225: Empire

Plus dark stars, human cells, the sterile world of infinite choice, and good news on maternal and child health in Asia, social attitudes in the UK, Indigenous rights in Brazil, new hope for net zero, and crime (and cycling) in the United States.

225: Empire
This is the premium edition of Future Crunch, a weekly roundup of good news, mind-blowing science, and the best bits of the internet. If someone forwarded this, you can subscribe here. One third of your subscription fee goes to charity. You can buy a gift subscription here.

Saving the world is cheaper than ruining it

When it comes to climate change, we are simultaneously in a moment of decision and possibility. This year's extreme global temperature anomalies are genuinely scary. We have wasted too much time, the emergency is very real and will get worse, and we're still way off track. At the same time, we know what the solutions are. Exponential change is happening all around us, the shift to renewable technologies is happening faster than most people realise, and prospects are far brighter than they were a few years ago.

Both of these stories are true, but one is getting way more coverage than the other. That needs to change. Here's what Faith Birol, head of the IEA and the most influential energy economist in the world, said while speaking yesterday after the release of the IEA's new Net Zero Road Map:

The path to limiting global warming to 1.5C has narrowed since 2021, but despite stubbornly high emissions, the staggering growth of clean energy technologies is keeping it open. Record growth in solar and electric vehicles are now in line with a pathway towards net-zero emissions by mid-century.

The best line from the Net Zero Road Map: 'electrification is energy efficiency.' Electric vehicles are 2-4 times more efficient than petrol-powered ones. Heat pumps are 3-5 times more efficient than boilers. Induction stoves are 2 times more efficient than gas. Simon Evans

The UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment group has surveyed all the climate policies expected to be put in place in major economies between now and 2050, and they have concluded that global warming will peak below 1.8°C around 2050. 'This is a more optimistic future than many anticipate.' Yep. UNPRI

A rare analysis of coal trends in China that understands the distinction between building a coal plant and running one. If hydropower pulls its weight, capacity factors remain the same, and renewables maintain their blistering growth, China’s coal consumption will plateau in 2024 and begin its long decline thereafter. The China Project

In the last three years, Texas, the epitome of a recalcitrant red state soaked with fossil fuel, increased its utility-scale solar capacity five-fold, connecting more than 10 GW. That's likely the fastest pace of renewable energy capacity expansion anywhere in the world outside of China. In Texas. Extraordinary. Canary

Global wind turbine orders reached new highs in the first half of this year with 70 GW of activity, a 12% increase year-over-year. The Global Wind Council is now estimating that newly-installed wind capacity will exceed 100 GW for the first time in 2023 and predicting that 680 GW will be added globally between 2023 and 2027.

Renewable energy generation has soared to new heights earlier this week in Australia, with the combined contributions from rooftop solar and large-scale solar and wind pushing past 70% for the first time. On the flip side, the share of coal was crushed to new lows. Someone get a violin. Renew Economy

Improving wind technology is making previously inaccessible areas feasible. A recent assessment by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has found that 80% more economically viable wind energy capacity could be unlocked in the United States in the next decade as a result of technological advancements now entering commercial markets or slated to do so in the near future. 

More bad news for fossil fuel executives.

The Indian state of Rajasthan, home to almost 80 million people, has seen fossil fuels in its power mix fall to a record-low share of 50%, the first time this level has been sustained for more than a quarter of the year. Just two years ago, solar and wind generation were less than half of the amount we see today. Ember

In 2020, California had 500 MW of battery storage. Three years later, it has ten times as much as that, and batteries are coming online faster than any other form of power, soaking up solar during the sunniest hours and delivering it back to the grid after sunset. Earlier this week those batteries provided 5.2 GW of instantaneous power, the equivalent of five typical nuclear plants.

Local governments across the United States can now apply for a total of $4.6 billion in competitive grants to implement climate action plans, administered and provided by the EPA. When deciding which projects to fund, the EPA 'will prioritize those that result in the greatest amount of greenhouse gas emissions reductions.' Utility Dive

The cacophony of small engines is one of the most recognisable sounds in traffic-choked cities across Asia—but soon that may be a thing of the past, as electric two-wheelers explode across the continent. Half of all new scooters sold in China are already electric, and in places like India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, sales of battery-powered two-wheelers are booming. Economist (archive)

Based on what we're seeing happen in Europe and China, it takes around six years for electric vehicles to go from 1% to 10% of new car sales, and then another six to get to 80%. Assuming that kind of exponential growth, EVs will make up between 62% and 86% of global car sales by 2030. Sounds insanely optimistic—until you read this report from RMI.

