A woman works at a composting plant and stands among piles of composting organic material. This is what climate progress looks like
Photo Credit:
Adobe Stock
Progress isn't always pretty

What Climate Progress (Actually) Looks Like

Jen Johnson
November 2, 2023

When you think of a thriving, sustainable planet, what do you picture?

Chances are high that what you just saw in your mind’s eye is different from what a clean energy future looks like in reality. If you were wrong, you’re not alone: Your brain just conjured up what you’ve seen and learned over time in all the media you’ve digested about sustainability.

But it turns out that our expectations about what it looks like to combat climate change can play a huge role in our progress. A report from the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law shows that when local residents think that a clean energy project is an “eyesore,” their support decreases drastically. And because many energy projects are determined at a local level, those opinions about aesthetics can block progress on renewable energy adoption.

When I found this out, I did some digging to learn why our expectations might be misaligned in the first place and retrain myself on what a sustainable future looks like. Here’s what I found:

Where imagery about environmentalism comes from

If you’re like me, when you pictured a sustainable planet you saw pristine forests, wildlife, maybe a polar bear prowling the ice. This idea of a healthy planet is informed by decades of messaging from the environmental movement.

From the late 1800s and through the 1950s, environmental perspectives focused on preservation and conservation. These beliefs centered on the concept that we should protect ecosystems, wildlife, and our natural resources. This leaves us with the ideal and image of what we should strive for: a picture of untouched wilderness.

In the 1960s, this narrative shifted to focus on avoiding pollution. As Western societies became more heavily industrialized, researchers and activists brought more attention to ecological disasters, toxins, and their impact on human health. These ideas gave us a picture of risks we should avoid: heavy industry, polluted air and water.

These concepts tell us to preserve wilderness and avoid pollution. When I was growing up, any time I saw something industrial – like a refinery, a mine, or a power plant – I thought it was bad. My mind had been trained to see all of these things as polluting, dirty, and at odds with the natural world we want to protect.

Why we should pivot to a vision of progress

Here’s the thing that these concepts are missing: We can’t achieve a green future with undisturbed hillsides and charismatic megafauna.

Preservation and anti-pollution framings only show us what not to do and what not to touch. But our society relies on creating energy and industry, transporting goods, and producing food. What we need next is a vision for what we want to create. We need to be able to picture what a clean energy future looks like and know what progress will look like along the way so that we can champion and support it.

Here’s what it will look like as we build the clean energy future.

Renewable energy farms

Solar farm

Wind farm

Hydropower plant

Geothermal power plant

As long as we consume energy, we’ll need ways to create it. You may be used to seeing oil and gas infrastructure dotting the landscape and associating them with greenhouse gases.

Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydroelectric, hydrogen, and thermal energy farms look pretty industrial, too. They bring in metal, concrete, and water vapor in the air that might remind you of an oil refinery. But these industrial-looking operations are absolutely critical for generating clean energy and reducing our dependence on oil and gas. So the next time you see one of these structures, give ‘em a wave and a smile: they’re helping save the planet.  

Mining to electrify our grid

Copper mining
Mineral processing plant

Mining is a pretty dirty business: It involves lots of heavy machinery, road building, water use, and chemical byproducts. When I think about clean energy, I’m not usually thinking about a mine.

But here’s the thing: in order to create renewable, clean energy, we need certain metals. So when you look at these mines, remember that these are making it possible to create lithium batteries, copper wiring in our charging stations, and rare metals for wind turbines.


Wind turbine construction

Clean energy can’t materialize out of nowhere. Once we accept that our future looks like solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources, we need to see building those structures as signs of progress. Keep an eye out for building cranes, turbines under construction, homes being retrofitted. These construction projects are the harbingers of our green energy future.

Energy storage fields

Battery storage facility

We’ll be able to rely on renewable energy when we’re able to reliably store it, allowing us to tap into solar power even when the sun isn’t shining. Large batteries in energy storage facilities are popping up to enable this shift, and they look a little bit like a personal storage facility. These blocks are the key to a 100% clean energy future.

Electric Trucks, Buses, and Charging Stations

Electric car charging station
Electric bus

20% of worldwide global emissions come from transportation. Luckily, efforts are underway to electrify vehicles. In order to electrify the roads, we need electric cars, buses, and trucks with a substantial range – and we need a way to recharge when we run out of battery. When we’ve built the equivalent of the gas station network stretching across our highways, it will be possible to electrify transportation fully.

Drones flying over farms

Drone flying over farm

Food production is responsible for a quarter to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions – and about 15% of the emissions associated with food production are actually from food that goes bad before it reaches the grocery store. Food waste happens when poor storage and handling techniques lead to food spoiling.

In a more sustainable world, farms can use technology like drones to reduce this waste, scanning fields to find crops that are left behind and prevent them from going bad.

Facilities that repurpose our waste

Composting plant
Recycling plant

They might not look pretty, but some facilities are taking our food waste and old packaging and turning them into soil and new products.

You’re probably familiar with recycling, but did you know that organic waste makes up nearly a third of what we put in our landfills? When we bury our food waste, it gives off methane gas, which is 85 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and a short-term cause of climate change. Composting programs can address this problem, and organics can even be used as a renewable energy source.

Building add-ons

Building with green roofs
Wind turbine on building

Buildings are a huge source of emissions. They take in resources to heat and cool and generate heat islands when the sun hits them and increases the temperature of the surrounding area.  

As we look to a more sustainable future, expect to see construction on homes and buildings that make them more climate-friendly: retrofitting homes with better insulation, installing heat pumps and green roofs, and adding small-scale wind turbines on larger buildings to feed their energy systems.

Lab-grown and plant-based meat

Lab grown meat plant

Yep, this lab and factory is the future of food on a sustainable planet. Why? Because cows are a big problem when it comes to greenhouse gases, and these alternatives are many times more sustainable.

Here’s the scoop: For every 1 kilogram of beef you eat, 100 kilograms of greenhouse gases are emitted. And 30% of methane released in the atmosphere is coming from livestock. So moo-ve over, cows – because if we cut them out by eating plant-based meats or meats grown in a lab, we’ll see a huge decrease in greenhouse gas emissions from eating a burger.

The big picture: Progress isn’t always pretty

None of these images were very gorgeous, and that’s the point. To build the best future we can, we need to start recognizing what progress looks like, and associate it with hope.

We need to look at a wind turbine and think “thank you.” To see fake meat and think, “This is the future.” And to see a huge battery and think “clean energy, here we come!” So try it out.

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