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Not the End of the World

March 5, 2024 by

Most books about the climate crisis predict a bleak future. Not so Hannah Ritchie in her magnificent book. This data scientist from the University of Oxford conveys an optimistic message: we can achieve sustainability in our lifetimes if we commit to it. I think her message will strike a chord with many corporate leaders, because they are often optimistic by nature and have a can do-mentality.

Hannah Ritchie doesn’t deny that there are huge problems. She writes that the world has become much better than it was, it is still awful and it can do much better. “We have the opportunity to be the first generation that leaves the environment in a better state than we found it.” Humans have shown that they are capable of solving problems, she writes. Acid rain has all but disappeared across North America and Europe, because of the great success in cutting SO2 emissions. The ozone layer is recovering (although it will take a long time) because CFC emission have fallen 99.7% from their peak, despite intense lobbying from leading producers.

She describes seven major problems that need to be tackled. The good news is that “for every of the seven big problems, we’re either at the turning point to a lower impact, or have already passed it”.

The first problem is air pollution. Dirty air is still one of the world’s biggest killers. In most years, it kills around 500 times more people than all ‘natural’ disasters combined. However, in many parts of the world, the air we now breathe is the cleanest it has been for thousands of years. Delhi today is cleaner than 18th century London.

Air pollution is caused by one very simple principle: burning stuff. Her solutions: access to clean cooking fuels; end winter crop-burning; remove the sulphur from fossil fuels; drive less, and if you drive, drive cleaner; ditch fossil fuels for renewables and nuclear.

The second problem is climate change. She considers it promising how patterns have shifted. A decade ago the world passed the peak of per capita emissions. “My carbon footprint is less than half that of my grandparents. Technology has made that possible. In the UK we now emit about the same as someone in the 1850s with a much higher standard of living.”

The third problem is deforestation. Forests have disappeared to make space for agriculture. The single biggest drive of deforestation, by far, is beef. Brazilian beef production alone is responsible for one-quarter of global deforestation and it is mostly for domestic consumption. Next largest is oil crops, mainly soybeans and palm oil. But palm oil is not as bad as most people think. Only 6 to 10% of the loss of primary forests is due to palm oil (still too much obviously) and 0.2 to 2% of global tree loss. But most of the alternatives to palm oil are no better. They are less productive, so they need far more land; palm oil is an insanely productive plant. Hannah Ritchie advocates to buy palm oil that is certified as sustainable and stop using it as biofuel. The biggest weapon against deforestation in her view is keep increasing crop yields, especially in Africa.

The fourth problem is food. We could halve our emissions if we adopt a more plant-based diet, but we don’t have to cut out meat and dairy completely. Some bacon, eggs, chicken, milk and fish are ok. I was surprised to learn the exact data: I knew that beef is bad, but lamb, cheese and milk are much worse than I thought. Chicken and pork on the contrary are not as bad as I assumed.

Furthermore, she advocates to adopt the best and most efficient farming practices we can including synthetic fertilizer and genetic modification and to reduce overconsumption and food waste. “We lose half of the food we produce before it ever reaches our plates. That is a woefully inefficent system. The reason is that we feed livestock and cars, not people.” For every 100 calories that we feed a cow, we get just 3 calories of meat back.” For lamb that is 4, pork 9 and chicken 13. Poor countries also need better storage and refrigeration facilities to reduce losses. She adds that eating locally produced food doesn’t make a big difference, nor does eating organic food.

The fifth problem is biodiversity loss. The biggest threat to wildlife is how we feed ourselves. Overhunting and agriculture have been responsible for 75% of al extinctions since 1500. The good news is that the solutions are cross-cutting: eating less meat would reduce the amount of land we use for farming, climate change and biodiversity loss. Stopping deforestation will reduce habitat loss and greenhouse gas emissions.

The sixth problem is ocean plastics. The world produces around 460 million tonnes of plastic each year, 350 million tonnes of it become waste. The author’s estimate is that 1 million tonnes enters the ocean each year, 0.3% of all plastic waste. Of all the plastic being emitted into the ocean 81% comes from Asia, 8% from Africa, 5% from South America, 5% from North America, and 1% from Europe and Oceania. “When countries emerge from low to middle income, consumers start to produce and use more plastic. They close in on the consumption habits of the rich. The problem is that the waste infrastructure to handle all this lags behind.” So the biggest problem with plastic is how we dispose of it. “With some basic investments, the world could solve this problem tomorrow. If every country had the waste-management systems that rich countries have, almost no plastic would end up in the ocean.”

The seventh problem is overfishing. She writes that we don’t know how big this problem is, because we don’t know how many fish there are in the ocean, so science should start counting them. The status seems to be that fish stocks are not getting much better, nor much worse. Two-thirds of global fish stocks are managed sustainably. She advocates to eat less fish, and if you do, look for fish with certification labels. Good choices are farmed bivalves – clams, oysters, cockles, mussels, scallops – and small wild fish such as herrings and sardines. Also tuna, salmon, cod, and trout are ok.

Hannah Ritchie doesn’t believe in degrowth. “New technologies are allowing us to decouple a good and comfortable life from an environmentally destructive one.” We can reduce our environmental impact and reverse our past damage while becoming better off. “If we want to get everyone on board with shifting to a low-carbon life, we have to make it cool. The key to decarbonising our economy is to make it as pain-free as possible.” In rich countries carbon emissions, energy use, deforestation, fertiliser use, overfishing, plastic pollution, air pollution and water pollution are all falling, while these countries continue to get richer. It often gets worse before its gets better. Once life is comfortable, our concerns turn to the environment around us. Pollution is low during poverty, peaks at middle incomes, falls again when countries get richer. The big question is whether we can decouple these impacts fast enough. The answer to that depends on what actions we take today.

Read this book and take the actions that fit in your work and your personal life.

Hannah Ritchie. Not the End of the World. How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet. Chatto & Windus, 2024