More reasons to stop doom-scrolling

Nissan says it's going 100% electric in Europe by 2030, despite Rishi Sunak's U-turn. Might be a good time to check out this handy guide to the top ten myths about electric vehicles. Germany has passed a law to make energy saving compulsory in all economic sectors. Europe’s largest floating solar farm is being built on a flooded former quarry in France. Scotland has slashed the permitting times required for large wind farms. Good news for those of us worried about grid connection in the United States. Apparently geothermal costs are now on par with lithium ion batteries (!!). Eco-concrete is coming, and that's great, because normal concrete sucks. The clean energy boom arrives in Colorado. Scientists in France just discovered the world's largest deposit of naturally-occurring hydrogen, known as white hydrogen.

Good news you probably didn't hear about

In the last three decades humanity has made extraordinary strides in combating the threat of communicable disease. In 1990, diseases like malaria and tuberculosis made up almost a third of the global health burden, but by 2019 that had fallen to around a sixth. Overall, the number of healthy years of life lost due to infectious diseases more than halved during this period. FT

Southeast Asia has made incredible progress on maternal and child health in the last decade. The maternal mortality rate has declined by 41%, under-five mortality has declined by 45%, and nine countries are on track for the SDG target. Most impressively, the newborn mortality rate has almost halved, with a 40% reduction in the last ten years. WHO

Uganda just released its national health survey. Fertility rates are down, contraceptive use is up, nine in ten women now give birth accompanied by skilled attendants, child mortality has almost halved in the last decade, childhood stunting rates have fallen by a quarter, maternal mortality has halved, and a majority of children now receive all basic vaccinations. UBOS

Stroke is the leading cause of death and disability in Brazil—but things are improving. Between 2000 and 2021, the age-adjusted mortality rate fell from 95 deaths per 100,000 people to 52 deaths per 100,000, thanks to significant advancements in the healthcare system and an increase in healthcare professionals specializing in neurological surgery. Cureus

Brazil's Supreme Court has rejected efforts to restrict native peoples' rights to their ancestral lands, ruling in favour of restoring territory to the Xokleng people. The landmark decision sets a precedent for hundreds of Indigenous land claims and is expected to have widespread consequences for Indigenous land rights. BBC

Kenya has achieved remarkable progress in curbing new HIV infections and reducing AIDS deaths. Since the initiation of a comprehensive ARV programme in 2013, over 1.2 million people have been able to access treatment, and deaths have fallen by 68%. The Star

The Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) is winning its war on AIDS too. In 2020, it became the first African country to surpass the 95-95-95 global HIV treatment targets, and HIV-related deaths have fallen from their peak of 10,000 back in 2005 to 2,370 last year. WHO

Social attitudes are changing in Britain. In 1983 only 17% of respondents agreed that same-sex relationships were 'not wrong at all.' Today it’s 67%. The proportion of people who support a woman’s right to choose has doubled to 74%; only 24% now believe marriage is a necessity for people who want children; and just 9% think men should work while women stay at home, down from 48% in 1987.

Crime in the United States is out of control, except for the fact that it's not. A new report from the Council on Criminal Justice shows that the country's criminal justice footprint has shrunk substantially in recent years. The way Americans feel about their country doesn't always reflect what's actually happening. We all ignore progress at our peril.

In a landmark decision aimed at safeguarding the wellbeing and mental health of students, the Indian state of Kashmir has imposed a 'blanket ban on corporal punishment and other forms of child abuse' in all educational institutions within its jurisdiction. Great Kashmir

Following a successful pilot that increased the number of teenage girls attending school in seven Nigerian states from 900,000 to over 1.6 million, the World Bank has approved $700M to roll the program out over 18 more states, reaching an estimated 8.6 million girls, as well as teachers, administrators, families, and communities.

