'Not the End of the World'

Things the first big climate book of 2024 sparked for me

Hi friends,

Time to go back to New York (almost). Nick is excited to go 'ultra-hardcore' mode for a month or so on work, exercise, moving apartments, etc... He says the southern hemisphere is awesome, but that his body also craves hardship. Gabe isn't sold on ‘ultra-hardcore’ mode but is excited to get home nonetheless.

Today's newsletter is a book review, at least in the sense that all of it is informed in one way or another by Hannah Ritchie's recent release, Not the End of the World. While we're pulling key insights out of the book here for you, you should definitely still read it yourself if it calls to you.

PSA: LOTS OF PRETTY CHARTS IN THIS ONE FOR THE VISUALLY INCLINED.

The newsletter in 50 words: Hannah Ritchie's Not the End of the World does an excellent job broadening sustainability discussions beyond global warming. By saying the world isn't, in fact, ending, she isn't saying we should ease off our collective efforts. She's inviting us to work even harder (and smarter) for a sustainable future.

REVIEW

Global warming isn’t the only prerogative

Climate practitioners often quibble about the ‘climate’ benefit of switching from coal to gas. Rightfully so, if global warming is the metric you care about most. While natural gas burns with fewer carbon dioxide emissions than coal, if enough gas leaks into the atmosphere along the natural gas supply chain, the heightened global warming potential of that methane can offset the carbon dioxide reduction benefit.

That said, this is illustrative of a view that’s too narrow, in my opinion. The first chapter in Ritchie’s book is all about air pollution, which kills millions of people annually. Fortunately and helpfully, Ritchie outlines that air pollution deaths have actually halved globally since 1990 by some estimates!

Much of this owes to tech improvements we take for granted in developed countries in the 21st century. While scrubbing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants’ flue stacks isn’t ‘easy,’ scrubbing sulfur dioxide and other pollutants from them, as well as from tailpipes, is easier. You can accomplish it by cleaning up fuels themselves or adding reactants to smokestacks.

It took countries like the UK and the US two centuries to go through the rise and fall of air pollution. With new technologies, countries are going through this transition four times as quickly. Better yet, some of the poorest countries might be able to skip the curve entirely.

Hannah Ritchie

Similarly, back to coal to gas switching, burning natural gas is a lot better for air quality than burning coal. Is it a fantastic win on the global warming front? No. But global warming isn’t the end-all-be all of climate challenges. U.S. air quality has benefited significantly as the U.S. has more than halved coal’s share of electricity production over the past two decades or so.

So, if a city in India wanted to replace a coal plant with a gas plant, because the coal plant kills hundreds of excess people per year, would you stand up and tell them “Well, er, the impact of that on global warming is debatable!!” I wouldn’t.

The hunt for yield

Another section of Ritchie’s book I appreciated was her analysis of food and how important the fact that we’ve gotten more efficient at making it over time is. Yes, agriculture is home to a whole host of climate challenges, whether you care about methane emissions from livestock, nitrous oxide from overfertilization, deforestation (again, primarily for livestock), or other.

Still, there’s no skirting the fact that in short order, the world will need to support 10B people. And this means making a lot of food, ideally with increasingly less resource-intensivity.

What Ritchie helpfully reminds us is that we have a strong track record, as a species, of optimizing agriculture. She notes — as we did in this newsletter earlier this year — how innovators like Norman Borlaug pioneered solutions that increased yields in crop like wheat manifold in countires that most needed it. The same is true across many other crops; we’re often making more with less.

My addition to Ritchie’s abundant data and analysis of how we’ve gotten better at using fewer resources to produce more food is simply that it’s time to broaden the set of variables we’re optimizing for beyond yields, fertilizer input, and land use to also include, say, things like crop resistance to drought, or carbon sequestration and methane utilization in soils.

More eyes on biodiversity loss

At the most basic level, I’m super glad biodiversity loss got a nod from Ritchie (and it’s own devoted chapter). Biodiversity loss is a problem that, as we explored in detail with our recent interview of Tom Quigley, owes to many factors. Global warming is one of them. It’s not the most important one.

One other thing I learned on the agriculture front from Ritchie that I hadn’t appreciated earlier (and that ties in to biodiveristy loss significantly) is that global deforestation rates (big biodiveristy loss driver) actually peaked as early as in the 1980s. In some places, like the Brazilian Amazon, deforestation rates continued to grow into my lifetime. But even there, they’ve since peaked. And not just last year as Lula took over the presidency again:

I’m probably a bit less cavalier than Ritchie as to whether this is a problem that we’re well set up as a species to meaningfully mitigate in coming decades. There are some throughlines from stats we noted above — for instance, that by some measures, the land use intensity of things like agriculture is falling — that will help slow biodiversity loss.

