There is no shortage of bad news in the media headlines. “Climate change is already killing us,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said ahead of UN COP 27 on climate change. “Low levels of air pollution more deadly than previously thought,” lamented McGill University. “Brazil’s plans to pave an Amazon highway could pave the way for more deforestation,” said another dejected NPR headline.
Most people undoubtedly agree that climate change, air pollution and deforestation are very real issues that we need to take seriously. What fewer of us seem to realize, however, is that the world has took these issues seriously and made significant progress toward resolving them. This observation leads us to an important but often overlooked conclusion: economic growth and technological innovation are making our planet a cleaner and safer place to live.
Pollution is plummeting
“Between 1970 and 2020,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “combined emissions of the six common pollutants (PM2.5 and PMtenSO2NOPEX, VOC, CO and Pb) fell by 78%. Similar trends have also been observed in other developed countries. Between 1970 and 2016, the UK reduced its emissions of all air pollutants except ammonia by 60%. The trend is unmistakable to anyone who carefully examines the evidence. Drs. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser helpfully summarized the situation for Our World in Data in 2019:
“What is becoming clear is that far from being the most polluted in recent history, the air in many wealthy countries is cleaner today than it has been for decades.”
They rightly warned that we still have work to do. Many developing countries have yet to acquire the resources to invest in pollution reduction measures; they mainly focus on improving their standard of living by accessing abundant food and energy supplies, for example. As their economies grow, they will have both the means and the will to tackle air pollution. This pattern has been observed in countries around the world.
More food on less land
One of the best ways to lift a nation out of poverty is to increase its agricultural productivity. The introduction of high-yielding crop varieties during the Green Revolution, led by plant pathologist Norman Borlaug, exemplified how this phenomenon works. According to a July 2021 study, improved crops developed between 1965 and 2010 increased food production by more than 40%, saving the world a colossal $83 trillion. Addressing the environmental impact of agriculture, the authors didn’t mince words:
“Our article also highlights a concern, often voiced in the literature, that improvements in agricultural productivity would attract additional land to agriculture at the expense of forests and other environmentally valuable land uses. We find evidence to the contrary…the green revolution tended to reduce the amount of land devoted to agriculture.
Here’s just one way we know this conclusion is correct. Since 1961, agricultural land has only increased by 7% while the world’s population has exploded, increasing by nearly 150%. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser also grasped the importance of this explosion in food production:
“The world passed ‘peak deforestation’ in the 1980s and it has been in decline ever since…We have lost 150 million hectares – an area half the size of India – during this decade… Since then, deforestation rates have steadily declined, to 78 million hectares in the 1990s, 52 million in the early 2000s, and 47 million in the last decade.
What about climate change?
Of course, climate change is the elephant in the room. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have been on the rise in recent decades, leading the WHO and others to warn of impending public health impacts from heat waves, wildfires forest and other natural disasters caused by global warming. Even here, however, the disaster projections that so often make headlines are out of step with the evidence.
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On the one hand, improved infrastructure (such as widespread air conditioning) has helped prevent many weather-related deaths. More broadly, deaths from natural disasters have also fallen: a century ago, natural disasters typically killed more than a million people a year. Today, this figure fluctuates between 10,000 and 20,000 deaths per year.
Recent research has shown that fossil fuels have generated far fewer GHG emissions than predicted by commonly used climate models, a discrepancy that “will only worsen in the decades to come”, explained climatologist Roger Pielke , Jr. in November 2020. That means the worst-case climate scenario is getting “more implausible every year,” said climatologists Zeke Hausfather and Glen Peters the same year in the review. Nature. These results led the New York Times to report in October 2022:
“Thanks to astonishing declines in the price of renewables, genuine global political mobilization, a clearer picture of the energy future, and serious political attention from world leaders, we have nearly halved projected warming in just five years.“ [Emphasis added]
A greener planet
What does all this mean? Economist Julian Simon was right: human ingenuity is the ultimate resource. We have always faced serious threats to our well-being, but we are also very good at developing long-term solutions to these problems. In a world filled with bad news, this is a fact worth celebrating.
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