Our planet is headed for trouble. Not to understate the severity of the impact of climate change, but according to a recent study in Nature, we might see “abrupt ecological collapse” within the next decade if humanity keeps emissions high to about 4 degrees above normal. A detailed explanation of the study goes into other variables that could make it worse for humanity, but the takeaways are already grave. If humanity keeps emitting, we’re going to see climate change destabilize the ecosystem starting within a decade. While we have time, humanity should be focusing on decarbonizing as quickly as possible. Despite this, a UN-backed report states that most wealthy nations are failing their young folks by failing to limit climate change.
GHG Pollution- A Breakdown:
Almost 75% of green house gases (GHG) are from energy production, such as the burning and extraction of natural gas and other fossil fuels. About 12% comes from agriculture, with 6.5% coming from how we use land and forests, and 5.6% from industrial processes, with waste accounting for 3.2%, all as of 2016. Solving climate change is in everyone’s best long-term economic, societal, and ecological interests. When it comes to historical emissions of GHGs, Europe produces 33% of the global total at 514 billion tons of CO2, with the EU-28 accounting for 22% of global emissions. Asia and North America both produce 29%, or 457 billion tons of CO2. Of the two regions, The USA produces 399 billion tons of CO2, or 25% of the world’s CO2. That is more than China with 200 billion tons, or 12.7% of the global CO2, all as of 2017. In terms of global emissions, the US and China alone account for 40%, which China producing more emissions but the US producing more emissions per capita.
Let’s address this problem head-on in the environments of the climate crisis- the air, ocean, earth, and society. Here are both problems and solutions for each section. There is no single solution for all problems with climate change, but if solutions are tailored to each environment than a larger effort can succeed and produce virtuous cycles that might help realistically mitigate and even reverse the worst effects of climate change over the long term. This is a battle for our world and will take decades to solve decisively, and with the right strategies for specific environments, victory is probable.
Problems– CO2 and Methane are in the atmosphere and current carbon capture and filtration technology is inefficient at capturing carbon for the energy and air volume needed to filter a ton of atmospheric carbon. This is because, per volume of air, there is not much carbon. Meanwhile the energy requirement to filter atmospheric carbon is immense and cost prohibitive.
Methane is 80 time more powerful than carbon dioxide and a major source of climate change. While it lasts only 10 years in the atmosphere. Natural gas, a major fuel source in the USA, is mostly methane, and often comes from leaks at extraction sites.
Solutions– Rainforests produce a chemical that binds with atmospheric methane and brings it down to Earth, where it can be sequestered naturally. Catching the carbon before it leaves for the atmosphere and reducing or eliminating carbon production also helps eliminate atmospheric carbon.
Preventing CO2 from escaping into the atmosphere would be the most effective industry solution to fighting atmospheric CO2. Applying carbon capture and storage at ground level in sites that produce CO2 in large quantities would not only prevent it from leaving but also provide a potential resource for other production and industries such as construction. More on this in the Society section, though it involves producing graphene.
One way to stop CO2 from escaping into the atmosphere is to use capture and sequestration technology on the ground. The University of Waterloo in Canada developed a carbon powder that can capture and bind with CO2 twice as effectively as conventional capture materials. This powder also has potential for trapping CO2 in water filtration and could connect to decarbonization efforts in cities and the oceans, and potentially provides a foundation for aforementioned graphene production. The research paper detailing this material can be found here for any potential collaboration.
For methane, industry can reduce methane emissions by 45% by installing recovery equipment that captures natural gas before it escapes into the atmosphere with no net cost. This would be paired up with burning escaped gas to convert it to CO2 or plugging the leaks more effectively. Improving on distribution, storage, and recovery methods can bring that total up to 65%. Adding to this would be finding alternatives to flaring natural gas, which can emit methane by burning potentially valuable natural gas. One solution would be to capture the flared gas and convert it to liquified natural gas (LNG), which is what Galileo Technologies and EDGE LNG do through the Cryobox, with a capacity of 10,000 gallons (or 15 metric tons) per day possible from captured gas.
Nature also produces a tool to fight atmospheric methane in the form of hydroxyl, which oxidize methane and transform it into water soluble compounds. Rainforests and vegetation produce this compound continuously and in large quantities globally. While trees can produce methane, they also act as a sink for CO2 and in some cases methane. The amount of methane they produce is not near the levels produced by human activity though.
