Earth Day

Earth Day is observed annually on the 22nd of April to support environmental protection and as a reminder to live more sustainably. 

Sustainability is the capacity to endure in a relatively ongoing way across various domains of life. In the 21st century, it refers generally to the capacity for Earth’s biosphere and human civilisation to co-exist.

Wikipedia has set this year’s theme as ‘Restore our Earth’ and focuses on five key programmes:

  1. Canopy project: is committed to reforestation and plants trees across the globe.
  2. Food and environment: support farmers to adopt the latest techniques for regenerative agriculture and sustainable food practices.
  3. Climate literacy: provides education to students across the world to make them informed and engaged in environmental issues.
  4. Global earth challenge: is a coordinated citizen science campaign using a mobile app to collect observations from across the world and connect small scale science projects.
  5. Great global clean up: helps individuals and communities clean up public spaces and reduce pollution and waste.

To recognise Earth Day this year, I am committing to improving my climate literacy. I have started to read Bill Gates new book How to avoid a climate disaster. The book is written by an engineer and takes that approach to solve the problem of getting from our current levels of 5 billion tonnes of carbon emissions per year to net-zero by 2050. Gates suggest that most people are not prepared to change their lifestyles dramatically in time to fix the problem and so collects the best science and solutions to make our lifestyles more sustainable. 

After this book I am also interested in reading wider on the subject of sustainable living to some of the more extream solutions, starting a vegetable patch in my garden and watching some more episodes of The Good Life.

Will you join me in committing to improve your climate literacy?

Existential Risks

An existential risk represents a catastrophe that leads to an extinction event, society’s collapse to a pre-agricultural state, or a totalitarian regime that maintains total and lasting subjugation of the global population.

An existential risk is a risk that threatens the destruction of humanity’s longterm potential.

Toby Ord

We must be aware of the probability of such events taking steps to reduce the risk of their occurrence and avoid them. In the book ‘The Precipice‘, Toby Ord suggests that we entered a period of high risk in 1945 with the first use of the atomic bomb on humans and calculated that we have a 20% risk of total extinction 2100. Toby argues that humans need to start to take a longterm view of their decisions or risk the end of civilisation.

There are two main categories of existential risk; the first and less likely are natural disasters, including supervolcanos or asteroids. The second, more likely set of threats we have created ourselves (anthropomorphic) such as war, environmental damage, and unaligned artificial intelligence. We are currently told that climate change is the most significant risk facing civilisation, and it does have real consequences. Still, other existential threats are more likely to have catastrophic effects, and each needs attention based on its probability and impact.

RiskEstimated probability
for human extinction
before 2100
Overall probability19%
Molecular nanotechnology weapons5%
Superintelligent AI5%
All wars (including civil wars)4%
Engineered pandemic2%
Nuclear war1%
Nanotechnology accident0.5%
Natural pandemic0.05%
Nuclear terrorism0.03%
Future of Humanity Institute, 2008, taken from Wikipidia

There is a common argument about the need to look after the current population before making decisions that might reduce current growth and prosperity to provide a better future for the people that are yet to be born. There is also a strong argument that many of these risks have been inherited from previous generations. Both of these arguments are strong, particularly when you see the suffering and deprivation that many people across the world live in. However, they do not change the fact that the existential risks are real, and we have a responsibility to leave the world in a better situation than we found it.

How to reduce existential risks

Responsible and mature activism can be an important secondary activity, but there are many more impactful and pressing actions for those serious about reducing the risk of an end to humanity, such as living as sustainably as possible ourselves first. Toby Orb provides two actions people can take to lessen the probability and impact of global catastrophic risks.

  1. Your choice of career
  2. Charitable donations

There is a global mismatch of skills; this is particularly an issue in the various engineering fields. For a sustainable future, people must be working on practical solutions to existential risks. 80,000 hours provides ideas for how you can use your career to solve the human races most important problems and offers a list of jobs by problem area to apply the skill you have to the issues you feel most strongly about helping to solve. The most significant impact an individual can have on the future of human civilisation is to choose a career that reduces the risk of an existential event. 

The second most significant impact you can have on reducing existential risks is to use your disposable income to support charities or companies that are working towards reducing global catastrophic risks. Toby Ord suggests donating to charities through the Giving what you can community. I would go a step further than this and suggest that investing your savings in private companies solving these problems is the best way to support sustainable solutions. Charities are dependent on donors for their survival; however, successful enterprises, once up and running, can fund themselves through the answers they provided, making a far more sustainable future.

Existential risks are real, and we live through a period of human history where the stakes are more significant than ever. We have a responsibility to leave the world a better place than when we enter it, first through living sustainably, second through choosing a career that reduces either the likelihood or consequence of existential risks, and thirdly by investing and donating to organisations doing the same. 

We are responsible for learning about the dangers and starting an open, honest, and respectful conversation with those around us. Just don’t be an art graduate who riots at protests about climate change and then returns to your single glazed converted barn in their camper van to sit in front of a log burning fire talking about how other people are ruining the planet. We have the creativity and skills; we need each person to take real action.

Britain reduces carbon emissions

There are three core areas where Britain need to reduce carbon emissions to hit the 2030 target; electricity production, heating, and transport.

