Intro. [Recording date: December 20, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is December 20th, 2022, and my guest is scientist Hannah Ritchie. She is the head of research at Our World In Data, an online web publication focused on research and data to understand and make progress against the world's largest problems. She's also a senior researcher with the Oxford Martin Program in Global Development. Hannah, welcome to EconTalk.
Hannah Ritchie: It's a pleasure to be here.
Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is the environmental case for eating local food and the concern many people have about what are called food miles. Let's just start with the obvious seeming truth that importing food or eating food that comes from far away would seem to be worse for the environment than food that is nearby. Is that true?
Hannah Ritchie: Not really. The rationale for it makes sense when you think about it. Food is transported across the world. We know that transport tends to emit CO2 because we burn fossil fuels to drive our trucks, fly our planes, our ships. So, you would think that the further a food has traveled to reach you, the more the CO2 has been emitted in the process. That is generally true, but I think what people get wrong is that when we look overall at the carbon footprint of our food, the transport component for most foods is very, very small. So, in reality, the distance your food has traveled to reach you often makes a really, really small part of the carbon footprint of the food that you're eating.
Russ Roberts: Why would that be? We know that, as you say, travel generally is going to have to burn carbon--unless you're on a sailboat. But, in general, transportation is carbon intensive. Why isn't food miles, the distance that food has traveled, an important contributor to the carbon footprint of a particular food item?
Hannah Ritchie: I think there's two key reasons here that people get wrong. I think one is that people massively underestimate the amount of emissions that come from just producing food in the first place. So, the emissions from land use change, whether that's deforestation. The emissions from on the farm--so, that's cows burping methane. Rice emitting methane. Putting nitrogen on the soil and fertilizers. That emits a massive amount of greenhouse gases. And, when we look at the differences in the carbon footprint between foods, they're really, really massive.
So, I think people might have in their head that maybe the differences are maybe 10 or 20%. So, some foods have 10 to 20% higher emissions. When we look at the differences in carbon footprint of foods, between the highest and the lowest, we're talking about 10 to 50 times as much. So, a kilogram of beef will emit 10 to 50 times as much emissions as tofu or soybeans.
So, when you then look at the emissions from transport, they might go up and down depending on how far it's traveled. But, overall, that's a really, really small share and pales in comparison to the 10 to 50 times difference between different foods.
Russ Roberts: So, being in Israel, if I were to eat tofu imported from Australia--just to pick a place that's very far away--that would have a much lower carbon footprint than my neighbor's cow--
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah, exactly--
Russ Roberts: if I was eating beef. 'But, it's local. I'm environmentally friendly.'
Hannah Ritchie: Sure. I think the other core argument there in terms of explaining why the carbon footprint of transport is so small is, I think, especially when we think about international travel. So, when people think about food being transported to them from across the world, they imagine that it's coming by plane, right? But that's just not the case. It's very, very rare that foods would be transported by plane because it's expensive and it's energy intensive. Most food internationally comes by ship. And, actually shipping is very carbon efficient. So, you're going to emit 10 to 20 times less CO2 than trucks per kilometer and 50 times less than flying. So, most of your soy or your avocados are nearly always coming by ship and shipping actually has a very, very small carbon footprint.
Russ Roberts: The reason I love this, of course--well first of all, I love bringing comfort and solace to my listeners. Those of you who are eating imported food from far away, which you can now maybe--depending on what it is, you can do it with a slightly cleaner conscience. But, it's a beautiful example of economics in action or what is becoming the motto of this program, which is: It's complicated. Something that seems obvious, that things that come from farther away certainly are much worse for the environment. Well, they're a little worse for the environment than eating an avocado from next door--perhaps, and we'll talk about that in a minute. But, an avocado from far away might be slightly worse than an avocado from next door, but it's surprisingly small. And of course, what's often forgotten is that the international component of the transportation is also relatively small. Depending on the size of your country and the efficiency of its transportation system, the domestic cost of that food item to get to your door or to the grocery nearby are quite a bit often underestimated.
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah, definitely. I think what people underestimate is the emissions from trucking, like, domestically within a country. So, for example, in the United Kingdom we might say, 'It's British beef, so it's local.' But actually the emissions from trucking beef from a farm--I live in London; I don't have a farm next door--so, getting beef there, there is a substantial carbon footprint in trucking that to me. So, local doesn't really mean local for everyone.
I think the other key point there--I don't want to put across the message that food miles don't matter at all. I think, like for like, obviously it doesn't necessarily make sense to import something from the other side of the world if you can get it next door. What I think people get wrong is that they just get the hierarchy wrong in terms of what matters the most for the carbon footprint of their diet.
So, people will automatically put local at the top when actually in terms of the hierarchy, there are several things well above that. And, maybe if you take those off and consider those, then you can focus on the local aspect. But, most people put it at the top, which is just incorrect.
Russ Roberts: I think that local point is quite subtle and quite beautiful. To walk across to your neighbor's orange tree and pick oranges and take them back to your place is radically different in terms of carbon footprint from buying anything in the store. Because, almost anything in the store has come by a truck, and trucks use a lot of carbon to get around. And, even in a small country like England, the United Kingdom, it's not insignificant. And, for a large country like the United States, to get your avocados from California to Florida, I assume that's mostly going to come by truck. There's no boat and they're not going to make it by plane, right?