The best solution for dealing with air pollution aspect of climate change is really prevention, which looks like capturing CO2 and methane at the site of energy production and agriculture to prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere. Some of the ways this can work is simply upgrading and repairing older infrastructure, such as pipelines to prevent leaks. This also means tackling the practice of flaring, or when natural gas is burned away during the extraction of oil.
Problems– Maritime carbon and waste are in the oceans and causing rising sea temperatures and hazards for marine life that filter into the food chain. Currently there are eight million metric tons being dumped yearly into the world’s oceans. While this problem affects the world, some of most heavily hit areas are in Asia, and thus require greater assistance in combatting plastic waste. Research in Australia pointed to plastic waste staying mostly close to the shorelines and waterways, either floating close in or being washed ashore and getting trapped in vegetation. Other countries were part of the survey as comparisons and showed a similar pattern. If this is a pattern for plastic waste, then most plastics end up back on land and could be captured and utilized for recycling and production as other products.
Another problem is the dying of coral reefs and other habitats for marine life caused by climate change and pollution. One example is the Great Barrier Reef, which is now in terminal decline. Coral reefs provide an environment for many different species and are economic goods for the communities that utilize them, such as tourism and natural barriers to tsunami waves.
Solutions– Capture plastic waste before it leaves for the oceans and clean up near shorelines the plastic waste before it can be captured by plant life. For chemical spills, water filtration and capture of floating waste. For carbon, reducing carbon emissions and converting to different fuels help in reducing the amount of carbon trapped in the oceans.
The first way to tackle plastic waste is to break it down into component parts. An enzyme that breaks down plastic can go a long way in fighting plastic waste. Yet plastic waste can also be upcycled as a building material and ingredient for other goods. By recycling plastic into industry use, the private sector is effectively subsidized on raw materials and can create both new products and new ways to produce conventional products. One example are limb prosthetics created from recycled plastic bottles. By utilizing domestic plastic pollution before it enters waterways, countries end up creating jobs and solving environmental problems in one solution.
The actual recycling can be made mobile and renewable. One example from Taiwan, Trashpresso, is a mobile recycling plant that is powered by solar and reuses its own waste water. This is technology will make recycling viable for many types of communities and bring waste products back into economic use.
Living coral reefs are capable of regenerating from damage given time and support. A living coral reef provides 50% greater protection from tsunamis than heavily damaged or dead coral reefs.
In Florida, scientists from the University of Miami had planted 100 corals in the reef about 3 miles off from shore almost a year ago. While these were wild conditions and the coral were left exposed in uncontrolled environmental conditions, 95% of the coral survived and are flourishing. Some of the techniques they used were sowing two different genotypes of coral together, or using a putty-like combination of micro silicas and cement to bind new coral to existing reefs at far lower cost than traditional methods. The coral was raised in two underwater nurseries and one land-based nursery, and demonstrate that coral grown in a nursery can be attached to existing coral reefs to help replenish them and grow them.
A scientist for the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida also developed a way to grow coral 40 times faster, by fragmenting the coral and exposing them to warmer and more acidic waters. The method employed also brings coral to sexual maturity in 3 years rather than 25 to 75 years, making it faster to sow coral and produce them for large scale projects such as restoring the Great Barrier reef. A method for growing coral in low tech environments has also been developed, effectively lowering the financial cost for implementing a program for coral regrowth. By bringing down the price tag, other nations can get started on domestic programs at low cost and possibly create new jobs in one go.
Lastly, seaweed aquaculture can produce multiple benefits to tackle problems on both land and sea. For the ocean, seaweed already provides food and homes for dozens of species. Yet it also counteracts the acidification and deoxygenation of water, directly addressing the side effects of too much CO2 in oceans. It also absorbs excess nutrients that can contaminate ocean environments from runoff. Seaweed as part of livestock feed can also eliminate up to 70% of methane produced from livestock eating and belching, and provide a fertilizer for crops. Its also a viable biomass fuel that could replace petroleum derived fuels for cars and planes in the near future. Companies like MacroFuels have demonstrated the potential of seaweed as an energy source, and even the US Department of Energy (DOE)’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) is investing resources into seaweed-based biofuel.
