We are bombarded by apocalyptic headlines about the future of our planet, explains climate 'solutionist' Hannah Ritchie. But what does the data really tell us?
We’re toast if we miss 1.5C, right? Not so, says Ritchie. It’s true that above 1.5C the risk of climate impacts increases, but that just means every 0.1C counts when we – almost inevitably – miss our targets. “We need to keep going even if we don’t [meet them],” Ritchie writes.
Rewind just over 200 years and almost half of all children died before they were five. Today it’s 4 per cent. “Still woefully high, but more than tenfold lower,” writes Ritchie. In that period, average life expectancy has doubled, and the proportion of people in extreme poverty globally has gone from three-quarters of the population to 10%.
Modern levels of air pollution are worrying, but far from unprecedented. In fact, if 18th century London was entered into today’s global pollution rankings it would trump Delhi, the usual chart-topper. There’s good news in developing nations: India is on the brink of peak air pollution, while China has already turned the tide.
They topped out at 4.9 tonnes per person in 2012. “This is a signal that the peak in our total CO2 emissions is coming,” writes Ritchie, adding that her carbon footprint is less than half that of her grandparents at her age. It’s thanks to tech, and the renewables transition. Ritchie is optimistic we will see peak global emissions in the 2020s.
The average person needs 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day. If we divided up global food production equally, we could each enjoy 5,000. “Hunger and famine still exist, but they’re political and social in nature,” writes Ritchie. “The limits to us feeding everyone are entirely self-imposed.”
Hunting and agriculture are to blame for three-quarters of the world’s plant, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal extinctions since 1500. Besides slowing down climate change and stemming plastic pollution, Ritchie says that halting biodiversity decline means ending deforestation, eating less meat and improving farm efficiency. “If we do all of these things, the world’s ecosystems can thrive again,” she writes. “Not instead of us, but alongside.”
It’s something like 0.3 per cent, Ritchie calculates, equivalent to around a million tonnes. “ … still a huge amount,” she writes, before stressing that understanding the scale of the problem can make us more empowered about finding a solution. “If you believe that more than two-thirds, or even one-third, of our plastics are dumped in the ocean, it can easily feel like your efforts to fix it are hopeless,” she writes.
The reality is that some fish stocks are doing OK, some are declining and others are actually increasing. Overfishing rates have slowed, and around 83% of the fish we catch now comes from sustainable sources. Overall, it’s largely a status quo situation, which doesn’t make great copy. “Negative news sells. Positive news can occasionally sell. Neutral news rarely does,” writes Ritchie.
It’s an oft-repeated myth that the Amazon produces 20% of the world’s oxygen. The reality is that on balance it contributes almost none of it. Ritchie says the rainforest emits something like 6 to 9% of the world’s O2, but its vast ecosystem consumes the same amount. That’s not to say she doesn’t believe in acting on deforestation. “The reality is bad enough,” she says. “We don’t need to resort to misleading headlines to gain attention.”
Read more: our interview with Hannah Ritchie
Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet, by Hannah Ritchie, is out now, published by Chatto & Windus
Illustrations: Give Up Art
Main image: FreshSplash/iStock
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