Hannah Ritchie: Right. Exactly. We will get onto this paper. But there was one paper that came out which was arguing recently that food miles did matter a lot and that eating local was a really important thing to do; and it was published in Nature Food, so it got of course lots of attention. But, actually when you dug into the study--actually, there was various flaws of the study--but when you dug into it, they ran a scenario where they said, 'Okay, every country in the world is going to go for this,'--like, this is very hypothetical, 'every country in the world is just going to have a nationalized food system. So, there's going to be zero international trade.' And, they modeled what would happen to food transport emissions. And, basically the results they got is that you would reduce food emissions by 1.7%, so, less than 2% for the whole world going for a national food system. And, one of the key reasons for that is although you were reducing emissions from shipping or small amount of flying, you were displacing that by having to truck things around domestically. Because, a local food system for most people, it's not realistically getting it from your local farmer. It's getting it from 50 miles away or more.
Russ Roberts: Well, actually it's an underestimate of the effect because food would be so expensive, a bunch of people would die; and then there'd be less food transport, probably. So, it's probably bigger than 2%, but it's not really a good story. Or 1.7%.
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah. That was a very hypothetical scenario. And, I think the key point there is the result of a reduction of less than 2% did not match the title or the subtitle, which was saying the eating local was really important because the result just didn't match the message.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. We are going to talk about that.
Russ Roberts: So, let's turn to that now. I don't mean to disappoint you, but not everybody is excited by Nature Food. Many of us have never heard of the journal. I looked it up after I read your article; I assume it is part of Nature, which is a very prestigious science publication. So, they have started a journal called Nature Food to look at these kind of sustainability issues, or maybe other issues related to hunger and poverty. And, this splashy article was that food miles are 20% of emissions. And, you had many critiques of the article; and we'll post both the original article and Hannah's piece on it.
But your point was--first, one of your points was that they mis-measured emissions; and secondly that they redefined food miles. What did they do to food miles? How should we think of food miles generally? What's the consensus? How is it generally thought of and what did they do that you thought was kind of strange?
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah. Food miles is defined as the distance that your food has traveled from production--so from the farm--to reach you, the consumer. And, that's the transport of food. The transport of food is the key point there. It's not the transport of anything else: it's the transport of food. And, that's how it's been defined in the scientific literature. I think that's how the public recognizes and understands that term. And, actually the authors of this study stated that in the opening paragraph that this is the definition of food miles.
What they did in the study was basically redefine that to not only include the transport of food, but also the transport of everything upstream of that. So, fertilizers, machinery, livestock, fuel for cooking the food. So, basically the transport of everything that you might consider as inputs into the food system, which is why you just get a much bigger number, because we ship fertilizers around, we ship pesticides around.
I think what's really important about that redefinition--I think it's framed to quantify that. It's useful to know what that number is and that might lead to important policy decisions. But, it's not good to label that as food miles and reframe that as being important for local food because the transport of fertilizers, pesticides, etc., has nothing to do with eating local food.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's cool.
Russ Roberts: I want to give my favorite example of these kind of surprising or counterintuitive results on environmental transport and environmentalism generally. About--I don't know how long ago, maybe 30-ish years ago--there was a big environmental attack on juice boxes. And, in particular a type of juice box, which a lot of children--I don't know if they still exist. I think they do. In English, they're called aseptic--I think is the correct title. They basically allow the juice to be stored without refrigeration. And, it's a very thick plastic paper box that you could jam the straw into. This may be familiar to young children listening--which is a very small number. But, maybe to their parents or grandparents--that you would jam the straw into the box. And then you'd get the juice out.
And, environmentalists hated this product because the box is a lot of packaging for the juice. And, they encouraged people to stop buying these and to either squeeze their own juice or buy juice in other kind of containers.
What was forgotten in this analysis--and I got this from an executive at Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola I think at the time and maybe still does own Tropicana, which is a big orange juice company. And, they were under attack. And, this really bothered him because he understood that squeezing your own orange juice--which has zero packaging, zero--because the orange comes in its own package and you squeeze it into your own glass. Multiple use item.
Well, that sounds fantastically better than surrounding the juice with these boxes. Forgetting the fact that--and it's very analogous to your point--forgetting the fact that transporting oranges is remarkably less efficient than transporting juice.
If you transport an orange, an orange is a sphere. It's going to be transported in boxes. But, the number of oranges you can fit in a box and then pile into the truck is going to be radically--the amount of juice that you can transport effectively through a truck that way--is going to be radically smaller than squeezing the juice at its source, putting it in a box that is rectangularish, which you can stack and then use the space on the truck extremely efficiently.
So, that was the first point. The first point was that the air around the spheres of the orange, the roundness of the orange, is a remarkably inefficient aspect. Doesn't mean it's decisive, but you'd want to take that into account.
The second thing that people don't normally take into account is that Coca-Cola is really good at squeezing oranges. They might be better than your home strategy so they're going to get a lot of juice out of that orange every time.
And of course, the third thing is the rinds. If you're a good person environmentally, you might compost them or use them for cooking or beverages. A twist. But, Coca-Cola has an enormous financial incentive to sell those rinds to--I think it was used for feed and various other things. So, actually, buying juice box juice was actually probably much better for the environment than squeezing your own, which is counterintuitive again.