Even more good news you didn't hear about

Did you know that a drug approved by the FDA in 2019 has given a new lease of life to 90% of people with cystic fibrosis? The end of poverty in Canada should be bigger news than it is. So far this year in the United States, inflation has come down, real wages have gone up, income inequality has declined, and the job market is the best it's been in decades. Most people have no idea this has happened. Oh, and America is winning the war on cancer. Welcome news for survivors of sexual assault. A new water treatment plant just brought 105,000 people clean drinking water in Mozambique. A big new chunk of funding will protect livelihoods, improve trade, and safeguard against erosion on the Jamuna, one of the most important rivers in the world. California just strengthened protections and support for LGBTQ+ youth. Treatment for trachoma is coming to 10 million people in Latin America.

If it bleeds, it leads

Currently featured on the Wired homepage. In case freaking out about your kid's brain wasn't enough, you should also be worried about the water running out, a flesh-eating bacterium, and a fungal apocalypse.

And if the heat, vampire bacteria, or evil mushrooms don't get you, then you still need to worry about continental drift destroying the world... 250 million years from now. Thanks to The Guardian for dedicating its valuable resources to reporting this important story. Won't somebody think about future generations?

The only home we've ever known

The High Seas Treaty has taken a major step forward after being signed by 81 countries at the UN General Assembly in New York earlier this week. After signing the treaty, each nation must ratify it—and once 60 have done so, it will come into force after 120 days. Mongabay

Medellín, Colombia's second-largest city, started its 'green corridors' programme in 2016 due to concern about air pollution and rising heat. The 30 corridors connect newly-greened road verges, vertical gardens, streams, parks, and nearby hills; cost $16.3M to create and will take $625,000 a year to maintain; and have reduced temperatures in the city by around 2°C. BBC

A combination of conservation and anti-poaching initiatives has resulted in the first increase in rhino populations in Africa since 2012. The latest survey estimates a population of 6,487 black rhinos, up 4.2% from 2021, and white rhinos now number around 16,803 animals, an increase of 5.6%. IUCN

With this good news, we can take a sigh of relief for the first time in a decade. However, it is imperative to further consolidate and build upon this positive development and not drop our guard.
Michael Knight, Chair of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group

Bhutan has just completed its second national survey of snow leopards, covering more than 9,000 km2 of habitat across the northern alpine landscape of the country. The population is up to 134 animals, an increase of 39.5% from the first survey in 2016, when 96 individuals were counted. WWF

The Biden Administration has used an executive order to create a New Deal-style Climate Corps. The program will employ more than 20,000 young adults who will build trails, plant trees, help install solar panels, and do other work to boost conservation and help prevent wildfires across the United States. AP

Norway has just completed its largest-ever nature restoration project, removing all traces of a large-scale mining project in Svalbard that ran for over a century. 'The rivers have begun to return to their old courses, and even the polar bears cannot notice that mining has been going on here since 1910. The terrain, glaciers and mountainsides now appear unaffected.'

Bangladesh, the world's second-largest exporter of clothes, is leading the way on sustainable fashion. Since 2009, Bangladeshi apparel and textile manufacturers have established 202 eco-friendly factories certified by the US Green Building Council, the second-highest number after the United States. Mongabay

There has been a significant uptick in cycling across the United States in the last few years. Nationally, annual average daily bicycle trips per year climbed by 37% between 2019 and 2022, and more than half of all states have seen annual average daily bicycle trips increase by at least 25%. Street Light

A key wetland species that vanished from Hertfordshire in the UK more than 35 years ago is thriving once again after rewilding efforts. Since their 2021 release, water voles have increased their range by 238%, and numbers have more than doubled each year. Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust is now aiming to have water voles back in every river in Hertfordshire by 2030.

