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16th May 2024

A much needed book that takes a brighter view of our environmental future

UKHACC Chair, Richard Smith’s review of the book “Not the End of the World: how we can be the first generation to build a sustainable planet” leaves him feeling more hopeful for the future

The future is an unknown country where we can project our fears and hopes. An expert on climate change shocked an audience recently by stating that we will see economic collapse, shortages of food, or both within seven years. In contrast, Hannah Ritchie, a scientist and journalist, argues in her book Not The End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet that her generation has the chance to be the first ever to create a sustainable world. She is no climate denier, recognising that we face many serious environmental threats and accepting that global temperature is likely to rise to 2C above pre-industrial levels. She summarises her position in three statements she says are true: “The world is much better; the world is still awful; the world can do much better.”

In 1987, the United Nations defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The definition has two parts, and at the moment we are failing on both. If we think of meeting the needs of the present as providing clean air and water, nutritious food, shelter, security, education, and health care, then we have never met the first part; and, as Ritchie writes, “Our ancestors hunted hundreds of the largest animals to extinction, polluted the air from burning wood, crop wastes and charcoal, and cut down huge amounts of forest for energy and farmland.” 

Ritchie, who is now 31, studied earth sciences at Edinburgh University and emerged deeply pessimistic about the future. Then she came across the videos of Hans Rosling, the Swedish physician and statistician, who with great flair elaborates how many things have improved across the globe: many more children receive an education, life expectancy has increased, and the number of people in poverty has fallen dramatically. Ritchie was inspired, and her book might be seen as an environmental version of Rosling’s best-selling book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think.

I was prompted to read her book by two friends, both committed environmentalists, who were irritated by her book. They feared that it might encourage complacency, let people off the hook, but that doesn’t seem fair to me. Ritchie emphasises action, political and personal. My friends worried as well that her relative optimism stems mainly by several measures—for example, the carbon footprint of high income countries—heading in the right direction. She points out that per capita emissions peaked a decade ago, something that most people don’t recognise. But can the improvements be maintained? Can they happen in low income countries? And can it all happen fast enough? She acknowledges that she doesn’t know the future and that it depends “on how quickly we act, and whether we make good decisions.” Another anxiety about the book is that it does not cover the whole system. Instead, she picks out seven topics: air pollution; climate change; deforestation; food; biodiversity loss; ocean plastics; and overfishing. She thinks that we should worry more about air pollution, which is killing millions now, and biodiversity loss and less about climate change. Ritchie has perhaps selected topics where there is at least some good news, and a glaring omission is the economy. Ritchie is not an economist.

Where Ritchie cannot be criticised is getting her facts wrong. She is the head of research for the World in Data, and, as with Rosling’s book, her book is built around data. She takes a long view, which is welcome, and she acknowledges where data are weak or missing.

For each of her topics she analyses how we got to where we are now, where we are now, priorities for action, and “things to stress less about.” With air pollution she points out that the Ancient Romans complained about the filthy air in Rome and that air pollution in London, where I was born, in 1952, the year I was born, was “more polluted than the world’s most polluted cities today.” In Beijing, which was horribly polluted, air pollution is falling, but it’s still getting worse in Delhi. Ritchie has faith in the Environmental Kuznet’s curve, which says that as a countries’ income rises the environment is damaged, damage peaks, and then begins to fall (the same is said to happen for inequality). Others are more sceptical about the curve, and Ritchie concedes that it doesn’t work for all environmental issues but says that it does work for air pollution. 

After optimism-boosting asides on how the world fixed acid rain and the holes in the ozone layer, she advocates giving everybody access to clean cooking fuels as a first priority. Burning dung, wood, charcoal, or coal causes severe pollution, including indoors, while cooking with electricity is the cleanest way, especially if the energy comes largely from renewables. (For a couple of hours in April, only 2.4% of electricity in the UK came from fossil fuels, a datapoint that would have cheered Ritchie.) The next priority is to end winter crop burning, an important source of the air pollution in Delhi, followed by removing sulphur from fossil fuels; driving less while walking cycling, and using public transport more; and finally ditching fossil fuels.