On the whole though, in terms of how optimistic I personally am about whether we’re moving quickly enough to address biodiversity loss, I probably diverge a bit from Ritchie. This is far from handled, and biodiversity loss gets woefully little investment and attention, relative to other problems.

Reducing plastic pollution – simple yes, straightforward no

I'll get into a few more critiques now. These are not intended to be overly biting. They're just honest. Ritchie has a whole chapter on plastics and plastic pollution. As I'll discuss more in the coming weeks, plastic pollution really is quite pernicious. At this point, it's easier for me to imagine a world with a zero-emission power sector than it is one without plastic pollution.

Of course, there are many things one could do to reduce plastic pollution. Policy could drive reductions in plastic pollution; that's for sure. Ritchie makes some arguments on this front, suggesting policy levers could be both simple and straightforward. For instance:

…most of the plastic in the ocean comes from land. But in certain parts of the ocean, most of the plastic comes from marine sources. Solving this problem could be quite simple. The world's oceans are not a free-for-all – at least not legally. In most countries, commercial fishing vessels need a permit. They often have quotas controlling how much fish they are allowed to catch. We can monitor their movements and sailing patterns using basic GPS technology. The solution, then, is straightforward: someone checks how much equipment a vessel has when it goes out to see, and this is cross-checked with how much it has on its return. If ropes, nets and lines have been lost or abandoned… fishermen get a hefty fine…

Hannah Ritchie

Here's the deal for me. Like so many things in life, this does seem simple, sure. But I wouldn’t say straightforward. Not in the slightest.

I’ll be the first to admit that I know very little about international fishing. But I'm pretty sure that fishermen would protest new legislation like this tooth and nail and that they have lobbying power as vast as the ocean itself. Look no further than the farmer protests roiling Europe right now to see what happens when you try to levy new regulation on the world’s food producers.

Similarly, as Ritchie admits, while the ocean may be regulated and some things may be 'legal' vs. not, I imagine that in many parts of the world, that doesn't matter that much. I've watched fishermen sail off the coast of Brazil for almost two weeks now. Those guys are focused on making a living, not on whether they're polluting the ocean with plastics.

Minimal love for methane?

For a book that covers climate change pretty extensively, my main quibble is that it mentions methane by name only 3 times in 300 pages.

Methane is responsible for 30% of global warming so far.

Ritchie does focus on carbon dioxide equivalents a lot when discussing greenhouse gasses, as many climate policymakers and scientists do. Using carbon dioxide equivalency is one way to make different greenhouse gasses comparable to one another. To standardize terms. I don't personally think using CO2e measures does us many favors, however. Here's a snippet from a convo I had with Josh Silverman (CEO of Windfall Bio) recently that explains why:

Josh: "This CO2-equivalent thing just doesn't doesn't work. It's always nice and attractive. Economists love the idea of a fungible token and putting everything into one specific number, and it makes comparisons really easy, and we can wrap our heads around it. But if it doesn't actually reflect reality, even if it's convenient, it's not, it's not useful."

Nick: "Yeah, I deeply appreciate the impulse to want to use standardized terms. I even think about something like GDP being such a prevalent measure of economic strength or the health of any economy. And it's like, well, you standardize everything to one measure. It certainly reflects a lot of things about an economy, but by no means does it reflect everything about an economy. And it will make you optimize for, well, production. In the same way, the more that we focus on CO2-equivalency of any greenhouse gas, the more we enshrine more focus on carbon dioxide, when the problem is more complex."

Josh: "You know, I was actually trying to get Windfall Bio funded and started about eight years ago. I couldn't get anybody excited about a methane-related technology. And everyone would say, like, 'We have a mandate to deal with carbon dioxide and to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But methane is just not, not a focus for us.'"

Addressing methane emissions will require a very different set of prerogatives, technologies, systems, and stakeholder alignment than addressing carbon dioxide emissions will. To make more progress across all greenhouse gasses, we have to treat them like they’re different. Because they are. Often profoundly so. We’ll continue to overindex on CO2 at our peril. I’d offer that feedback to any climate writer, CEO, operator, activist, or other climate practitioner.

The net-net (tl;dr)

Overall, I agree with Ritchie's overarching thesis. The end of the world isn't nigh. Which means it's even more incumbent on us to build a sustainable future, as there will be many folks around for it. Importantly, sustainability doesn't just mean ‘green.’ Sustainable, for me, means 'in harmonious relationship with self, others, and all beings' across all imaginable critera.

Again, go read the book if it calls to you!

Toodles,

– Nick