In the UK, a critically-endangered moth, indigenous to Kent, has had a bumper year after its habitat was restored by farmers. In 1995, the black-veined moth was close to extinction due to habitat loss. A project to encourage farmers to restore their old fields was launched, and this year, surveys counted a peak of 255 moths, the highest number recorded since the project began. BBC

A few more home runs

If you're going to read one conservation story this week, please make it this one, on the return of wildlife to New York's coastal waters. A big win by Indigenous communities in Peru fighting against a mining project in a protected area. A ton of new funding for climate-resilient agriculture in Africa. A ton of new funding for whale conservation off the US East Coast. The cattle industry in Brazil is finally getting squeezed by new international trade and finance rules, and that's good news for the Amazon. San Diego has closed a popular beach to protect sea lions. The island nation of Niue has a cunning plan to protect its slice of the Pacific. Oregon has finally outlawed barbaric wildlife killing contests on public lands, and California just became the third state to pass an electronics right-to-repair law

Indistinguishable from magic

A seven-year, 7-billion-kilometre celestial journey to what has been described as the most dangerous rock in the solar system has reached its dramatic conclusion. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has brought home the largest-ever unspoiled sample from beyond the Moon, 250 grams from the surface of asteroid Bennu, tucked inside a capsule that landed in the Utah desert after a fiery descent. Ars Technica

Dante Lauretta (right), OSIRIS-REx principal investigator, approaches the sample return capsule Sunday at the Utah Test and Training Range.

Astronomers say they have spotted the first verifiable evidence of stars fuelled by the annihilation of dark matter particles—so-called 'Dark Stars.' If the findings hold up, it would not only be evidence for a specific kind of dark matter, but help crack one of the biggest problems in cosmology—the mysterious origins of the supermassive black holes that drive galactic evolution. New Scientist (archive)

Scientists at the University of Science and Technology of China have built the largest-ever quantum network, an unhackable system spread over the city of Hefei, comprising three quantum devices and a central server. It's a big advance—but there's still a long way to go. The network transmits one bit per second, less than a thousandth of what modems from decades ago could. New Scientist (archive)

Currently under construction in central Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the King Salman Park is aiming to be the largest urban park in the world. Masterplanned by Danish studio Henning Larsen and Saudi studio Omrania, the park will feature 11 km2 of green space and a million trees, and will be watered with 100% recycled city water. It's just one of 11 mega projects that have to be seen to be believed. Dezeen

The discovery of ancient wooden logs in the banks of a river in Zambia has changed archaeologists' understanding of ancient human life. Researchers found evidence the wood had been used to build a structure almost half a million years ago, suggesting stone-age people built what may have been shelters. 'This find has changed how I think about our early ancestors.' BBC

Chinese regulators have given the green light for clinical trials of a stem-cell-based, bio-artificial liver—a device outside the body that performs the liver’s job of detoxification and synthesising proteins and chemicals. Blood flows through the bioreactor, which uses a hollow fibre membrane to grow stem cells and essential substances, which are then introduced to a patient’s bloodstream. SCMP

In what may be the ultimate biology stamp collection exercise, researchers in Germany and Canada have estimated the count, sizes, and masses of all the cells in a human body. A typical adult male comprises about 36 trillion cells, an adult female 28 trillion, and a child around 17 trillion. Blood cells are the most numerous—and most of the mass is your skeleton and fat tissue. Smithsonian

The information highway is still super

A great essay by Anne Helen Peterson, contrasting the simplicity and serendipity of the pre-digital era with today's overwhelming abundance of choices. Despite the modern allure of infinite entertainment and connectivity, she cherishes the past's uncurated experiences. It's an argument for embracing fewer but deeper engagements with the world around us, suggesting that a less cluttered life could bring back the magic of the unexpected and foster more meaningful connections. This piece invites readers to find richness in simplicity, hinting at a more fulfilling way to navigate our complex digital landscape.

Tolkien famously hated allegory—and yet the stories of Middle Earth lend themselves to it so beautifully. Alyssa Hull argues that his work is directly applicable to all of us who face the current onslaught of frightening headlines about climate disasters and, like Frodo, wish it need not have happened in my time.' Tor

The new phone etiquette: text first and never leave a voice mail.

It's not just you. LinkedIn has gotten really weird. Facebook is a wasteland, X is on its way to becoming one, the narcissism of Instagram is boring, and TikTok is still baffling to most people over the age of 25. That leaves LinkedIn as pretty much the only game in town—and the boundaries there between the personal and the professional have gotten very blurry. Business Insider

And finally, this might just be the best demonstration we've ever seen of why good video editing matters. Leaning heavily on the perfection that is Andor, a random internet guy has Made Star Wars Great Again. This eight minute compilation is better than most of the movies you'll watch this year. Youtube

That's it for this week—thanks for reading!

With love,

Gus and Amy

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