Combining the fragmentation process, nursery facilities, and cheaper cement, seaweed aquaculture, and coastal recycling, we can have a method of repairing coral reefs that provide homes to a quarter of all marine life, provide protection from severe storms and tsunamis, and make an economic impact in jobs and industry growth in manufacturing, tourism, and construction. The use of biofuels derived from seaweed also provides an alternative to land-based biofuel production will provide additional jobs and create a source of power to transition from fossil fuels to renewables.
Problems– Carbon emissions and contaminants in the soil and cities.
The destruction of wetlands, mangroves, and other ecosystems creates greater risk of storms, erosion, and other environmentally damaging events that cost billions and are projected to increase in the coming decades. Agricultural systems are largely based on industrial methods that are prone to monocropping, damaging to long term soil viability, and reliant on a vicious cycle of fertilizer inputs to improve yield as their methods undermine the soil’s ability to retain nutrients without said inputs. This also affects food security as monocrop methods are more reliant on chemical additives that can filter into the food supply, and loss of harvest from pests, diseases, and environmental damage such as drought or floods. It also impacts water supplies as chemical inputs filter into local water supplies, or with greater water demands on aquifers increases due to greater arid conditions. Massive consolidation of farmlands has entrenched industrial farming practices even as those practices have been demonstrated as counterproductive to the above-mentioned problems such as monocropping and heavy reliance on chemical inputs. It also reduces the market incentive and ability to change practices.
Lastly, the destruction of soil health and forests curtails the ability of plant life and microbes to sequester CO2, methane, and other GHGs in the soil. Peat bogs and tropical peat swamps for example are normally carbon sinks that easily match the capacity of forests, but have been heavily devastated by agricultural activities such as farming and clear cutting for palm oil. This has turned natural carbon sinks into carbon emitters. Damaged peat forests emit 10% of the global GHG amount, with an equivalent of 5.6% of global human caused emissions at 1.3 gigatons of OC2 annually, just from drained peatlands. The soil is also home to microbes that can effectively sequester GHGs but are killed by current land use and agricultural practices such as tilling and deforestation. The soil is not being used to fight climate change despite having some of the best options in curbing climate change.
Solutions– Utilize the natural environment while creating artificial support systems to repair and enhance the protective abilities of the natural environment. Using natural sources to both create the agricultural inputs such as nitrogen rather than relying on chemicals and petroleum-based additives. Lastly, improving soil health to improve agricultural techniques and regulations to reduce reliance on larger corporate farms and to ensure better crop production.
A hybrid of artificial and natural environment creation that protects and nurtures the natural features such as wetlands and mangroves while providing technological supports. Wetlands and mangroves are but some of the ecosystems that provide protection from weather damage and soil erosion and other economic benefits, in addition to habitats for wildlife. They are an economic and societal good and experience in other parts of the world has shown their importance.
We enlist plants to help produce fuel, fertilizer, and act as carbon sinks. The Azolla filiculoides, a water fern, has a symbiotic relationship with cyanobacteria capable of producing and fixing nitrogen and making an excellent fertilizer for other plants. As it’s naturally pest resistant, this fern can be used to augment and enrich depleted soil alongside crops without need for pesticides. Lastly, this fern is a natural carbon sink, and according to geologists it was a major factor in cooling the planet 50 million years ago.
The aforementioned seaweed aquaculture also provides benefits for the agriculture industry by creating a feed stock that reduces methane in livestock burps by up to 70% and can create fertilizer that reduces the reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers, taking out both a GHG source and reducing the risk to water supplies and runoff contamination. Mandates for biofuels should shift to include seaweed and kelp, which have a lower carbon footprint to actually grow and would be inline with the production of biofuels.
One of the biggest hurdles is industry norms and business focus. By focusing on supporting mid-scale farming operations, practices like crop rotation, cover crops, and low till farming can be experimented with and demonstrated as both ecologically sound and economically scalable. That or require enforcement of regulations to require large scale farms to adopt best practices for climate adaptation. Changing up regulations might also incentivize larger farms, such as funneling more existing subsidies towards production of fruits, nuts, and other crops besides soy and corn- the two dominant crops in the USA. While this is an American example, corporate farming can easily follow similar patterns in other nations.
Shift from artificial nitrogen sourced fertilizers to plants that produce nitrogen naturally and limit the use of chemical additives to soil and crops. Focus on crop rotation and growing more seasonal foods to reduce the need for supports, effectively letting nature set the crop selection.
