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The other day on the radio I heard something that greatly encouraged me. In this time of doom and gloom about the climate. NPR has a show called The TED Radio Hour, where they interview people who were on TED. This episode interviewed Hannah Ritchie, who is a data scientist, and wrote a book called Not the End of the World.

The question she asks is “can we make humanity sustainable?” and her answer is yes. We can make a world where everyone can live comfortably. Here are some interesting stats from her talk:

Our grandparent AND parents averaged 12 tons of carbon emissions per person. Everyone on the planet, that’s the average. Today it’s 5.

Emissions per person peaked a decade ago, in 2013, and have been falling ever since.

A big driver in this is a reduction in coal. The UK is almost completely coal free.

Something that’s allowed for this is the reduction in cost for solar and wind. In 2013 they were one of the most costly forms of energy, and now in most countries they’re one of the cheapest. This is largely due to the lowering in cost of batteries. The cost of batteries has dropped 98% since 1990. A modern Tesla battery costs $12,000. In 1990 it would have cost $1,000,000.

Because of this, global sales of gas cars peaked in 2017 and have been dropping ever since.

Pivoting to air pollution, it’s dropping in most parts of the world. China’s pollution emissions have dropped by 2/3 in the last 7 years.

Global deforestation is also dropping, and in fact many countries are re-growing their forests. This is because we’ve figured out how to get greater crop yields. Corn yields are 6 times what they were 20 years ago.

The Point

In the past, human progress came at the cost of the environment. Success in sustainability means decoupling that. Something we’ve learned is that the more you deploy technology, the cheaper it gets.

She also gave some examples of past success. Remember when we were losing the ozone layer? Humanity stopped making the stuff that was killing it, and it’s basically a non-issue now. Remember acid rain? It was a big deal in the 80’s. We’ve cut the emissions of sulfur dioxide by 90% and now acid rain isn’t a thing.

We Can Do This

Another point she makes is that looking at successes gives us something to do, something to work on. We don’t have to throw up our hands and wait for the end. Rather than being The Last Generation, we can be The First Generation to make humanity sustainable.

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