The militant group Islamic State has taken over large swathes of the Middle East and now poses a greater threat to the West than any power since the Soviet Union, while the deadly Ebola virus continues to rage across west Africa and destroy thousands of lives in its path.
Pollution remains a huge threat to the climate and our health, while the world’s population is growing at a much faster rate than the food needed to sustain it.
In Europe, economic difficulty has led to the rise of extremist right-wing parties across the continent, threatening to take us a few steps back from the social advances we strived so hard to achieve.
But while it is easy to fret about the many the difficulties the world faces, the great improvements set to take place over the coming year are a reason to be positive. From medicine to technology and the continuing fight for democracy, there is much to look forward to in 2015.
The world will do more to tackle climate change
In his second term as US President, Barack Obama invested the huge sum of $90bn in clean energy, and his administration has also overseen a doubling in home-grown renewable energy generation.
China, meanwhile, has agreed to cap its emissions for the first time ever. Leader Xi Jinping said the country, which is currently the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases, will increase its use of energy from zero-emission sources to 20 per cent by 2030.
With a greater worldwide focus on tackling the problem, there’s every chance the climate change talks being held in Paris later this year will provide a breakthrough moment.
According to Joss Garman, climate change expert at IPPR, “securing some robust, common global rules to provide a framework for ramping down carbon pollution faster and faster in coming years as the cost of clean technologies continues to fall is an eminently possible outcome from Paris”.
Computers will become even faster
As much as we complain about technology intruding on our lives and worry about super intelligent machines usurping us, the reality is that they make our lives a lot easier. Except, that is, for when they don’t work fast enough.
But with rapid advances set to take place in computer technology this year, misbehaving technology will become less and less of an issue.
In particular, there will be a rise in usage of supercomputers – computers that operate at a speed far greater than anything currently in widespread use.
“Many nations around the world are racing to deliver the first Exascale supercomputer by the 2020 timeframe. In supercomputing jargon, the country that out-computes, out-competes,” Tim Stitt, head of scientific computing at TGAC, told City A.M.
These advances won’t just benefit us on a personal level – according to Stitt, supercomputers can be used to compute answers to some of the world’s most challenging problems, including climate modelling, weather forecasting, molecular modelling, cosmology, quantum chemistry, fusion science and genome analysis.
An effective Ebola vaccine will be developed
Since the current Ebola epidemic broke out in Guinea in December 2013, over 7,000 people have died because of it.
There is no cure for the disease, which kills almost half of the people it infects, and pharmaceutical companies have been racing to create a vaccine that provides immunity against it. Nothing has been given the full green light yet, but the World Health Organization hopes that work will yield a vaccine in 2015.
GSK sped its vaccine through initial safety trials in 2014, and plans to test it on health workers in Liberia and Sierra Leone early this year.
Separately, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other groups are testing whether the antibody-rich blood of people who have survived Ebola can help new patients fight off the virus. Those small, complex tests will also take time to execute and review.
When a cure is found, it won’t just stem the spread of the current outbreak among people who have not yet been infected – it will also stop any future Ebola outbreak reaching this level of severity.
Our understanding of life on earth will improve
The Rosetta probe currently analysing the composition of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is just one of the many space missions attempting to find out more about the origins of life on Earth.
The probe landed on the comet at the end of 2014, and will spend the next year analysing trails of debris as they are released from it. This, it is hoped, will provide insight into what the universe was like when it was first born some 14bn years ago.
Meanwhile, NASA’s Mars Rover and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission continue to study the red planet to determine whether life arose there. They are also looking into whether humans could migrate to Mars if the Earth became too hot to sustain life.
To answer an even bigger question – whether the universe was created by the Big Bang – scientists will continue a mission in the North pole, where they are studying the oldest light that can be observed from anywhere in the world. The BICEP2 collaboration is trying to determine whether cosmic inflation, one of the concepts at the heart of the Big Bang theory, exists.
Freedom of speech will prevail
It might cause a lot of difficulties, but social media is a great tool for those who have limited opportunity to express themselves and limited access to the opinions of others.
As more and more developing countries adopt technology and social media, it is opening up parts the world previously closed to new ideas, and communication with the rest of the world is becoming possible for them.
The difficulty will be in tackling countries where social media is either banned or censored, such as China and Saudi Arabia.
Improved understanding and treatment of mental disorders
Governments across the world are putting billions of pounds worth of funding into researching the human brain – in the EU, there is the Human Brain Project, while in the US there is the BRAIN project, and in China there is Brainnetome.
The ambition is the same in each case – to gain a better understanding of how the brain is structured and how we think.
As well as producing technologies based on the brain – known as “cognitive computing” – this will generate a better understanding of how disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s are caused, and how they can be treated.
In the UK, Alzheimer’s is the most expensive medical condition, costing the government an estimated £32bn each year.
Bankers will behave more sensibly
There is only so much reproach and humiliation a profession can take before it amends its ways, and banking may have surpassed that point in 2014. From Libor to Forex, the scandals have been endless.
But it’s not just embarrassment the banks have faced – they’ve also had to pay hefty fines and accept bonus cuts. It would be a surprise if the more reckless individuals didn’t start behaving more judiciously this year.
Relations between Iran and the West will continue to improve
Over the past year, schisms between the Middle East and the West have deepened over the Israel-Palestine conflict and the spread of IS. But there is one relationship that promises to get better in 2015, and that is between the West and Iran.
Since Hassan Rouhani was appointed President in 2013, sentiment between Iran and the US has improved. That same year, the US and Iranian heads of state held a personal phone conversation for the first time in 30 years, with Rouhani breaking the news with a tweet saying "In phone convo, President #Rouhani and President @BarackObama expressed their mutual political #will to rapidly solve the #nuclear issue".
Since then, talks over Iran’s nuclear programme have made headway, with a final deadline set for 30 June this year.
Such a sentiment between the two countries has come a long way since 2002, when former President George Bush used his State of the Union address to denounce Iran as part of an “axis of evil”, alongside North Korea and Iraq.