2018 recap: optimistic facts about the year

2018 has not been an easy year in many ways.

The headlines have been unrelentingly bleak. The president of the United States declared war on migrant families, separating parents from children and firing tear gas on crowds with families and toddlers. His lawyer confessed to federal crimes, implicating the president in the process. The government of Saudi Arabia killed a Washington Post columnist and continues to kill civilians with airstrikes in Yemen, and retained the support of the US government throughout.

This is all real, and truly alarming. But it would be a mistake to view these events as the sum total of the world in 2018.

Under the radar, some aspects of life on Earth are getting dramatically better. Here are just four.

1) Extreme poverty is falling

Chart from World Bank report chapter: “Ending Extreme Poverty: Progress, but Uneven and Slowing”
World Bank

This is probably the most important chart on this list. The extraordinary rate of economic growth in India and China — as well as slower but still significant growth in other developing countries — has led to a huge decline in the share of the world population living on less than $1.90 a day, from 35.9 percent in 1990 to only 10 percent in 2015.

The World Bank’s poverty statistics depend on household surveys in 164 different countries, that are carried out over different time periods, in different ways, and so forth, so it takes time for the group to produce point estimates for poverty in a given year. But it estimates that the 2018 rate will be about 8.6 percent, a notable decline from 2015.

While we’re continuing to make progress, the World Bank report is also clear that progress is slowing. While in 1990, most poor people lived in East Asia, today most live in Sub-Saharan Africa, where growth in GDP per capita has been slower than in East or South Asia in recent decades. Unless that changes, the rate of poverty reduction could go down.

But that doesn’t change the fact that poverty is, in fact, declining. It should be declining faster, but we’re making progress.

2) Child mortality is falling

Child mortality trends, 1990 to 2017
Child mortality has plummeted from 1990 to 2017.
United Nations Population Division

An overall improvement in global public health has accompanied the decline in extreme poverty. One good example: kids born in 2017 are much less likely to die in their first five years of life than kids born in 1990 (like myself) were.

The global under-five mortality rate fell from 93 per 1,000 to 39 to 1,000, meaning it fell by over 58 percent. We don’t have data for 2018 yet, but given the change just between 2015 and 2017, it’s likely there was a further decline. In 2015, the under-five mortality rate fell from 42 to 39 worldwide, and overall deaths fell from 5.8 million to 5.4 million. If the mortality rate of 2015 had persisted, over 400,000 more kids would have died in 2017. Even if the pace of progress slows down, the reduction in death rates in 2018 could wind up saving 100,000 kids’ lives, easily.

3) We’re getting better at preventing preventable diseases

There are a variety of reasons for the decline in preventable deaths among children. Health improves with income, so the decline in extreme poverty helps, and richer countries can afford more extensive and more universal health care programs. One specific reason worth highlighting is more expenditure on preventative measures: programs that prevent disease and can save lives at quite low cost.

A great example are insecticidal bednets for malaria, a highly effective intervention that can meaningfully prevent infections and save lives. The share of the population in sub-Saharan African covered by these has been steadily increasing in recent years:

WHO’s Malaria Report, 2018
The share of at-risk Africans sleeping under an insecticide-treated bednet, from 2010 to 2017.
World Health Organization

More generally, malaria is an area where scientists and global health practitioners have been making great progress. A new technology that could be able to radically control or outright eliminate malaria — gene drive mosquitos — are almost ready, and foundations like Gates and Open Philanthropy Project are devoting huge sums to fund its development and testing. Target Malaria, the main group working on that solution, could start testing it in the field within the coming decade.

4) Clean energy is getting cheaper

The big exception to any story of the world getting better is, obviously, climate change. It’s real, the trajectory is bad (we’re on track for 3.1 to 3.7ºC of warming by 2100 unless current government policies change), and we’re all going to suffer for it in the coming decades.

But avoiding total hopelessness on the issue requires paying attention to those areas where things are getting better. One bright spot is the declining price of solar power, which is fueling a rapid increase in adoption. Solar and wind are now cheaper per megawatt hour than gas or oil, though better batteries are needed if the two are to become primary sources of energy.

The spectacular fall in solar power costs, 2009 to 2017. Business Insider / Shayanne Gal

As Dave Roberts explains, this is largely a triumph of government policy and concerted efforts to invest in solar R&D.

Cheap solar and wind is not enough to triumph over global warming. For one thing, these technologies have to be cost-competitive with coal and natural gas worldwide to keep global emissions down to reasonable levels. For another, while solar and wind are great sources of electricity, not all energy humans consume is electrical.

Petroleum-fueled cars are the obvious example, but there’s also propane heating, natural gas furnaces, etc. And solar and wind, while great, are inconsistent, meaning they need to be paired either with better and more numerous batteries, or with more consistent zero-carbon sources of power, like nuclear or carbon-capture fossil fuel plants.

So, as Roberts has argued, we need to electrify as much of our energy as possible, and make sure our electricity is as clean as possible. Cheap solar and wind makes the second part much, much easier.

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