil-fired power plants by the end of the decade to complete its transition to generating energy from renewable sources. In a massive overhaul of the European energy industry, many countries are phasing out or immediately ending the use of coal-fired power plants. Sweden became the third European country to exit coal following Austria and Belgium, which shut down its last coal-fired plant in 2016. Six European countries are expected to follow suit by 2025 or earlier. (The Independent, CNBC)

4. Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has ended the death penalty for crimes committed as minors. On April 26, its state-backed Human Rights Commission announced the royal decree by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Instead of execution, individuals who committed crimes as minors will serve a prison sentence of no longer than 10 years in juvenile detention centers. Saudi Arabia holds the record for the highest number of executions after Iran and China, according to Amnesty International. In 2019, the kingdom executed a record 184 people. “The decree helps us in establishing a more modern penal code,” said commission President Awwad Alawwad. Saudi Arabia also banned flogging as a form of punishment in the same week. (BBC, Al Jazeera)

5. Ethiopia

A group of entrepreneurs in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is helping to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags and provide a livelihood for women who are deaf or partially deaf. Teki Paper Bags, an enterprise developed by women, has sold almost 1 million handmade paper bags. Ethiopia lags behind other East African countries, such as Rwanda and Kenya, in reducing its plastic consumption and production primarily because of cost. Teki, which employs 18 deaf workers and has more than 50 clients, is challenging the narrative that paper bags are too expensive – all through sign language. The entrepreneurs say their emphasis on the social benefit of creating jobs for people with disabilities, rather than lecturing about the environment, is the key to their success. “With our paper bags we want to provide people with the opportunity to change the lives of deaf people, and through this create an alternative way to fight plastic,” says Clement Piguet, one of Teki’s co-founders. (The Guardian)

6. Japan

Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions hit a record low for the year ending in March 2019, since the country started measuring greenhouse gas emissions in 1990. The world’s fifth-largest carbon emitter aims to cut emissions by 26% from its 2013 levels by 2030. Japan seems to be on track with the latest 3.9% drop, for a total 12% reduction in emissions. After the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions surged because all of its operable nuclear power plants were taken offline. However, wider use of renewable energy and a gradual return to nuclear power, including the restart of nine reactors, allowed Japan to consistently see a reduction in emissions for five straight years. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify Saudi Arabia’s announcement on the death penalty, which will no longer apply to individuals who committed crimes as minors. 

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