Earth Day – and the untold story of environmental progress

22 April 2022

10:05 PM

22 April 2022

10:05 PM

It’s Earth Day today, the anniversary of the 1970 event that kick-started the modern environmentalist movement. in her recent column, my colleague Mary Wakefield wrote how a ‘dark green’ orthodoxy of negativity is being taught in schools with kids being given an unduly gloomy view of the world. But that’s perhaps inevitable when the “act or die” message of the original Earth Day is perpetuated even after the arguments behind it have collapsed – without anyone really explaining, or tracking, the new facts.

The premise of the first Earth Day was plausible at the time: that the world’s resources would be drained in proportion to population growth so health improvements that cut infant mortality would lead to longer-term disaster. The various predictions can be summed up by Pete Gunter, a Texas university professor. By the year 2000, he said, ‘the entire world – with the exception of Western Europe, North America and Australia – will be in famine.’  At the time, 34 per cent of the developing world was undernourished. Now, it’s 13 per cent. Rather than famine, we have lived through a golden era of poverty reduction even though world population has doubled. So what went right?

MIT’s Andrew McAffee looks at this in his book More From Less. We’re learning to tread more lightly on the planet, he argues: instead of abandoning economic growth (as was advocated on 1970 Earth Day) we have done something more profound: uncoupled economic growth from the use of resources. We have achieved what was seen to be impossible by the founding fathers of the environmentalist movement. I was struck by McAffee’s figures, but most are American and I wanted to see how far his argument applies to the UK. Some of the results are below. They’re unusual metrics, not ones you often see quoted. But they tell a very different story: about a world where things are good and getting better. Here goes:-

1. Collapse in UK air pollution. A recurring news story nowadays is the threat of air pollution in cities: dangerously high, we’re told, killing 40,000 a year. This may be so, but what we’re not told is the direction of travel: air is cleaner today than any time since the pre-industrial age. The worst pollutant, sulphur dioxide, is down by 98 per cent since 1970 Earth Day. The PMs (pollutant ‘particulate matter’) that catch the news (usually NO2, PM2.5 and PM10) now is down 80 per cent – or more. Technology has allowed cleaner manufacturing and of course, we’re offshoring a lot more of this to China. But here is the UK story:

2. Farmers getting more from less. Ammonium nitrate is a problem, seeping into rivers via fertilisers used on fields. But farmers, too, deserve a shout-out for reducing the use of fertilisers. This peaked in the 1980s and since then, the total amount of nitrogen put on fields in has fallen by 39 per cent, and the amount of phosphate has fallen by 66 per cent. And yes, crop output has fallen in that time – but only by a small amount (5 per cent) while overall agriculture output is actually up by 5 per cent. All data in table 5.1, here.

3. UK annual energy use has fallen by 31pc since 2001 and the UK economy has grown by 33 per cent over the same period of time. This is a classic example of decoupling: we’re doing and making more than ever, but using a lot less energy to do so. Total inland consumption of primary energy has fallen from the equivalent of 236. million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2001 to 191 million tonnes in 2018 (minus 19 per cent). (Annex 1.1.2 here.) There was an even larger drop in 2020 due to Covid.

4. We’re travelling less, too. The Earth Day fears were that an ever-larger population would inflict an ever-greater carbon footprint by travelling. But technology means we don’t need to do this so much: in fact the number of miles travelled in this country peaked in 2002 and has fallen by 9 per cent since then with a further Covid drop after that.

5. New cars get more mileage from less fuel. The average new car has become 52 per cent more fuel-efficient than in 1997: from 34 miles per gallon to 51.7 (petrol) and 40.2 to 61.2 mpg (diesel). Which perhaps explains why…

6. Our carbon emissions peaked in 1973. It’s right to worry about our carbon emissions, but wrong to understate our incredible progress on this front. Even if you start at 2010, Britain has made more progress than any G20 country: whether you count carbon emissions from Britain, or caused by British consumption (i.e. including imports). Per capita CO2 emissions are below the 1860 level.

I’m not a great one for ministers telling schools what to teach. But there is a risk that a curriculum that does not inform children about this progress robs children of perspective and can sow despair. Earth Day will always be a time to focus on future challenges, but it can also be a time to reflect on progress – and on how the environmental project worked. In his book, McAfee refers to the ‘four horsemen of the optimist’ – capitalism, public awareness, responsive government and tech progress.

Things are good and getting better: a ‘bright green’ agenda for a greener, cleaner planet in a way that does not sacrifice growth or deepen poverty is not only possible but is the (amazing) story of the last 50 years. We should not lose sight of that fact.

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