For me one of the best chapters is the one on food. At the moment perhaps a billion people go to bed hungry while 40% of the global population is overweight, but we have the capacity, writes Ritchie, to feed up to 10 billion people a nutritious diet if we have “a better plan for how to grow what we need and use it more efficiently.” Currently less than half of the three billion tonnes of cereals the world produces each year is fed to humans: 41% is fed to livestock, and 11% is used by industry, including as biofuels. The amount of maize that the US puts into cars for biofuels is 50% more than Africa produces.

The first priority for improving the food supply is to increase crop yields, which are currently more than four times higher in the US and more than three times higher in East Asia than in Africa. Much of this will be achieved by cross-breeding and genetically modifying crops to produce ones that need fewer inputs of fertilisers and pesticides and are more resistant to drought. Increasing yields will mean that less land is needed for agriculture, allowing more reforestation and rewilding

The second priority is to eat less meat, particularly beef and lamb. No matter whether its greenhouse gas emissions, land use, freshwater use, or water pollution, beef is about 100 times worse than many plants. The differences, Ritchie emphasises, are huge. But a graph that Ritchie does not include but has been compiled for Our World in Data shows global meat production growing steadily from 70 million tonnes in 1961 to 355 million tonnes in 2022. There’s no sign of it dipping, which is why Ritchie believes in meat substitutes, hybrid burgers (part meat, part plant-based product), and substituting dairy with plant-based alternatives. She quotes her carnivorously committed brother enjoying a chilli made with a meat substitute as much as one made with beef. 

About a third of global food is wasted (by weight), and most of that loss occurs in low and middle income countries. It’s lost in farming methods and the way food is transported, and farmers would dearly love to reduce the waste—because it would mean more income. Ritchie quotes Mike Berners-Lee saying that food waste in low and middle income countries is “just a Tupperware problem.” In some studies farmers and distributors reduced waste from 20% to 3% when they used plastic crates rather than sacks to transport food.

In the food chapter Ritchie delights in telling people “what not to stress about,” starting with pointing out that concern about eating local products is misplaced as in terms of greenhouse gas emissions what you eat is far more important than how far it has travelled: locally-produced beef is still harmful, although it may have benefits for the local economy. She also points out that organic foods are not always better for the environment and that the impact of plastic packaging, which keeps food fresh and edible, is overhyped.

In another part of the book, however, Ritchie writes that “For me, the most worrying aspect of climate change is the impact it could have on food security.” She must have written most of her book during the pandemic, and global and ocean warming have proceeded faster than expected since then with many impacts on crops and supply chains. The World Food Programme reported just a few days ago that “Rising global temperatures are fuelling a global hunger crisis.”

Ritchie is most worried by biodiversity loss and perhaps least worried by plastics in the ocean. She points out that almost all the plastic in the oceans comes from low and middle income countries that don’t have well organised systems for collecting waste and ensuring that it is either recycled or buried in landfill from where it cannot escape into rivers and seas. There is no need for a high-tech solution that may never materialise but simply for low and middle income countries to have the funds to develop systems already established in high income countries. Throughout the book Ritchie emphasises how high income countries must support poorer countries.

The future is unknown, but many of the climate scientists I speak to see it as bleak, and there will be different views from those of Ritchie on what may happen with the rich, beautiful, and complex system we call the Earth. But “Every doomsday activist that makes a big, bold claim invariably turns out to be wrong,” claims Ritchie. There was, I think, a need for this book. As I was reading the book I heard a professor of biodiversity say that she had to be able to share positive messages with her students “otherwise, they will just sign off.” Ritchie describes how she has written the book she would have liked to read while doing her depressing earth sciences degree: “If we want to get serious about tackling the world’s environmental problems, we need to be more optimistic. We need to believe that it is possible to tackle them.” Although my environmental friends were critical of the book, I’m glad that I’ve read it—and I gave it to our son for his birthday.