But, again, the truck is the big problem. Unless you live next to an orange grove, getting the orange to your juicer is remarkably environmentally costly.
Hannah Ritchie: There's just so many counterintuitive examples. One that's maybe slightly opposite to what you just said is that--I think especially when it comes to fruit and veg, the eating local message definitely doesn't always stand up.
I think one of the problems with eating local message is that it's a generalized message that's supposed to apply to everyone in the world. And, obviously that does not make sense. Someone's local beef may be really sustainable, but for someone, their local beef is cutting down the Amazon rainforest--because that's what local means for them. The notion that this can be a generalized global statement that would apply to everyone is just wrong.
And, I think, especially when it comes to produces like fruit and veg where they're very, very location-sensitive in terms of how efficient it is to grow, you often will get the case where a lot of climates are just really poor for producing fruit and veg; and you're way, way, way better to just grow the food where it grows well and grows efficiently and the climate's correct and then ship it in.
The United Kingdom is a classic example where it's probably better to buy a lot of our fruit and veg from even mainland Europe, which is relatively close by, but just has a climate to grow stuff. Where we don't have the climate to grow it, we try to produce it in greenhouses where we burn a ton of energy to try and mimic the climate that we could just get just across the continent.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's funny how that works. Now, you also looked at--in a different essay, which we'll link to, you looked at meat substitutes. You ranked--food ignoring food miles I think to start with--you ranked food by its carbon footprint and beef is crazily carbon intensive. Why is that, by the way? That's my first question. And, then my second question is: If you like something that tastes roughly like meat, why is the meat substitute better and how much better might it be? And, that was hard to measure, you pointed out. It was surprisingly hard.
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah. One of the reasons that beef has such a high carbon footprint--the key one--is that it tends to produce a lot of methane. So, cows basically produce methane, this really powerful greenhouse gas. And, that's where a lot of the emissions from beef come from.
That's not the only reason. They tend to use a lot of land, which often leads to land use change or deforestation. Even if you're not actively cutting down forests, you're still using land that could be otherwise used for growing forests or using it as grasslands.
So, when we think about the carbon footprint of meats in particular, there tends to be a hierarchy where it's just: the bigger the animal, the less efficient it is and the worse is for the environment. So, if you ranked meats in terms of carbon footprint, cow is worst, then lamb, then pork, then chicken, then fish.
So, it's basically biggest to smallest. And, that's just because keeping cows alive, you need to feed a cow a lot more to stay alive than you need to feed a chicken. So, that's the key reasons why beef is so bad.
And, yeah, I wanted to look at--there's tons of studies that have looked at the comparison of meats to crop products. So, like, soybeans or cereals, etc. I think it's just very, very clear that plant-based products have a lower carbon footprint. What was really lacking is comparisons to these actual meat substitute products that we see on the shelf. So, the Impossible Burger, the Beyond Burger. And, I think to really grab people's attention, it needs to be tangible and stuff that they're seeing on their shelves. Very few academic studies looked at this.
So, I went on a hunt myself and had to rely on independent analyses, very much paid for by the meat substitute companies themselves. Now, that's not great and I think that needs to change. That can't be our own only analyses of them.
But, I dug quite deep into the data and the methodology and stuff and I think they are very sound. And, even what I know based on my understanding of environmental impacts of food and the ingredients and stuff, I think the results there are very credible, but it's not ideal that you would need to rely on reports basically paid for by the companies themselves.
But, the results that come out is that all of these kind of meat-substitute products have a lower carbon footprint than meat and especially beef. When we're talking about beef, again, we're talking about 10 to 20 times less per kilogram or per gram of protein.
Russ Roberts: And, it's great that you correct for that, of course, because 'beef' is a vague concept. It's not a very helpful way to think about in terms of measuring and comparison. You want to measure it in terms of protein.
What you're really saying is that meat substitutes--it's a soybean sandwich. It's been fancied up a little bit. It might have some mushrooms in it or something else. The more interesting case will when we get to more lab-grown meat. Have you thought about that at all or looked into it?
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah. So, I'm going to try and defend some of the meats just a bit. I think some are just a soybean sandwich. I think some are actually getting really pretty close to the experience of eating a beef burger. I think the Impossible Burger or the Beyond Meat Burger are getting pretty close. I think we can do pretty incredible engineering in labs now.
But, to get back to the lab-grown meat, I think it's still a very early stage technology. It's still very expensive. Absolutely not scalable at this point. But, in terms of the carbon footprint, it has a lower carbon footprint than beef by a long shot. But, the key problem there is that it's quite energy-intensive. The good news on that front is that as we decarbonize our energy system--which we will have to do: if we're going to tackle climate change, we need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable and nuclear energy--the carbon footprint of that lab grown meat will fall substantially just because the footprint of the energy that you're consuming should almost drop to zero or close to zero.
So, currently I'm slightly optimistic that lab grown meat makes it in terms of scalability and still slightly skeptical. But, I think in terms of environmental footprint, it would just have a massive impact if you could mimic the experience directly of beef without the cow.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah. Petri dishes don't produce that much methane.
