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Beyond Doom and Gloom: A Hopeful Climate Message

Beyond Doom and Gloom: A Hopeful Climate Message

  • People often steep the climate crisis narrative in despair, but beneath the surface, we can find hope and opportunity.
  • Dr. Hannah Ritchie, Deputy Editor and Lead Researcher at Our World In Data and author of “Not The End of the World: How We Can Be The First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet,” admits she was once a climate pessimist. But she argues that there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about a sustainable future.
  • Why do organic farms sometimes have higher carbon footprints than conventional ones? What about vertical farming? Can we ever clean up all the plastic in our oceans? Hannah breaks down the unexpected paradoxes and inconvenient truths that data can provide about our planet.

Most of what we hear about climate change is downright apocalyptic. And there are plenty of reasons to believe that pollution, dwindling natural resources, rising temperatures and rising sea levels will change our world in unexpected ways. But what if we embrace these challenges and embrace the potential for a brighter future?

In her book “Not The End of the World: How We Can Be The First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet,” data scientist Dr. Hannah Ritchie offers a counterpoint of “urgent optimism” about our climate, brimming with opportunities for sustainable progress. However, we have to get real about what works, what doesn’t and which efforts are worthy of large-scale investments. Misconceptions abound about the efficacy of many approaches.

“In the U.K., we make a massive deal out of policies like banning plastic straws — which seem very visible,” says Hannah. “It looks like we’re doing a lot to tackle this problem. But it’s so insignificant, and it’s doing almost nothing to solve this problem.”

Hannah, the Deputy Editor and Lead Researcher at global research firm Our World In Data, argues that millennials can be the first generation to embrace real sustainability and heal our planet.

Hannah joined host Kevin Coldiron on an Ideas Lab installment of Top Traders Unplugged to discuss her data-driven research, including why food systems are a critical part of the “carbon footprint” puzzle — and the surprising advantages of plastic.

Food for thought

“When people think about climate and their carbon footprint, they automatically think of energy … [and] plastics recycling,” says Hannah. “They kind of forget about food, because it’s quite hard to link back [to] how food contributes to climate change.”

But food production systems are responsible for between a quarter and a third of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We won’t tackle climate change unless we also tackle our food systems,” she adds.

Moving away from fossil fuels is important, but Hannah argues that the carbon footprint of many food products would preclude any serious efforts to mitigate climate change. Pound for pound, animal-based products have much higher carbon emissions than plant-based products. Cattle in particular need a lot of land, which often leads to deforestation and habitat loss. Cutting down forests emits carbon, while cattle emit methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) via enteric fermentation.

“Producing meat is just a really inefficient process,” Hannah notes. “When you think about the number of crops you need to feed animals to get a small amount of meat in return … and take into account the carbon footprints of the crops.”

What’s more, some of the choices that seem pragmatic, like organic produce and locally raised meat, aren’t as sustainable as we might think.

“A lot of people just don’t like this message,” Hannah adds. “But it’s what the data tells us.”

Local isn’t always optimal

Hannah understands the rationale for “eating local” as a way to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Transporting food emits CO2, whether via truck, airplane or ship.

“Therefore, you’d assume the stuff that travels far less to reach us obviously has the lowest carbon footprint,” she says. “I think what people get wrong there is that when we look at the breakdown of emissions from food systems globally, transport only makes up around 5%. Most of the emissions from our food come from land use change, or using land or emissions on the farm — stuff like fertilizers, manure. ... Actually, the transport component … is pretty small.”

If we crunch the numbers, local lamb (for example) still has a higher carbon footprint than avocados shipped from South America. That’s why Hannah says how food is produced is much more impactful than how far the food has traveled.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn't eat locally produced food. There are multiple reasons to do so, including supporting local farmers and choosing producers with higher animal welfare standards.

The economics of indoor farming

Organic farming versus conventional agriculture is “a bit of a mixed picture” in terms of environmental impact. “There’s often no clear winner, or sometimes organic comes out worse.”

Land use is a good example. Organic agricultural methods tend to provide lower yields, which means more land is necessary to produce the same amount of food.

