By Land, Sea, and Air: Emerging Technologies to Tackle Climate Change
The many distractions and disruptions of the past year have made it easy to lose sight of the ongoing climate crisis, but not looking hasn’t made it disappear. Even as a global pandemic temporarily slowed carbon emissions by keeping everyone at home, temperatures continued to rise. In fact, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) reports that 2020 tied 2016 as the single hottest year on record.
But while your attention was elsewhere, you may have missed something else: the many inventive ways that researchers are tackling climate change. New technologies are making it easier to identify emissions sources, stop further damage with greater energy efficiency and lower-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels, and even remove excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
The first step toward fixing something is determining where it’s broken. We know what the problem is: excessive carbon emissions that are raising global temperatures. But where are those emissions coming from?
- Pinpointing global emissions hotspots with satellites and machine learning
Climate TRACE is a Google.org-funded nonprofit that tracks and analyzes carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants, factories, controlled burns, cargo ships, and other human sources using satellite imagery, infrared imaging, and nitrogen oxide sensors. The nonprofit intends to analyze that information with machine learning to create a publicly accessible source of real-time emissions data. Governments and other groups worldwide could use this data to spot illegal polluters, verify compliance with international climate change agreements, and manage carbon cap-and-trade markets.
- Spotting global supply chain emissions through artificial intelligence (AI)
Businesses that produce and process oil, gas, minerals, and other raw materials are responsible for half the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The company CarbonChain is using AI to create “digital twins” of every piece of equipment used in heavy industry in order to model supply chains. These models can help companies profile their current emissions and find ways to reduce them. CarbonChain claims to be so precise that it can calculate exactly how much carbon is generated in the processes that end with the cup of coffee on your desk.
- Recognizing energy leaks online
A single laptop, smartphone, server, or Web site barely makes a dent in global energy consumption. But with more than half the global population now online, the tiny bits of energy used by our devices, the Internet, and the infrastructure that supports them add up to an estimated 3.7% of global emissions, roughly as much as the airline industry – and that’s expected to double by 2025. We could make our online lives more climate-friendly with tools that help us estimate the carbon footprints of our Web sites and the emissions generated by our energy-hungry AI and machine learning algorithms.
Stopping further damage
Once you know that something you’re doing is creating a problem, the next step is to do things differently. With regard to climate change, that means developing lower-carbon energy sources and finding more efficient ways to use the energy you generate.
Lower-carbon energy is all around us, and researchers are finding increasingly ingenious ways to tap into it:
- Farming seaweed for biofuel with sensor-driven drones
Plants, which absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while they grow, are also a renewable energy source. However, the most common bioenergy sources are corn and wood, which require a lot of land, fertilizer, and fresh water to grow. As an alternative, we could create vast seaweed farms in distant parts of the ocean, tend and monitor them with underwater drones, and use autonomous vessels to harvest the seaweed when it’s ready for use.
- Solar-collecting fabric
What if you could charge your phone or laptop with the shirt on your back? A new polymer that collects solar power can be applied to textiles, creating the possibility of shirts, pants, and other clothing to double as mobile energy supplies.
- Twenty-first century waterpower
Researchers from City University of Hong Kong have developed a generator that can turn rain (or a leaky faucet) into energy at 140 volts a drop – enough for a single drop to briefly light up 100 small LED bulbs. Researchers in Florida are testing how well turbines that are anchored 80 feet below the ocean’s surface can capture the steady flow of the Gulf Stream. And wave energy appears to be bouncing back from a decade of setbacks, with at least two companies planning to introduce commercial solutions in 2021 and more not far behind.
- Elevator generators
Power-generating brakes are familiar to anyone who drives a Toyota Prius. How about installing them on other things that stop frequently – like elevators? The Empire State Building in New York City did exactly that, using a technology called “regenerative braking” to capture the energy of stopping its 68 elevators and feed that power back into the building’s infrastructure, thus reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40%. Imagine the impact of doing the same in every skyscraper in every densely populated city.
Boosting energy efficiency
To reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, we also need to increase energy efficiency. Here, too, new developments are promising:
- Carbon fiber
Carbon fiber, the material of choice for airplanes and race cars, is super strong and super light and can store lithium ions. That also makes it an ideal material for construction and manufacturing – where durability and weight are critical – and for storing energy. How about an electric car powered by its own bumpers or an easy-to-build house in which the walls are batteries?
- Transparent wood
Well-designed windows help moderate a building’s temperature and power use, but conventional glass production is carbon heavy. Transparent wood, a new material made almost entirely of fast-growing balsa trees, is a sustainable alternative that’s also five times more thermally efficient than glass.
- Power-saving programming
Web designers are exploring ways to reduce load time and otherwise make sites less power-hungry and more sustainable with techniques like caching, mobile-first design, and carbon-neutral hosting. For example, the developer of a popular custom WordPress plug-in trimmed the code to send 20 kilobytes less data each time someone visits one of the roughly 2 million sites that use it. In just five months, this seemingly tiny change eliminated 59,000 kilograms of carbon emissions, the equivalent of 85 round-trip flights between New York City and Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
- Mitigating building inefficiencies through sensors and analytics
As part of a government-funded research initiative, more than 100 U.S. organizations have reduced their energy bills by a collective US$95 million and saved the equivalent of 44,000 households’ annual power use by using sensors, meters, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to track and manage energy use in commercial buildings. The data they gather reveals energy waste and enables predictive analytics that identify opportunities to increase efficiency.
- Petroleum-free plastics
Green polyurethane made from linseed oil, grease waste, or even algae – instead of petroleum – is still in the early stages of development. But it has the potential to make any product containing plastic, from flooring to housewares, more sustainable while also capturing CO2 – another key area of research.
Reversing existing damage
Capturing greenhouse gases that would otherwise go into the atmosphere is a necessary aspect of slowing climate change. Removing those gases from the atmosphere is a critical part of undoing it. These are some breakthrough technologies with the potential for reducing the amount of CO2 already in the air:
- Carbon-based concrete
Concrete is a ubiquitous part of the built environment – and its production accounts for 4% to 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Scientists have developed a way to go green with a process that turns CO2 from industrial exhaust into synthetic limestone, a key concrete ingredient.
- Carbon-eating crops
Researchers are developing weeds that grow especially large, deep, sturdy roots that take a lot of time to decompose and therefore keep carbon in the ground for decades. Gene-altering technology like CRISPR-Cas9 would allow insertion of those genes into crops that take up more than half of Earth’s arable land, like corn, cotton, soybean, and canola. We might then develop ways for farmers to document how much carbon their crops are removing from the air so they can be compensated with carbon credits that they can sell on the open market.
- Carbon-sequestering fertilizer
Burning agricultural waste in a low-oxygen environment creates biochar, a charcoal-like substance that’s not only rich in soil nutrients but also captures half the CO2 that would escape from decomposing waste and retains most of it for up to a century. McKinsey & Company estimates that the technology to make this scalable for the farming industry is about a decade away.
- Trapping carbon in rock
Most ways of capturing and storing carbon are temporary, even if long-term. In Project Vesta, researchers are seeking ways to grind down a naturally occurring mineral called olivine into a filter to remove CO2 from rainwater and break it down into compounds for marine organisms to digest into shells and skeletons, which would eventually settle onto the ocean floor and form layers of rock. This process would be inexpensive and powered by the ocean itself, and it potentially could store trillions of tons of CO2 for millions of years.
The climate emergency remains urgent and imminent, but it also remains solvable. These are just a few of the technological innovations giving us hope to go beyond simply averting catastrophe to building a world that’s more livable.