Russ Roberts: And, test tubes don't either. I don't know what they grow them in. I'm just drawing on my extensive high school chemistry background.
There's a lot of activity in this area here in Israel. I know there's a lot of creative and smart people working on it. It'll be interesting to see over the next five to 10 years how that world changes and what becomes available. I'm fascinated by it. And of course, to the extent I'm sympathetic to your claim that the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are something--they're meat-ish is what I would call them in terms of texture and taste. They're not quite there. I love meat and I eat a decent amount. I eat the occasional, I'll say, Beyond Meat burger, but I think they're a long way away. And, to the extent that lab-grown meat will more closely mimic the taste and feel of cow-grown beef--which is a really weird thing to say--to the extent that it's able to do that, I think that the world will much more easily move toward lower carbon footprint diets.
So, you'll get people who are anxious about the environment but really love a good hamburger eating more lab-grown meat to take care of that craving. And of course, if they can bring the cost down significantly, then eventually it could just be a financially attractive proposition--which is, as you suggest, we're very far away from that right now.
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah. Well, one we can get back to: I'd like to ask you, if you had just offered to you right now the lab-grown beef burger or the cow-grown beef burger, which you would choose or whether you would have reservations about the lab-grown one?
To look at it at another angle, I think the developments in terms of meat substitutes, they are nutritious high-protein alternatives to meat. And, I think the reality is that there are billions of people in the world where they do not get enough protein, where they are malnourished because they cannot afford a diverse diet. And, we can't substantially reduce the cost of meat, but we can substantially reduce the cost of meat alternatives by working on these technologies. So, I don't just see it as literally just the environmental footprint of beef, especially in rich countries. But, I see it as a technological pathway to basically unlocking affordable protein and nutritious diets across the world.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. If they can scale it and solve some of these or improve on some of these energy issues, it'll be a game changer for way beyond just the environment.
Russ Roberts: Why'd you ask me about my choice? You said if you put them in front of me, which would I prefer? Why would you ask me that?
Hannah Ritchie: Because lots of people just have an ick factor to lab grown meat or a common argument I hear is, 'Yeah, it's just not the real stuff so I'll stick with my cow.'
Russ Roberts: Oh. That's interesting. And, it wouldn't bother me at all. It might bother Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I'll have to ask him next time I talk to him. He's very worried about imprudence in that kind of area--that we don't know exactly sometimes--I don't know if he feels this way about this issue. But, so-called franken-food or human-designed food and its impact on the various aspects of the food chain. Those are, I think very good things to worry about. My impression is I don't think that's an issue here.
Just as an aside, I keep kosher. So, one of the interesting aspects of lab grown meat is that Jews cannot mix meat and milk in the same meal. And so, a Jew cannot have a real cheeseburger--a Jew who keeps kosher. But, a kosher-keeping Jew can have real meat with fake cheese--cheese that's nondairy. And, there are such things now. Or, they can currently have a Beyond Meat burger, which is kosher certified, with real cheese because the other one's not meat.
If lab-grown meat is considered not-meat, which some rabbis actually have already said that is the case--someone said, 'Yeah, but not all rabbis.' Of course not. It'll almost never be the case that all rabbis will agree about whether lab grown meat is what is called pareve [pronounced 'parv'--Econlib Ed.]--that is, neither meat nor milk. So, if lab-grown meat is considered not-meat in terms of Jewish law, you could have a cheeseburger with lab-grown meat, a real cheese.
But now, the final twist is there are people here in Israel I know working on lab-grown cheese that will not be considered dairy. It will have the texture and taste of real cheese the way that lab-grown meat will, and it possibly by some rabbis will be considered neither meat nor milk, in which case Judaism won't be changed radically because many of the issues of kosher supervision revolve around keeping meat and milk separate and certain complications that brings about. So, it would be a revolutionary change that many Israeli food people are working on. An interesting--perhaps to some people. I don't know.
Hannah Ritchie: No. That's so interesting. I'd never even considered that angle to it. I think it sort of overlaps to the question that then I have for vegans, whether they have would eat lab-grown meat. Which comes back to the question: Is a lab-grown burger meat?
Russ Roberts: Right. That's exactly right. Psychologically you could see that some people would say it's, quote, "not the real thing." And, you could also see psychologically people saying, 'I don't care if it's not the real thing. It feels like the real thing, it looks like the real thing and therefore I don't want it.' And, yes, for vegans and Jews who keep kosher, there will be an issue of--well, I'll just quote Stendhal. Stendhal supposedly said, on eating ice cream for the first time, 'What a pity this isn't a sin.' Which is one of the greatest lines of all time. Meaning: it's so darn good, if it was sinful it'd be even better. And, I think for Jews, eating rabbinically-approved meat that is a lot like the real thing chemically--or chemically is the real thing--might make them uneasy. And, for some it might make it even tastier. I don't want to judge anybody.
Hannah Ritchie: There's so many, like, [?] experiments in this area. Some of them very practical; that could actually have a massive impact.
The other one is what I frame as the hybrid burger. Where you could very quickly, massively reduce the amount of meat that we eat globally without changing dietary patterns for a burger just going half, half. So, half of it's beef, half of it is kind of soy alternatives. And, I think when you do taste tests with people, blinded taste tests, the majority actually prefer the blended burger. I think that effect disappears when you tell them it's a blended burger.
