Humanity is quietly making major progress – wars and global warming notwithstanding

It may have felt like the world was coming apart in 2023 but reality is a bit rosier

Solar panels being installed on top of LaGuardia Airport in New York. AP
Powered by automated translation

Congratulations! You’ve survived the horror show of 2023. Welcome to 2024, and to get the year off to a great start, let’s review some positive developments of the past 12 months.

First and foremost is the Dubai-hosted Cop28 summit, which produced a landmark agreement on a planned phase-out of fossil fuels, the first in 30 years of climate talks. After facing questions leading up to the summit, Cop28 President Dr Sultan Al Jaber not only accomplished something no previous Cop chief had done, but, more importantly, he upended the received wisdom on climate action.

For decades, climate activists and scientists tended to view the involvement of oil and gas leaders in climate talks as deeply problematic. But Dr Al Jaber’s Cop28 showed the world that a leading oil executive – with his understanding of an array of perspectives and invaluable industry connections – may be precisely what's needed to push the world closer to its climate goals. The end result is tangible hope.

Staying with climate, renewables had a record-breaking year. The US’s first large-scale offshore wind farm, with 100-metre-long blades, began operations off New York’s Long Island. When completed it will power 70,000 homes and reduce annual carbon emissions by 6 million tonnes. Just up the coast in Massachusetts, another, much larger offshore farm is expected to power 400,000 homes when fully operational.

As part of its Inflation Reduction Act, Washington is spending $400 billion on tax breaks, grants, and other incentives to spur the construction of solar, wind and electric vehicle plants. As a result, the combined electricity generation of wind and solar power is set to overtake US coal production for the first time, according to the energy administration.

This has kicked off a worldwide renewables race, with global renewables investment hitting an all-time high. Japan signed a deal with the US to provide minerals for electric vehicles and Europe is negotiating a similar agreement. In 2023, Japan and South Korea both proposed new plans to support green industries.

The EU last year approved a Green Deal Industrial Plan to accelerate its transition to net-zero manufacturing, while the European Commission announced a zero-emissions target for all new city buses by 2030. Greece just crossed a major threshold: for the first time, renewables provided more than half the country’s electricity. And Athens recently released a draft plan for a series of offshore wind farms expected to power 1.5 million homes.

Electric Vehicles made major inroads in the developing world. China, the world leader in electric buses, is set to produce thousands of them for Latin American countries. In India, more than half of all new three-wheeled vehicles sold are battery-powered and a third of Delhi’s energy comes from renewables. Kenya is seeing the emergence of innovative EV start-ups, such as one that enables member taxi drivers to swap out their battery for a fully charged one.

Developed countries are embracing sustainable transport, as the Biden administration recently committed to an $8 billion high-speed rail plan, looking to match Europe’s beloved network. Gulf countries are also making major rail commitments, with plans for new metro lines and up to 2,000 kilometres of tracks across the region.

Destruction of the Amazon rainforest fell nearly 56 per cent last year, according to the non-profit Amazon Conservation, and leading food producers finally went all-in on finding a green fertiliser, which would sharply reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint.

The world’s first malaria vaccine has significantly lowered child deaths in Africa, Aids-related deaths have been cut in half, road deaths have fallen and poverty is down in most countries in recent years. One reason for this last point is the world’s largest economy is doing much better today than it was a year ago. Despite talk of an “inevitable” recession, growth and job creation increased, inflation fell and US unemployment is at its lowest mark in decades.

Meanwhile, the US recorded its largest annual drop in homicides, which fell 13 per cent. Shootings dropped 25 per cent in New York, Detroit marked a 50-year low for murders and violent US crime was down across the board. Yet pessimism persists, as more than three of four Americans say there’s more crime now than a year ago, according to Gallup.

That seems to be today’s defining attitude: a nagging sense, amid the wars, droughts, and wildfires, the earthquakes and shootings, the waves of migration, pandemics and fear-based politics, that our world is coming apart at the seams, even when the reality is a bit rosier.

Take AI (“artificial intelligence,” though “alternative intelligence” seems more respectful of our future overlords), for instance. AI tools are designing and discovering promising new drugs and boosting the productivity of tens of millions of workers around the world (The Economist foresees a workers’ golden age) and most researchers give it just a one in 10 chance of wiping out humanity.

Even so, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t think AI is coming for all our jobs and that techies have probably programmed human civilisation into obsolescence. My last bit of good news for you, dear reader, is that the AI apocalypse, if it is indeed on the wing, will not arrive in 2024. Have a wonderful year.

Published: January 01, 2024, 12:30 PM