“That’s bad for carbon. That’s bad for wild habitats. That’s bad for deforestation,” Hannah argues. “So the notion that organic is necessarily best for the environment just doesn’t stack up when you look at the data.”

Another “inconvenient truth” Hannah highlights in “Not The End of the World” is indoor farming, also known as vertical farming, in which produce is grown in warehouses using LED lights and liquid nutrients instead of soil. It reduces fertilizer use and land use, and on a grand scale, it could make our food system less vulnerable to climate impacts and weather shocks in a rapidly changing climate. Although indoor farming sounds exceptionally promising for sustainability, she’s skeptical about its potential for transforming our food system in the next 10 to 20 years.

For one thing, indoor farming (thus far) is only effective for a limited variety of crops — chiefly leafy greens and a handful of vegetables. That’s due to economics: These products demand a relative premium on the market.

However, Hannah notes that a number of companies have recently “gone bust” trying to make this business model work due to spiking energy costs. When agriculture substitutes energy for land, the system is vulnerable to the cost of energy. If energy costs rise enough, many products simply cease to be economically feasible.

What’s more, most of our calories come from crops like grains and pulses. The economics of vertically farming those products are virtually impossible. Unless we can produce abundant low-carbon energy very cheaply, it won’t become a big part of our food system.

Plastic to the rescue?

“The world produces so much plastic, which many people see as a negative. And sometimes it is negative, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the reason we produce so much plastic is because it's just a really amazing material. It’s really versatile. It’s really sanitary, it’s really cheap, it’s really flexible. That’s exactly why we use so much of it.”

The medical industry, for instance, heavily depends on plastic enabling sterile environments, tools and protection.

“How would we have dealt with the COVID pandemic without plastic for vaccines and masks?” she asks.

Hannah also points out that plastic offers certain environmental benefits. The plastic packaging around many foods — while “overdone” — preserves shelf life while protecting against diseases and pests. Without plastic, we might have higher levels of food waste than we currently do, which “would obviously have a much bigger environmental cost than just the plastic itself,” she says.

From Hannah’s perspective, the biggest concerns around plastic involve how we handle waste, particularly how we prevent it from ending up in the ocean in places like the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” off the coast of California, an accumulation of plastic three times the size of France. And we know that microplastics find their way into municipal water systems, but we don’t yet understand their impact on human health. However, plastics leaking into rivers and into the ocean is “a much more tractable problem,” one she thinks we could solve on a global scale with “relatively minor investments of money into waste management.”

The upshot? Invest in innovation

Hannah argues that the problem of plastics in rivers and oceans isn’t necessarily about how much plastic we use, it’s about “how it’s managed at the end of the chain.”

Many countries don’t have sufficient waste management infrastructure to handle all of the waste they generate. Plastic pollution of waterways tends to be highest in middle- to low-income countries “where people are rich enough to use more and more plastic but the waste management infrastructure is not there to tackle it.”

That’s why she sees it as fixable.

“We know that if we just built landfills, recycling systems or incineration systems, the problem would essentially be solved. But the issue is that it’s not high enough on the priority list for countries to want to do that, or want to do that in the very short term.”

Hannah points out that there are some current endeavors that show promise. The Ocean Cleanup project, founded by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, is tackling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by creating “artificial coastlines” that collect plastic. This organization, and others, have also launched initiatives focused on intercepting plastic before it enters and pollutes oceans or rivers in the first place. For example, cutting-edge machinery at the mouths of high-density rivers “catch” plastic — a more cost-effective approach than dealing with the consequences downstream.

Those are just two examples of impactful innovations that can be replicated around the globe. And there are plenty of other environmental problems we already know how to address.

“It’s just really about our willingness to invest some money into solving” these issues, Hannah says.

Now is the time to stop grasping at straws and embrace data-driven, proven solutions that improve the state of our planet.

This is based on an episode of Top Traders Unplugged, a bi-weekly podcast with the most interesting and experienced investors, economists, traders and thought leaders in the world. Sign up to our Newsletter or Subscribe on your preferred podcast platform so that you don’t miss out on future episodes.