💡 My Quick Q&A with … data scientist Hannah Ritchie on building a sustainable planet
'The bulk of the technologies we need are there, it's just about deploying them at scale.'
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💡 My Quick Q&A with … data scientist Hannah Ritchie on building a sustainable planet
Hannah Ritchie is a data scientist whose work concentrates on environmental sustainability. She acts as the deputy editor and lead researcher at Our World in Data, and is a researcher at the Oxford Martin Programme in Global Development at the University of Oxford. In addition to authoring her new book, Not the End of the World: How We can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet (out Jan. 9), she contributes regularly to her own Substack, Sustainability by Numbers.
1/ Is there an environmentally sustainable path forward where the poorest people in the world today can live tomorrow like rich people live today?
It's coming. It's not there yet, but we are seeing the path where the technology that would give you a high standard of living—energy, sanitation, productive agriculture—many of the technologies that are needed to achieve that are there today and they're getting there on cost. The big hurdle there is cost. The point is that these technologies need to be very, very cheap, such that low-income countries don't have to face this tradeoff between increasing standards of living and increasing their carbon footprint, because they shouldn't be forced to make that tradeoff. But the technologies are there and they're now becoming very, very cost effective. I think we'll see in the next few decades a really different pathway that these countries will follow, compared to the UK or the US or any other big industrialized countries.
2/ Do we need to improve and lower the costs of technologies that we have, or do we still need to invent new things? Do we need to invent commercial nuclear fusion? Do we need to invent super-deep thermal—or are the technologies there, they just need to be cheaper and easier to build and so forth?
So the bulk of the technologies we need are already there: solar, wind, batteries, electric cars, heat pumps, they're all there and they can do a big part of the job. They can't do the entire job, but they can do a big part of the job, and their costs have plummeted over the last decade. Solar has fallen by 90 percent, wind has fallen by 70 percent, batteries has fallen by 90 percent, but they've fallen because we've deployed them at scale. They've followed what we would call a “learning curve,” where the more you deploy them, the cheaper they get. And we would continue to see that in the future, that as we deploy more and more of these, the costs will continue to fall and become more accessible for more and more people. The crucial thing over the next few decades is to deploy those as quickly as we can and reap the benefits of the cost declines.
Now there are some technologies in some sectors which are not there yet. A key example that often we never think about is steel or cement. Many of these countries are going to rapidly urbanize. They're going to build loads of stuff, they need low-carbon materials to do that, and we're not quite there on cost in terms of cement, for example, or aviation, or steel. So there are some industries where we still have a lot more work to do, but I'd say the bulk of the technologies we need are there, it's just about deploying them at scale.
3/ That is not a message I often hear from many environmentalists. Is it that they do not know about the trends which you highlight in your wonderful book, or is their entire framework different?
I think one of the issues there is that we're actually just at the beginning of the journey of deploying these technologies. I often frame it as, the last decade has been about driving down the cost of these technologies; the next decade is about deploying them at scale. I think the issue is that we look at how much of these technologies have been deployed now—what share of our electricity comes from solar or wind, or how many EVs are on the road—and that number looks quite small, but what's key there is that we're just getting started on this journey, and these technologies will just follow what we would call an “S-curve,” where you start off a very low base and you have a very low growth rate initially, but that really rapidly accelerates. It is very hard to see that when you're sitting at the bottom of that curve. I think that's maybe what some people are not getting: They're looking at the share right now and saying, “Oh, we've been trying this for decades and we've just not got anywhere!” but actually we're only now reaching the point where these technologies are economic to scale.
4/ How worried should I be about plastic in the environment? I hear a lot about microplastics, and, as an issue, it seems to have gained a lot of momentum. Is that something you know much about?
The honest answer is, we don't know. I think there are a few challenges with plastics: The core one, that I think is very easy to solve, is just the leakage of plastics into the environment, the leakage of plastics into rivers and into the ocean. I think we try to find these glossy solutions for this stuff, and it's just a waste management problem. Most rich countries have been able to stop plastics flowing into the ocean because they have proper collection, proper storage, even in landfills it’s not that bad. We can tackle that very easily as a global problem.
The broader issue is, are microplastics a massive human health and environmental problem? The honest answer is, we don't know. The research on this is currently very poor. I think there are some suggestions that there are some links to potential health issues, but there was a big report, I think last year, by the World Health Organization, and basically they said that there's insufficient evidence to say that this is a massive health problem, which does not mean that there isn't one, but there's insufficient evidence right now to suggest that it's a big problem.
5/ We read about people suffering from climate anxiety. Maybe they’re worried about the future, or maybe they decide to not have kids, or not have as many kids, because they're worried about the kind of world that those kids would come into. Are there a couple of stats or a story that you would tell those people if you were sitting next to them on an airplane that might make them think or feel differently about the future?
I think it is fine to have a mix of emotions there. I still, to some extent, suffer from climate anxiety. I am very concerned about climate change. I'm worried about what the future looks like, but I combine that with a sense of agency that we can actually do something about it. I think one of the key things that people have in their heads about climate, when they think about the future, is they still imagine we're on this pathway towards four or five degrees, these really, really scary scenarios, and that's not the path that we're on. We're currently on a path to between two and a half to three degrees warming by the end of the century—which is unacceptable, and we need to bend that curve further, but what I point them to is the amount of gains that we've already seen when people feel like we've made no progress.
Go back a decade and our policies had us on track for three and a half to four degrees. So in some sense, we've already cut a degree off our warming pathway, and, to me, we're actually only getting started on deploying the solution. So I think there's lots and lots of room to bend that curve down further.
I think you're right that lots of people are concerned about climate to the extent that they're worrying whether they should have children of their own. One thing I'd point them to is the behavior of climate scientists who are looking at this stuff every day. I'd point to the fact that many climate scientists are still having children, which you would question and say, I would assume that they wouldn't do that if they really, really believed that we were on this pathway that was unavoidable and would lead to widespread doom.
6/ Do you think you could convince Greta Thunberg to be more optimistic?
I don't think I would turn her into a radical optimist, but I think it could show her some data points that would make her a bit more optimistic on where we're headed. I think it's also fine that we have a balance. I think different audiences react to different messages. I can do my optimism thing, she can do her thing.