Russ Roberts: Fascinating.
Hannah Ritchie: So, we have the ick factor about it, but actually on a blind taste test, we actually like the taste of it.
Russ Roberts: Well, I've never been a fan of turkey franks--the turkey-flavored. To me a hotdog has to be beef. But, that's a fascinating example of how a very apparently small change--but still it's a beef burger; it just has something else in it--would have a radical impact on the contribution of food to carbon emissions.
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah. I think behavior change is by far the hardest thing. So, anything that maneuvers around behavior change and requires as little of it as possible, I think is just really effective.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, a big issue with the--at least some generation, where we are on this now--but meat substitutes was the color and the redness of it; the use of beets and other things to simulate the psychological feeling. Now, there's a weird psychological game you're playing with yourself obviously somewhere along these lines.
Russ Roberts: Anyway, I want to turn to something different. A lot of people are anxious about climate change, and particularly young people have a very, what I would call a doomsday attitude toward it: that the world will end soon. The human component of the world. That there's no future to the human race. For those listening who have never heard this, this is not a fringe idea among a small group of cultists. It's a very mainstream idea among young people in many countries. And, I want your take on that. And also, I want you to talk a little bit if you could about--you describe yourself as an environmentalist. Many people would argue that if you're an environmentalist, you should be sympathetic to this doomsday scenario and concern, and yet you argue that it is not the best approach. So, tell me your thoughts on that.
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah. So, I think this is actually a really big problem. Some recent data on it--there's a global study that basically interviewed 10,000 young people across 10 different countries. And, this is ranging from United Kingdom and United States to Philippines and Nigeria. So, really spanning the income distribution. And, basically asked them about their opinions on climate change. And what came out of it--the results were very stark. So, more than half of young people said that they thought humanity was doomed due to climate change. Three quarters said that they found the future frightening. A third said that they were hesitant to have children. So, I think these feelings--as you say, they're not fringe, they're very widespread. I mean, you can question the surveys, how much the questions are led and what do they really mean by 'doomed'? But, I think the overall feeling is that young people are anxious and scared about climate change.
From a personal perspective, I totally get it. I did really long degree programs in environmental science at university. And, when I came out of those, despite being so incredibly passionate about the project, I was very close to turning around and leaving the field because I felt so helpless that I could actually do anything that would make any difference. So, I completely sympathize to that.
The reason that I'm now pushing against it is: one, I think a lot of the messaging is just wrong. People are just lying when they're telling young people this.
But, I think more importantly, I just don't think it's effective in actually driving change. I think it makes people feel paralyzed. I think they feel helpless, so they don't know how to change. I think often if they do feel empowered to change, they will reach for very extreme solutions. And, I think if we're going to make progress on climate change, we need to find solutions that we can all get behind, all build a better future. So, I think the divisive solutions don't really work. So, yeah. These messages are so stark and so loud that I think it's just really, really important to pitch against them.
Russ Roberts: But, do you think--I don't think it's particularly productive to try to label where one is on the spectrum of catastrophic change, generally. I believe climate change is real. I do think there's some complicated interactions in the climate that are not well-modeled in the data, that leave some questions very open as to what the most effective ways to fight climate change are. And, I think there are a lot of natural forces that are going to work in favor of helping us reduce climate change. So in that sense, I'm not a doomsdayer--not even remotely close to a doomsdayer--but I want to give the argument its due in that there are serious people who I think believe this, and they're not saying it for strategic reasons: they're saying it because they think it's true. They think that species loss, habitat loss, rise in ocean levels, sea levels around the world: The more pessimistic people--and again, I'm not one of those for sure. I'm not at that end. I'm much more likely to believe that adaptation and other behavioral changes will make a big difference. But, am I wrong? You suggest that the data don't support the catastrophic view, but there are a lot of smart people who not just think of it as a small probability but think it's, quote, "likely" or whatever word you want to put in front of it. What would you point to if you were going to push back on those views?
Hannah Ritchie: To be very, very clear, I've spent my life studying this. I spend my life pushing for climate action. My point is that climate change is very serious. For a lot of people in the world it will be serious. It will be a serious risk to their livelihoods if we don't take action.
Where I push back on the messaging is: one, that it's an existential risk. The chances of that are very, very slim. It's just really, really unlikely that that's the case. When I say that, I mean collectively, globally, especially for people in rich countries. For people in lower-income countries, it could be an existential risk, which is why we need to push for action.
But, the key point of their messaging is often that there's nothing we can do about it. And, that's completely wrong. That is completely the wrong message. Instilling it in people that we're doomed and there's nothing we can do about it is the absolute worst thing that we can do. And, none of the climate scientists I respect put that message forward.
There's always stuff that we can do. If we go past 1.5 degrees, which we will, there's 1.6 to fight for, there's 1.7, and there's 1.8. There's always stuff to do.
In terms of the data to look at, although more broadly things are moving in the wrong direction, there are so many signs of progress that I think are not put across effectively. Some of the key ones are that, in rich countries especially, emissions are falling and they're falling very, very fast. Not only are they falling fast, but economies are growing at the same time. In many countries we have decoupled economic growth from CO2 emissions. And, this is also true--like, the argument often comes up here is that rich countries have just offshored emissions elsewhere, so that the emissions reductions are fake. That's not true. Even when you look at trade-adjusted data, which takes that into account, emissions are still falling.