Cultivating better soil health is essential to both agricultural stability and GHG reductions. Cover cropping, of planting soil improving crops between harvests, can not only enrich the soil for agriculture without reliance on chemical inputs, it also improves water retention. About 150 studies across the planet on soil improvement showed that practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and no till improved the soil’s ability to retain water. It also reduces runoff as deeper root systems are encouraged in such soil, which has the benefit of reducing flooding and the damage to infrastructure from storms.
Besides the improvement of soil for agriculture, some lands can be set aside to act as methane sinks as part of nature preserves. A common bacterium, Methylocapsa gorgona, grows naturally in soils globally and is very efficient at metabolizing atmospheric methane. Creating room for this bacterium to grow would tackle both methane production on land and in the air and can thrive in low methane soil.
Cultivating peat swamps and bogs also improves the land’s ability to store CO2 and other GHGs, being the largest land-based carbon stores in the world. Reducing or eliminating clear cutting and treating peat swamps as protected forests can also help reduce a country’s climate impact. In temperate lands, peat is usually covered by moss, while in more tropical areas its on trees. Reforestation efforts should include peat bogs and swamps where environmentally possible. When planting trees, slow growing massive and long-lived trees are the best suited for sequestering CO2. These trees reproduce slowly and often are the foundations of old growth forests, therefore need to be protected from human activities such as clear cutting, agriculture, and logging.
Problems– Wasteful practices that increase consumption and encourage unsustainable economic and social patterns. Food production alone accounts for 26% of all greenhouse gases (GHGs) like CO2 and methane, globally. Most of this comes from livestock and fisheries (31%) and crop production (27%), and land use (24%).
Solutions– Conversions of everyday patterns into patterns that feed into upcycling and reduce inefficiencies in technologies and social activities. Converting to hydrogen-based fuel, biofuels, and renewables are part of a mix for power. Create an upcycling economic system which takes waste and turns it into economically useful products and services.
Starting with food production, there are several solutions such as cultured meat and alternative methods of agriculture. In curated meat, the product is produced from cells rather than animals, and grown. This technology already works and needs only scaling and rebranding, as lab grown meat might come off as unusual to some consumers. The benefits however may be potential selling points. For one, there is little environmental impact and due to the nature of the production method there is no risk of antibiotic resistant pathogens being created. It’s also modifiable so that the meat being produced can be healthier with less fat and cholesterol than conventional meat. Lastly, its more humane and does not kill animals, which potentially unlocks entire segments of consumers to meat companies that adopt this technology.
While carbon capture may be inefficient in dealing with atmospheric carbon pollution, the carbon captured at ground level can be converted into graphene, and a new process now allows for it to be produced cheaper and more effectively. Graphene has many potential uses, such as reinforcing concrete or being a new building material in its own right.
Previously, graphene cost anywhere from 67,000 USD to 200,000 USD per ton. Yet a new production process can create one gram of graphene for 7.2 kilojoules of power. The cost for the flash graphene process is 100 USD per ton, and could be cheaper in the future as alternative energy sources are used. For concrete, injecting .1% of graphene into the mix of concrete will decrease its carbon output by a third as it reduces the amount of concrete needed to build and the energy consumed in producing it and transporting it to site. Any carbon-based material can be converted into graphene, and the process would help with global waste being produced, whether it’s food, plastics, oil, tires, mixed waste, etc., effectively allowing waste to be converted into a building component. The startup specializing in this technique already has a website and can commercialize this process.
Lastly, hydrogen fuel as a renewable energy source should be considered. This fuel source can take small amounts of electricity to split water molecules into pure oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used to power society without producing GHGs or damage the environment. It can act as a storage of wind and solar energy by using both to power the process of water splitting and storing the energy as the hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen fuel could one day power large cities and act as an intermediate fuel source while the economy decarbonizes.
To develop hydrogen fuel, governments would probably need to spend 150 billion USD over the next decade, half of what fossil fuel companies already receive in subsidies in the USA. The electrolyzer technology that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen has fallen in price, about 40% decline in the last 5 years in North America. In China, electrolyzer technology is 80% cheaper than its Western counterpart.
