How Climate Data Says We Can Reach Sustainability
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How Climate Data Says We Can Reach Sustainability

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How Climate Data Says We Can Reach Sustainability

Hannah Ritchie is a senior researcher at the University of Oxford and honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She is also Deputy Editor of the online web publication Our World in Data, which uses data and research to understand the world’s largest problems and how to solve them.

Below, Hannah shares 5 key insights from her new book, Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet. Listen to the audio version—read by Hannah herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Not the End of the World Hannah Ritchie Next Big Idea Club

1. The world has never been sustainable.

I’ll start with the possibly controversial take that humans have never really been sustainable. Sure, by the standard definition that I would use as an environmentalist—that our impact needs to protect nature for future generations—we can argue that our ancestors were environmentally sustainable. They had a low impact.

But the reason they had a low environmental impact is because their populations were tiny, in the order of a few million people. And the reason their populations were tiny is because child mortality was very high. For much of human history, half of children died before reaching puberty. That then raises the question: is that what we really think sustainability is? Is that the world we want to preserve, one where half of children die?

I really care about people alive today. If we care about human suffering, we need to add another dimension to our sustainability equation: providing a good life for everyone today. That gives our definition two halves. If we fail on either half, we’ve failed to be sustainable. Our ancestors were not sustainable because they didn’t achieve the first half. Human living conditions were often poor.

Over the last few centuries, we’ve made incredible human progress: global child mortality is four percent. Extreme poverty reduced from eight in ten to less than one in ten. We’ve cured countless diseases, we live longer, most children get vaccinated, and get the chance to go to school. That progress has been unequal, and we have a lot more work to do. But it has happened everywhere.

Now, that has tipped our scales the other way. Progress has come at the cost of the environment. We’ve chopped down forests to grow food and burned fossil fuels for energy. The big challenge of this century is to achieve both at the same time. We’re now in the best position to do this. Our ancestors did not have this choice. They didn’t cut down forests for no reason—it’s because there were no alternatives. They didn’t start burning coal to screw over future generations; it was the only fuel for progress that they had.

We are not in this position today. Innovation means that we have clean alternatives to fossil fuels. We can achieve higher crop yields and use biotechnology to grow food, so we don’t need to cut down forests. This path to a sustainable world is not inevitable but possible. We can improve human lives while tackling our environmental problems, making us the first generation to achieve sustainability.

2. We’ve made more progress on problems than many people think.

It is both a scary and exciting time to work on climate change. Temperatures continue to climb, heatwaves are widespread, and we’ve seen an escalation of disasters across the world. At the same time, the world actually seems to be moving forward on solutions faster than many people think.

This year alone, China will add enough solar and wind to power France or the UK. More than one in three of its new cars will be electric. The UK is close to going coal-free, making my carbon footprint half of that of my grandparents. Many of these changes are happening because of the plummeting cost of solar and wind. A decade ago, these technologies were the most expensive sources of power we had. Now they’re the cheapest. A decade ago, electric cars wouldn’t have stood a chance in the market. Now their sales are rocketing.

“The world’s emissions of ozone-depleting gases fell by more than 99 percent.”

It’s not just climate where solutions are happening. When was the last time you heard about the ozone layer? Or acid rain? These were problems that dominated the headlines in the 1980s and 90s. Why don’t we hear about them now? Because we solved them! Countries came together, governments implemented policies, and it actually worked. The world’s emissions of ozone-depleting gases fell by more than 99 percent. In Europe and North America, emissions of sulphur dioxide—which causes acid rain—fell by more than 85 percent.

We think of air pollution as a recent problem, but it’s one that has been with humans for a long time. We can find Seneca lamenting about the polluted air in Imperial Rome. We can find damaged lung tissue in preserved mummies from Ancient Egypt. Air pollution in cities like Beijing or Delhi is extremely high but not unprecedented. But go back 50 or 60 years, and the air in London—or other industrial cities—would have been cloaked in a thick smog. Not anymore. Strict policies have seen dramatic declines in pollution in rich countries. Levels are just a fraction of what they were a century ago.

Crop yields in many countries have doubled, tripled, or quadrupled. This not only feeds more people but also frees up land for nature. Worries about late 20th-century famines did not come true.

These successes shouldn’t make us complacent. The world is not moving fast enough on climate change—far from it. Air pollution is still a vastly underestimated problem, killing around seven million people yearly. And almost one in ten people don’t get enough food to eat (although this is not because the world doesn’t produce enough of it). But the feeling that many of us hold—that we’re incapable of solving environmental problems—is simply wrong. We’ve done it in the past and can do it again.

3. Tackling our environmental problems is less expensive than many people think.

One of the most common pushbacks on environmental action is that it’s too expensive. That it’s a drag on the economy. We can debate where the economy or environment should take priority (for me, the environment)—but that is beside the point. There does not have to be a trade-off between environmental impact and the economy.