What makes me really optimistic is the massive changes in terms of the prices of low-carbon technologies. So, I mean, progress on climate change was so slow for a long time, because there was basically no affordable alternatives. Fossil fuels were the cheapest. Batteries were really expensive. On all of our low-carbon technologies, they were just way too expensive to make it into the mainstream. Solar prices have absolutely plummeted, wind prices have plummeted, battery prices have plummeted. My point is that low carbon technology is going to become the cheapest option as the default, and that just completely transforms where we are in terms of tackling it.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm a little bit skeptical on that. I hear a lot of--I don't look at this carefully. It's not a deep concern of mine, intellectually. I am worried about the future of the human race--just for the record. I don't think it should be ignored or glossed over. People I tend to respect argue that fossil fuels are going to be the dominant financial choice for any level of scale of energy production for a long, long time. Do you think that's not the case?
Hannah Ritchie: No. It depends what you mean by a long, long time. We will still be burning fossil fuels for the next few decades for sure, but much, much fewer than we are today. I think coal will very quickly die out. I think all of the fossil fuels that power electricity predominantly will die out because solar wind--hopefully, nuclear. Nuclear is a controversial topic. I'm very in favor of it as part of a sustainable energy mix. They will just dominate the electricity mix in the decades to come.
Where progress will be slower is a lot of industries and transport. Some of transport, we will struggle to decarbonize with our current technologies. But, road transport, especially passenger, we will decarbonize and we'll just switch to electric vehicles. Some industries such as cement, etc., there will be some fossil fuels in the energy mix for a significant amount of time. But, most of it will go in the next 40 years.
Russ Roberts: Did you say four?
Russ Roberts: Forty.
Hannah Ritchie: No, not four. No four.
Russ Roberts: I mean 'not few.' I just want to make sure I heard you correctly.
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Few was like, 'Are you crazy?' But, okay, great: 40. That means a long time though, Hannah, just to be somewhat pessimistic.
But, let's go back to car transport. Electric cars, yes, can be cost-effective. They're close--perhaps. There's an infrastructure issue that's getting solved every day. Gets better and better, I suspect, as they spread. But, that electricity has to be generated, and that electricity is predominantly generated by fossil fuels now. Do you think there's the potential--putting nuclear to the side, which I'm with you, I would be a huge advocate of nuclear if anybody cared what I thought. And, certainly if you ask me, I think we should be much more friendly towards nuclear. It's just absurd that we don't have more nuclear power in the world. But, is it really plausible that solar and wind can generate power at scale for the grid in any quantity? And, in particular, do you know what that number is today in a country like the United States? I think it's a tiny portion. And, you really think it can grow steadily?
Hannah Ritchie: I think here we're falling into the trap of looking at a single or static data point. I think the key point about these emerging technologies is that the curve is evolving so quickly--and by so quickly, I'm talking about literally three or four years. Especially when you look at the uptick of electric vehicles, where it basically went from nothing to, globally, it's nearly 10% now. Which seems very small, but--
Russ Roberts: That's huge.
Hannah Ritchie: That's huge. And, that's happened in three years. So, it's not about the static data point: It's about how quickly these trends are shifting. I'm very optimistic. I used to very much buy in to this way of thinking that energy transitions are very, very slow. And, historically when you look, they have been very, very slow. I think that has been completely bucked by renewables. I think we are completely underestimating how quickly they will basically transform the global economy. I'm actually very, very optimistic.
Russ Roberts: So, what would be the evidence for that? So, the level--putting electric cars to the side; I have to agree with you: I think 10% is an amazing change in a relatively short period of time. And, they have many advantages besides environmental issues. Obviously, they're quieter, which has costs for pedestrian safety. But, in general, I like that cars are quieter. They have all kinds of other pluses. What's the evidence that solar or wind--again, putting nuclear to the side, that solar wind could scale? Is there some sign of that? Are they ramping up dramatically as a portion of total energy generated?
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah. I think: one, the cost just factors into it, where they're just going to be the cheapest technology. So, it's just not going to make economic sense for countries to burn coal rather than use solar and wind. There's lots of evidence across a range of different countries. Actually, across the income distribution. Because it's not just rich countries ramping this up. Across the income distribution there are a number of countries where it's evolving very quickly.
In the United Kingdom for example, coal has just completely died and that's been replaced. We're not going very hard on nuclear so it's not nuclear that's replacing it. Some of it is gas. But, a lot of it's just solar and wind in recent years.
Russ Roberts: Well, the transition to gas is a little bit like the half-meat hamburger, right?
Russ Roberts: It's a more carbon-efficient fossil fuel. And, I think the fracking revolution has had a remarkable impact on that. I assume. I assume an enormous part of the transition that you talked about at the beginning of this conversation on this topic is driven by the substitution of natural gas for coal as a first step.
What I'm skeptical about is the transition from natural gas to solar or wind. And, I would love to be proven wrong. Recent family debate: I was accused of being pessimistic, and I said I am, of course, open-minded about this. So, Hannah, I'm going to rely on you to add some reading for me and our listeners that we'll add to the notes on this to get some feel for why you're as optimistic as you are.
