Climate Progress Is Slow But the Solutions We Need Are Already Here

It's time to get the job done.

Electric taxis are assembled on the production line at The London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC) factory on October 15, 2021 in Coventry, England.
London launched fully electric black cabs in late 2019.

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

It had been four years since I last returned to my native England. I’d like to say this pause was an effort to reduce my air travel footprint and my well-publicized climate hypocrisy, but really it was just a pandemic-related hiatus. So when I flew to England earlier this month—yes, I did use Google Flights to find lower emissions options—I was struck by something encouraging: an awful lot had changed. 

To list a few notable changes:

  • My brother was driving an electric car when he had to, but mostly enjoyed biking, walking, and more frequent local train services in his hometown of Bristol. 
  • The main train station at Bristol Temple Meads had rows and rows of really good bike parking. 
  • The intercity trains between London and Bristol were now electrified. 
  • Plant-based and plant-forward menu options were everywhere. 
  • Solar panels covered a large percentage of roofs. 
  • E-bikes and cargo bikes were commonplace. 
  • London boasted many prominent bike-only highways across the city
  • Buses and taxis were often electric.
  • Households were recycling their food waste and had even appeared to stop moaning about it.
  • Citizens of all ages were using scooters and other "last mile" solutions as real, practical transport.

Of course, we’ve reported on a lot of this before. From plug-in black cabs to plumbers on cargo bikes, there have been plenty of good news stories coming out of the United Kingdom for years. But it was remarkable to me how a short period away had allowed me to finally "see" a future that really does appear to be emerging. 

That’s not to say progress was ubiquitous, or inevitable. My small hometown was covered in posters about how a “pointless” bike lane is about to “ruin” the seafront. The antique traders of Clifton (an upscale part of Bristol) are apparently convinced that impending pedestrianization will be the end of their world. Brexiteer Nigel Farage is making sputtering attempts to ignite a culture war over Britain’s net-zero ambitions. The ruling conservatives, while still publicly committed to decarbonization, are also missing plenty of opportunities for real, transformative change. And the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea were still chock full of SUVs—dubbed "Chelsea Tractors" by their detractors—whenever it was time to pick the kids up from school. 

Broadly speaking, however, lower carbon technologies, business models, products, and travel options appear to be becoming considerably more commonplace, accessible, and popular too. I share this not just to show love to my birth country. Rather, I share it to remind myself, and others, that progress can often feel slow, pondering, and even futile when you’re in the midst of it—and then suddenly you look up and the world around you has shifted. 

My Treehugger peer, Design Editor Lloyd Alter, has already noted how Russia's invasion of Ukraine provides both an opportunity and a moral imperative to accelerate the shift from fossil fuels. Drawing parallels to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s sweater moment, he argues that unsexy, simple measures like conservation should be the backbone of our response. 

He’s not wrong. But we also now have a distinct advantage that Carter did not: There are examples from all around the world where individuals, businesses, communities, and even countries are enacting multipronged changes that really can help us move beyond business-as-usual. 

As I type this story back in Durham, NC, it can be tempting for homesickness to settle in. Yet while I really do crave cask ales and far too many carbs, I’m reminding myself that much of the progress I saw in the U.K. is also present over here. More and more of my neighbors are embracing e-bikes. My coworkers in my day job are delighted to leave their oversized trucks parked in their driveways and continue to work largely from home. And U.S. energy-related carbon emissions have been trending down for years. 

It’s true: We’re not moving fast enough. And the scale of the crisis is such that even the progress I saw in Britain is insufficient. Yet while it’s right to be outraged, I think it’s unhelpful to become discouraged. We, the broad coalition of folks concerned about the climate, have already radically shifted the trajectory compared to what emissions would otherwise have been. 

Now it’s time to build on that progress and get the job done.