Singapore is already looking into hydrogen fuel as a path to decarbonization. Seven companies have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to explore the feasibility of hydrogen fuel as an alternative to fossil fuels for Singapore. The companies are mostly from Singapore- Singapore’s PSA Corporation, Jurong Port Pte Ltd, City Gas Pte Ltd, Sembcorp Industries and Singapore LNG Corporation Pte Ltd. Two companies are from Japan-Chiyoda Corp and Mitsubishi Corp. Chiyoda will work with the other companies to implement their hydrogen storage, transport, and import technologies, such as SPERA. If this works for Singapore, a nation of more than 5.8 million and 100% urbanized, it could work for other metropolitan regions of the world to mitigate the carbon foot print of cities. Companies are already experimenting with hydrogen fuel-based vehicles such as Cummins, a company based in Columbus, Indiana, has created a truck that uses hydrogen fuel cells and can go 150 to 250 miles on one cell or longer with extra cells. The city of Carmel, also in Indiana, is retrofitting some of their fleet of vehicles with hydrogen fuel creating technology. The technology, which was produced by Purdue University and prepared for market by AlGoCal, augments energy supply for vehicles by taking aluminum alloy and water and merges them, causing the water molecules to break apart, creating aluminum oxide and hydrogen in the process. The hydrogen is collected as fuel and the aluminum oxide becomes the catalyst for the next reaction. This creates a cycle where the waste by products become fuel for the next cycle. In lab tests, CO2 emissions fell by 20% and gas mileage increased by 15%.
To solve the problems with society, some attention should be paid to the types of renewable energies society decides to invest in. Hydrogen fuel, along with seaweed-based biofuel, can augment the portfolio of renewable energies to decarbonize the economy and larger society. The very CO2 that we treat as a waste product can also be utilized for upcycled construction material as graphene. This not only eliminates CO2 in the atmosphere, it creates jobs for millions both in direct creation of the material and in new material inputs for other industries. Growing meat alternatives from plants and animal cells can provide a common demand for protein while eliminating many problems with meat production. For one, it eliminates the need for antibiotics and the related threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria and viruses. As it would be produced from plants and animal cells, there would be no need for the infrastructure of a corporate slaughterhouse and the pollutants that usually come from the waste of animals. It’s also more humane to the animals because it only relies on plant matter and animal cells that are grown in a lab, eliminating the need to rear animals for meat production. Lastly, it opens the possibilities of creating healthier meat varieties, such as steak with little or no fat and cholesterol, or chicken with greater protein per ounce than bison meat. Meat producers need merely to invest and scale the technology to take advantage of it and at the same time, reduce the GHGs in their operations.
Towards a Unified Solution
Tailoring the solution to specific environments means refining our approach to fighting climate change based on the challenges specific to those environments. Each solution, however small in relation to the larger problem, is meant to link up as part of a momentum shift that eventually defeats the threat of climate change. As seen above, fighting climate change forces that affect the atmosphere can largely be done by changing practices on the ground- oil and LNG extraction and sequestering methane. Yet fighting climate change’s impacts on the oceans requires embracing near shore removal of waste such as plastics, utilizing hybrid natural and artificial supports for maritime ecosystems such as speed growing coral reefs, and using seaweed and other macroalgae as filtration and carbon sinks. Meanwhile the earth itself is most in need of changes to agricultural practices and efforts that focus on improving the soil. Lastly, society needs to change from energy intensive practices like meat production and fossil fuel use to more sustainable protein sources and hydrogen fuel as a transitional fuel source in part of a portfolio of energy sources.
There is also an economic benefit to upcycling that maritime and societal solutions should take advantage of, such as biofuels from macroalgae and building materials from recycled plastics and graphene. Fighting climate change can be profitable as well as sustainable. Focusing on converting existing pollutants into market goods will energize industries like construction, tourism, agriculture, and technology. It can also create new industries that develop not only direct solutions to climate change but also pioneer new solutions to older problems as one solution creates multiple possibilities for industry. Graphene is one example- it can revolutionize construction and manufacturing while developing better metamaterials for clothes and technology, in addition to dealing with the problem of CO2. Another advantage for these industries is that pollution becomes the material of industry. The waste product that hundreds of nations dispose of becomes a subsidized resource for these new industries, spurring economic growth that relies on cleaning up the environment.
Lastly, the solutions described can be easily implemented with current technology or scaled up within a few years to a decade, making them actionable quickly to mitigate some of the worst outcomes of near-term climate damage. They are a beginning point for policy makers, activists, and private enterprise to act on for the next 5 to 15 years from now.
Happy Earth Day everyone! I hope this gives you all some ideas both at home and abroad.