In the last few decades, many countries have “decoupled” their carbon emissions from economic growth. GDP has gone up, while emissions have come down (even when we account for trade and offshoring emissions to other countries). This is not happening fast enough to reach our climate targets—but we can accelerate it!

It’s stunning how quickly the economics of climate solutions has changed. Just a decade ago, solar and wind were among our most expensive electricity sources. It’s no wonder, then, that countries were not deploying them. Ten years on, and they’re now the cheapest. This assumed trade-off between reducing poverty and tackling climate change is dissolving. In fact, getting these energy technologies cheap enough might help to increase energy access and reduce poverty. It’s not a trade-off but a lever.

“There does not have to be a trade-off between environmental impact and the economy.”

This means that people will opt for climate-friendly solutions even if they don’t care about climate change. I use my brother as an example. He recently got an electric car—not because he’s a die-hard tree-hugger, but because it’s a better alternative to petrol: the driving experience is nicer, it’s easier to maintain, and it’s cheaper to run.

Climate change is often framed as a “collective action” problem, that it’s not really in any individual country’s interests to act, so no one does. The benefits of climate action are in the future, so it’s harder to justify action today. That might have been true a decade ago, but it’s becoming less so.

Countries are moving on climate solutions for reasons totally unrelated to climate: energy security, opportunities in innovation, and cheaper energy. We need to stop framing climate action as a sacrifice. This has often been the image of environmentalism in the past, but it’s a branding we need to try to shake off.

4. The Pareto Principle also holds true in environmental problems—a few big things really make a difference.

Bookshops are filled with books along the lines of 100 Ways to Save the Planet. But who has time or energy to do 100 different things? I don’t, and neither do you. This constant stream of “Do this” and “Don’t do this” can leave us feeling confused, like we’re always falling short. I felt this way for years: I questioned every action and beat myself up endlessly over tiny things like putting a plastic bottle in the right recycling bin.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The changes we need to see over the next few decades are big. We need to stop sweating the small stuff and focus on the big levers that make a difference.

It’s the Pareto Principle in action: a handful of big things determine 80 percent of our impact. The risk, then, is that we dedicate our lives to the other 100 different decisions that make up 20 percent. We put in huge amounts of effort, but it doesn’t really move us forward.

The big things that matter for an individual are: how much meat and dairy you eat, driving a car (drive less, and get an electric car if you need one), insulating your home, getting a heat pump, installing a solar panel, and minimizing flights. Your computer, phone chargers, plastic straws, paper bag, and television really don’t matter much.

“We need to stop sweating the small stuff and focus on the big levers that make a difference.”

You can vote at the ballot and with your wallet at the systemic level. Everyone who buys an electric vehicle, meat substitutes, solar panel, or heat pump signals to the market that things are heating up. This drives the cost of these products down for those with lower incomes.

What’s also great is that most of these solutions cut across all of our environmental problems. Eat less meat, and you reduce climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss at the same time. Get an electric car, and you reduce air pollution and climate change. In a world where we’re overwhelmed with recommendations, keep it simple. These big things will get us most of the way there.

5. Our environmental solutions are often unintuitive—they don’t feel “green.”

Our environmental problems are urgent, so we must move quickly. That means we need to make effective decisions about where to put our energy and money. Often, we’re fooled by our guts on what works and what doesn’t. Local food seems intuitive. Organic is best. Rural living is better than dense cities. Palm oil is the devil. Nuclear energy seems dangerous. Lab-grown meat seems icky.

We opt for local, organic, GMO-free beef, oven-cooked, and plastic-free. We shut down nuclear plants. We ditch the city for a farm in the countryside. But the data often tells us the opposite. What you eat matters, not how far it has traveled. Yes, even those avocados shipped over the Atlantic have a lower carbon footprint than local lamb. That’s because most of the emissions from food production come from land use change or on the farm itself—from fertilizers and burping cows and sheep.

Organic farming is often no better than conventional farming. Sometimes it’s worse, because it uses much more land (which we’re in short supply of). Nuclear and renewables are both much better for human health than fossil fuels, because the latter produces air pollution. Shutting down nuclear plants keeps coal plants running, which is terrible for local air pollution and climate change. And boycotting palm oil might cause more deforestation, not less. That’s because palm plantations get very high yields. If we were to substitute coconut oil, we’d need to use a lot more land.

If we want to tackle these problems, we need to get smart about our choices. We need to use data, not our guts, to figure out what really makes a difference. Despite being a data nerd, I know this is not easy to do. My instincts are constantly reaching back for an “older” or more “grounded” way of doing things. It takes active effort to self-correct—but it’s what we need to do if we want to move forward. Sustainability needs a rebrand. We need to focus on changes that do good, rather than just making us feel good.

To listen to the audio version read by author Hannah Ritchie, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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