Britain is ahead of other industrialised nations. This summer (2020) no coal was burned to produce electricity for over two months. Carbon emissions from electricity generation have been reduced by 44% since 1990, according to the Department for business, energy, and industrial strategy (BEIS) while the economy has grown by 2/3 in the same period. Britain cut emissions 1.8 times faster than the EU average. The country has four remaining coal power stations, and these will all be decommissioned by 2025. 

The reduction in emissions is mainly down to the move away from burning coal to natural gas which burns half as much carbon dioxide as coal. This move started with Margaret Thatcher and the closing of mines, privatising the energy markets, and introducing the north sea oil and gas. The Labour government carried on this move with the Climate Change Act in 2008, that made Britain the first country in the world to commit itself to legally binding carbon-emission reduction. Finally, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition introduced the Carbon Price Support in 2013 that put a carbon tax on power production that made coal with its higher emissions uncompetitive. The carbon tax has to lead to coal production, making up around 25% of electricity production in 2015 to less than 2% in 2020. Wind power currently makes up around 25% of energy production and solar around 4%.

Electricity generation is only a third of the story, and Britain is currently projected to be 10% away from its legally mandated target for carbon emissions according to the BEIS. The current government has a 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution that includes a ban on petrol and diesel cars’ production from 2030, but it has rolled back the plans for mandating all new homes be carbon neutral. For the carbon-neutral goal to be met, buildings need to replace gas boilers with heat pumps, requiring larger radiators or underfloor heating.

The UK is currently leading the industrialised world in green energy production. Still, both us as citizens, through our transport and home purchasing choices, and the government, through proper taxing of externalities like carbon emissions, need to do more to hit the target we have set ourselves. 

We have a human captial problem; we should all become engineers

What if everyone became a (hard) scientist or an engineer, how quickly would we fix the world’s major problems? How quickly could we eradicate poverty and unemployment, create environmental security, and help people live healthy, predictable, and straightforward lives free of high order issues? 

Naval Ravikant believes everyone can be rich and belives it can be taught. He believes that everyone can become a scientist or engineer with support, patience and the right expectations. Of course, most people do not want to put in the time it takes to build these skills, they want to do other things, or they do not have the financial support or expectation that it is possible, but it is.

The engine of technology is science that is applied for the purpose of creating abundance. So, I think fundamentally everybody can be wealthy.

This thought experiment I want you to think through is imagine if everybody had the knowledge of a good software engineer and a good hardware engineer. If you could go out there, and you could build robots, and computers, and bridges, and program them. Let’s say every human knew how to do that.

What do you think society would look like in 20 years? My guess is what would happen is we would build robots, machines, software and hardware to do everything. We would all be living in massive abundance.

We would essentially be retired, in the sense that none of us would have to work for any of the basics. We’d even have robotic nurses. We’d have machine driven hospitals. We’d have self-driving cars. We’d have farms that are 100% automated. We’d have clean energy.

At that point, we could use technology breakthroughs to get everything that we wanted. If anyone is still working at that point, they’re working as a form of expressing their creativity. They’re working because it’s in them to contribute, and to build and design things.

I don’t think capitalism is evil. Capitalism is actually good. It’s just that it gets hijacked. It gets hijacked by improper pricing of externalities. It gets hijacked by improper yields, where you have corruption, or you have monopolies.

Naval Ravikant

Chamath Palihapitiya believes we can solve most problems, and we have the money to do it through capital markets, but we have a human capital problem. We know how to fix most issues, but we miss the smart people to research, develop, and build the solutions. Part of the problem is that technology firms swallow all of the best talent straight out of university. We need more talented scientists and engineers, and we need to motivate them to become entrepreneurs or work for innovative companies that want to solve the most significant problems.  

Human Capital: the skills, knowledge, and experience possessed by an individual or population, viewed in terms of their value or cost to an organization or country.

Oxford languages

The example Chamath gives is the goal for making every home in America carbon neutral. Sustainable home-generated power could be achieved through roof-mounted solar panels that store electricity on-site in a reliable battery and controlled by an app on your phone. The homeowner could also power an electric car and replace their petrol or diesel one. Through bonds and investment, capital markets can fund such an effort, but we do not have the technically skilled people to research, develop, build, and install it. But how real is Chamath’s and Naval’s idea of science solving the problem if we just had the people?

In the UK, fossil fuel burning to generate electricity is the largest source of carbon emissions. WWF UK suggests that moving to 100% sustainable fuel power generation by 2050 is the most significant action the Government can take to meet the climate ambition of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The next most crucial step is to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and transition to electric vehicles. SolarPower Europe suggests that engineers have improved solar technology and panels now generates 30 times more power over there lifetime than is required to manufacture and that ‘solar offers the most cost-efficient means to decouple electricity generation from environmental and health impacts.’

EngineeringUK references ten core and related engineering occupations on the UK Government 2020 Shortage Occupation List (SOL) of the most needed skills in the economy. The skill shortages include design and development engineers, electrical engineers, and production and process engineers, all of which are involved in solving the emissions problem. We do have a human capital problem, and it is holding back a solution to climate change.

Naval and Chamath set a challenge to all of us to solve the significant issues that we face. Are you working in the hard sciences or in engineering to solve these issues? If you are an educator, are you focusing your efforts on developing and motivating people to solve these technical problems? Once we reach a world of zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero carbon emissions, we can all pursue creative expression. Until then, let’s solve the human capital issue and become engineers.