Good news, everybody. The ozone layer is probably going to heal. And that’s not all: by the time my (future) grandchildren grow up in the late 2050s, the world could be greener, healthier, cleaner, kinder, more peaceful and more equal – if we allow it.
Why do I think this, when activists are telling us to panic about climate change and many young people are so pessimistic they refuse to have children? Because that’s what the data clearly shows. Most of the indicators of planetary and human health are actually going in the right direction.
The new United Nations report on the ozone layer is indeed good news, though not in the way most of the press has reported it. It’s a bit misleading to say, as the UN does, that the ozone hole over Antarctica is “slowly improving”: 2021 saw the third worst ozone hole yet.
But the optimism that it will heal by the 2050s comes from the fact that the chemicals that harm ozone are at last declining fast. The reason they were not till now: in 2018 environmentalists exposed China’s continuing illicit production of these chemicals and shamed the Chinese government into cracking down. Strangely that fact did not make it into the UN press release, presumably lest it annoy Xi Jinping.
The UN likes to credit an international agreement reached in Montreal in 1987 for the forecast good news on ozone, but the other lesson this episode teaches is the importance of innovation. Without new chemicals to replace the chlorofluorocarbons used in fridges and aerosols, it would have been impossible to get agreement on phasing these out.
Thus I am convinced we will solve climate change by finding affordable and reliable ways to generate emission-free energy, not by telling people to stop flying or heating their homes. Innovation, not austerity, is the way solve problems. (Meanwhile, note that despite what the activists imply the number of people killed in floods, droughts and storms continues to decline every decade.)
Fortunately slowing down climate change looks increasingly possible thanks to developments in more efficient and safer versions of nuclear power in the short term. In the longer term fusion now looks highly likely to work on a grid scale within a decade or two. It promises limitless energy from relatively small quantities of water and lithium.
Imagine what we could achieve with limitless cheap energy: desalinated water to irrigate the desert, LED lighting to grow food indoors without chemicals, emission-free transport, cheaper housing and heating.
More good news: the human population is growing ever more slowly and will stop growing altogether by around 2080. Even with eight billion people on the planet mass famine has been largely eradicated thanks to dramatic improvements in agriculture. We’re feeding the world better and better but from a smaller and smaller acreage each year: we passed “peak farmland” a few years ago and are on track to release an area of land the size of India back to nature by the 2050s, according to Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University. Nature reserves are steadily expanding.
This is by no means the end of the good news for humankind. In medicine the improvements heading our way are remarkable. The past few years have seen a step change in the speed of development of vaccines, thanks to the messenger RNA technology. Cancer treatments have come on by leaps and bounds in recent years, both in terms of survival rates and in terms of less brutal treatments.
The day when we can cure or prevent Alzheimers disease may not now be far off after recent developments in medications. Malaria mortality, the scourge of Africa, is falling steeply thanks to insecticide-treated bednets. New medical problems will emerge of course, as covid reminds us, but if we stop fiddling with bat viruses in city centre laboratories they need not happen so often.
There’s tons of good news about the environment too. Wolves, sea eagles, beavers, otters, ospreys, peregrines and red kites are now far more abundant than when I was young, partly because we got rid of DDT, partly because we started conserving them. Tigers are holding their own at last, pandas are recovering and African elephants are currently increasing, poaching ivory for the Chinese market having largely ceased – for now.
Walruses are thriving in the Arctic, which is why they are starting to turn up regularly in Britain. So are polar bears and humpback whales. Six years ago I visited South Georgia in the Antarctic Ocean to find booming populations of whales, fur seals, elephant seals, king penguins and other birds, all of which had been driven to the brink of local extinction a century ago.
Sure, there’s plenty of worrying declines in wildlife as well, and as far as most activists are concerned good news is no news, but let’s at least try to mention the improvements that conservationists are achieving if only to inspire young people into helping.
Globally net forest cover is now growing again after shrinking for centuries. Even countries like Bangladesh are reforesting fast. Only the very poorest countries are still cutting down more forest than is regenerating.
Satellites have shown that there is more green vegetation on the planet every year. An extra area of green foliage equivalent to twice the size of the United States has been added since the 1980s. This is only partly because of reforestation, and mainly because the extra carbon dioxide in the air makes plants grow faster and resist drought better. This CO2 fertilisation effect is seen most strongly in arid areas where it is most needed, such as the Sahel region of Africa, which has grown markedly greener.
Then there’s the extinction of species. There have been two terrible waves of extinction, in the late nineteenth and the mid twentieth centuries, mainly caused by invasive species on islands, but in recent years the pace of extinction has slowed. Conservationists have worked out how to eradicate rats and cats from islands (including South Georgia) and how to protect the rarest birds and mammals.
Take the black robin of the Chatham Islands off New Zealand. By 1976 its population was down to seven birds on a small islet. They were moved to a larger island where the forest had been replanted and the rats and cats removed, but by 1980 two had died and none had bred. Just one female survived, Old Blue. Fortunately she was coaxed into laying two clutches in one year. Today, thanks to the work of conservationists, there are 300 of the little birds, all descended from Old Blue.
Similar heroic conservation stories are becoming increasingly common: the California condor, the bald ibis, the kakapo, the Lord Howe island stick insect – all species rescued from the brink of extinction. It’s more than 150 years since a European breeding bird species has gone extinct: the great auk.
Can we go one better and revive extinct species like the great auk and the mammoth? Not yet but the technology to achieve this is getting closer. We’ve already managed to sequence the genomes of many extinct species including the great auk. We’ve developed techniques for editing genomes that may soon be accurate enough to enable a cell with the genome of an extinct species to be implanted in a domestic bird’s ovaries. A goose could lay a great auk egg in my lifetime.
So here’s my message to my grandchildren, not that I have any yet. By the 2050s you could be living in a world that is greener, cleaner, less polluted, and richer in wildlife while enjoying abundant energy to support a comfortable lifestyle and with access to vaccines and drugs that prevent or cure many of today’s diseases.
What could prevent that? Human folly, that’s the main threat. Whether it comes from bellicose autocrats like Vladimir Putin, prophets of doom like Greta Thunberg, misguided opponents of biotechnology innovation like Greenpeace, or the many complacent bureaucratic enemies of growth: there are plenty of people trying to make the future worse. Don’t let them!