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Perfect solutions: the enemy to solving our environmental problems
People are looking for perfect solutions, but they’re not going to find them. Waiting for the perfect fix is the same as doing nothing. Let's not wait.
A decade ago, our solutions to climate change were weak and unfeasible.
Solar and wind were many times more expensive than fossil fuels. An electric vehicle battery alone would have set you back $30,000 to $60,000. The typical range was 75 miles for a full charge. There were slim pickings for ‘meat substitutes’, and those that existed tasted like rubber. To add insult to injury, they cost a fortune.
Is it really any wonder that progress seemed nonexistent?
It’s hard to overstate how much this landscape has changed, and how quickly.
The cost of renewables has plunged. The same for batteries. Electric vehicle sales have soared in only a few years. Over their lifetime, they’re cheaper than petrol and diesel, and soon their up-front costs will be too. Our shelves are lined with meat substitute products; some of which are questionable, but many are getting close to the experience of real meat.
These innovations give us a proper chance of tackling climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and countless other environmental problems. What’s more, they can give us clean air; safe, affordable, and abundant energy; and affordable, high-quality nutrition at the same time.
But there’s a problem: some environmentalists hate them because they’re not perfect.
Building solar, wind, and batteries means digging minerals out of the ground. Manufacturing batteries need some energy. Meat substitutes also need energy and are labelled as ‘processed’ foods. Nuclear energy comes with a small risk of an accident. Renewable energies, too, have some risk of accidents in their production lines.
Remember what we’re trying to move away from
These might sound bad, but keep in mind what we’re trying to move away from.
At their peak, building clean energy technology will need millions of tonnes of minerals a year. We currently pull 30 billion tonnes of fossil fuels out of the Earth every year. And clean energy mining will be temporary: we will work out how to recycle and repurpose the minerals for batteries, solar panels and wind turbines.
Electric vehicles need energy to build, and electricity to run. This emits CO₂. But regardless of where that electricity comes from, it’s better than petrol or diesel. And, importantly, these emissions will plummet as we move to low-carbon electricity (which we will have to do anyway). Electric cars are already better, but will get much better in the future.
Again, meat substitutes need some energy in their production. This emits CO₂ unless it comes from low-carbon sources. But it could, and in the future, it will. Regardless, let’s remember what we’re trying to replace: raising tens of billions of animals every year for slaughter. An industry that is the leading driver of deforestation, and can emit 10 to 50 times more greenhouse gases per burger.
Meat substitutes might not be the organic, raw beans and lentils that many people wished others were eating. But they are often nutritious, protein-rich, micronutrient-rich foods that people like and can easily add to their diets. For many, they are the ideal entry point to a more plant-based diet. If you want people to eat less meat, it’s counterproductive to try to tear these products down.
Finally, nuclear energy might not be perfect. But, to many peoples’ surprise, it’s one of the safest forms of energy. Both nuclear and renewable energy technologies kill hundreds to thousands fewer people than fossil fuels. Moving to them would save millions of lives every year.
Waiting for perfect solutions is the same as doing nothing
We have to constantly question the impacts of the solutions we’re moving to. It’s how we weed out good ideas from bad ones. It’s how we figure out if we’re going to make things better or worse. And it helps us identify areas where we need to improve.
If we’re going to mine for rare minerals then we’d better make sure we do it in a conscious way: thinking about where we mine, and how people are treated in its supply chains. If we’re developing meat substitutes we better make sure we’re making nutritious ones. The list goes on.
But there is a growing number of environmentalists ready to block any solution that has any negative impact (even if it’s temporary). This is the enemy of progress. It delays action.
People are looking for perfect solutions, but they’re not going to find them. Waiting for the perfect fix is the same as doing nothing. While they tear every innovation down, the global thermometer will keep rising, millions will die from air pollution every year, and species will move ever closer to extinction.
Let’s not wait.
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