Russ Roberts: Deal?
Hannah Ritchie: Deal. Can I ask why you're so skeptical?
Russ Roberts: Because, again, my impression--which again, I don't follow closely--my impression is that while there have been improvements in the amount--the total amount--of solar and wind in various markets, they have not moved to a significant portion, is my impression. So, I'd love to be proven wrong about that.
And I worry, also, that to the extent that they have made a dent, it's due to subsidies.
Now, a subsidy is not the worst thing in the world if you think there's an externality from fossil fuels. Maybe they should be subsidized. The question is: How much? And, the goal of life is not to get to--I don't think--to get to solar or wind as quickly as possible. That would require a massive rearrangement of investment and national spending that I think would probably be a mistake.
So, I don't have a feel for that other than that my impression is that people are overly enthusiastic about it. So, I'd love to be proved wrong or to be educated. So, that's your project after we finish this conversation.
Russ Roberts: Okay.
Russ Roberts: Let's turn to your project that you're deeply involved in, which is Our World in Data, which is a project very close to my heart. I sometimes get accused on this program of being anti-data. I'm not. I'm incredibly pro-data. I think we should measure what we can measure and measure it well and accurately and compare it over time. And, I view your project, Our World in Data, as a really important way of helping people figure out what's actually going on in the world. And, to do that, you have to have data. Most of my complaints about data are about multi-variate attempts to tease out the independent effect of one variable over another. But, in actually figuring out what the facts are and where we are in the world and what's happening and what the trends are, I think it's remarkably important. So, tell me about that project: why it's important to you and how it got started and where you feel it's headed.
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah. I think you're right that the only way to properly understand the world is through data. I think we often rely a lot on anecdotes or news headlines, and that's how we form our worldview. And, I think those stories are important, but they don't give us any understanding of how the world's changing overall.
So, I think a big inspiration for the project overall was Hans Rosling who really, really brought data to life to show how the world has changed over 200 years or more in terms of human wellbeing and progress. So, the project started with Max Roser many years ago now. For most of that period it was him working on his own and then almost posting as a blog on the Internet. And, then he got a few friends around to help. So, for a long time we were three or four people.
And, really our motivation for the project is that we have this kind of weird position where we're almost like misfits in academia. I'm based at the University of Oxford. But, we don't do original research in the normal sense. Where we try to sit is between academia and the public policymakers, journalists. I think what really lies at the heart of it is a lot of the questions that people have on changes they should make, how to make progress, what policymakers should be doing, we already have those answers. Researchers have done the work of figuring this out. The problem is that it's just not communicated properly. So, we really see it as a role of: how do we take this data and research that we have, that people could really be using to put into action and make progress; and how do we basically translate it in a way that people can understand and brings out the key points?
And, we frame it around what we call the world's largest problems. And, that's very broad and ranges from global poverty, to the stuff I work on in environment, to global war, to inequality and health. So, we did massive amounts of stuff during the COVID-19 pandemic because we saw that as one of the world's largest problems. So, it's very, very broad.
And, a key point of it I think, is that most of these topics overlap in some way. So, you can't talk about environmental change without considering inequality and global poverty. You can't talk about health without talking about poverty and education. All of these topics overlap; and what we want to put forward is providing evidence-based outlook on how we understand the world and how it's changing.
Russ Roberts: I'm a big Hans Rosling fan. If you haven't seen his videos, listeners, we'll link to some of those. They're glorious. And, in many ways he is following on the footsteps of Julian Simon, who I would call fundamentally an optimist about the human enterprise: that human creativity is the ultimate resource and that we underestimate our ability to respond and to change. And, that static picture we often have is misleading, and that we go back in time and see how much change has already happened and we can sometimes look forward to think of what might be possible. I think of it as a fundamentally optimistic perspective on the human experience.
And, what I find interesting and I want you to respond to it is most environmentalists are what I would call pessimists. They're worried and they're anxious and they want to make you nervous and scared.
A lot of Our World in Data is to make you feel better. I know that's not the literal goal. I know the site isn't--it could be called Sleep Well at Night, but it's not. It's called Our World in Data. I'm interested in more than what can be measured, but what can be measured is not unimportant and a lot of that is rosier and better than it used to be; and we should be aware of it in how we think about the world and whether we sleep well at night.
But, as an environmentalist, do you find that difficult? A lot of what Our World in Data publishes--and maybe it's only because of what I see because of my biases, but a lot of it's like, 'Yeah, It's not as bad as you thought, is it?' And, that's generally not the environmentalist cheer[?]. So, what are your thoughts on that?
Hannah Ritchie: I'm going to push back on that a little bit.
Russ Roberts: Good.
Hannah Ritchie: I don't like that we are framed as these optimists that help people sleep well at night. We try to make people care about global poverty or global health or child mortality. I don't sleep well at night knowing that five million children will die this year, or just under 10% of people live in extreme poverty.
What I think is true is acknowledging that we've made a ton of progress and those statements are not opposite to one another and people consider them often opposite to one another.
Russ Roberts: Well said.
Hannah Ritchie: So, my colleague, Max Roser, often frames three statements that are true at the same time: The world is terrible. The world is much better. The world could be much better. And, that all of those three statements can coexist at the same time and we shouldn't see them as opposites. I think we need to acknowledge the progress we've made and actually study how we did it to make sure that it continues. I think that's the key point we want to get across is that: on a lot of human wellbeing measures, the world is much, much better--but still not perfect, obviously--and, we need to use that information and knowledge to understand how we continue that progress.
On the environmental front, it's true that often the cost of human progress has been a degradation of the environment. I think why I'm may be slightly rosier than a lot of environmentalists is: one, I think as we discussed earlier, I think the recent data on environmental change is very positive and things are eventually moving very quickly when they'd stalled for a long time. But, the other dimension to this is that--and I was definitely in a position where I had no understanding of the human progress that we'd made. So, I'd come out of university; all I was faced with was CO2 emissions, deforestation, ocean acidification--all of these terrible environmental problems. And, at the same time I thought more people were hungry than ever. Global poverty was the highest it's ever been. More people were dying from natural disasters than ever before. So, then just everything seemed hopeless; because we were completely ruining the environment and it was of no importance to human progress whatsoever. Like, everything was getting worse at the same time.
For me, the changing factor has been: I can now see this historical trade-off where things have massively improved in human progress and it came at the expense of the environment. And, where I see it now is: How do we take those two things that are framed as trade-offs and make them happen together? How do we make progress on both at the same time? And, I think we are in a very unique position where we can actually do that.
Russ Roberts: Of course, richer countries tend to be more concerned about the environment because they can be. Or citizens in those countries, not unimportant--and when citizens have a voice, their material wellbeing is not unimportant in what they're willing to make sacrifices for. So, that alone is important.
But, I think a lot of what you publish--Our World in Data publishes--is--I didn't mean to suggest you were just providing a therapeutic role. But it is, I think--as you said--I think it's really important to understand where we are, where we've been, and where we're going. And, where we are can be--we need to be better. Where we've been is much worse, and where we're going could be much better still. And, I think that's the right way to look at the human experience, materially, as long as you take account of what the sources of those changes are. They're not automatic. They depend on certain institutions to allow the--just the one I just mentioned--democratic institutions where people's voice matters has an impact on climate, and that's just one of many.
Hannah Ritchie: Yeah. To come back to Hans Rosling, I think people often framed him as an optimist. And he absolutely hated the term, because--I mean, I think people see optimism as this blind optimism where if you just leave it it'll just get better and you can just sit back and do nothing.
Whereas he framed it as a possibilitist. So, we can make it happen if we want to. The decision is ours, basically. We can make it much, much better or we can sit back and do nothing and let things get worse. But, the opportunity is there.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Of course, a lot of these things emerge without any one person trying to make them better. But, you do need the conditions for that emergence to be in place--what I consider the rules of the garden. Many of the best things in life happen without anyone's intention. But, that is worth preserving and needs to be preserved--unfortunately. And it's not automatic. Certain institutions allow better things to emerge rather than worse things. Why we should think about economics now and then. It's not unimportant.
Russ Roberts: Let's close with: Do you have a favorite chart or diagram from Our World in Data that you might describe? And we'll post it for listeners. I was just noodling around on the site earlier today and I stumbled on the proportion of free range of eggs in the United Kingdom and the United States, which I'm very interested in. I've always had a strange interest in egg production in chickens, as my readers know, going back to a couple of my books. But, they've increased dramatically. Now, I'm not sure they're defined the same in both countries, but it's an interesting example of capitalism. People could debate whether enough people are worried about chickens being free range or not, but whether they're right or not to worry about it, the market has responded and there's a lot more free range eggs available in both places. And, I'm sure lots of places around the world. Not all. That's just a fun thing I noticed. It's fun just to play around on the site. But, do you have any favorites or things that particularly speak to you or spoke to when you first got it started on this?
Hannah Ritchie: I think I'm going to be cheeky and pick two.
So, I think the first one is: Max Roser made this chart and it's the world's one hundred people[?] over 200 years, and it's basically a facet[?] where it shows poverty, child mortality, vaccination, education, etc., and two others. I think literacy and--oh--democracy. And, basically shows how the world has changed the last 200 years. And, basically you just see these dramatic changes where the default in the past was extreme poverty and now it's less than 10%. More than half of children died; now it's less than 5%. Just these really dramatic changes in the human condition, which has been a big inspiration for me and has actually massively shifted my life because I've been able to commit to making a difference because I understand that these changes have happened. That's almost been like a counter to my environmental background where I was just not aware of these changes.
But, I need to include an environmental one. So, probably the environmental one I would include is looking at the mammal kingdom and how it's now distributed. And, what we see is that wild mammals are now less than 2% of the world's mammal biomass. So, basically the world's mammals is dominated by humans and our livestock and wild mammals have been shrunk to basically nothing.
And, I think what that just really, really flags for me is this responsibility that we have to build a sustainable future to look after ourselves and future generations, but also other species. And I like to frame--I like to think about this Stewart Brand quote, which is: 'We are as gods, so we better get good at it.' I think humans--we dominate the world and I think we need to take that responsibility very seriously.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Hannah Ritchie. Hannah, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Hannah Ritchie: Thank you very much.