Technological advances, particularly the discovery and use of fossil fuels, have contributed to climate change – but they have also allowed humanity to become aware of our impact on the planet and develop techniques to address global warming.
Ahead of Climate After Covid: A Green Recovery? on Sky News on Thursday night, we look at seven innovations which could help humanity avoid the catastrophic damage which a continued increase in global temperatures could cause:
1. Carbon capture
The rising average temperature of the Earth is primarily blamed by scientists on man-made emissions of greenhouse gases that trap radiation in the atmosphere which would otherwise escape into space.
Among the most significant greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide (CO2), concentrations of which have increased by almost 50% since the industrial revolution began.
Innovations being used to reduce CO2 emissions include carbon capture, utilisation, and storage technologies – with the Net Zero Teesside (NZT) project being an interesting example.
NZT aims to capture CO2 produced in industrial processes and power plants and transport these emissions by pipeline to offshore storage sites several kilometres beneath the North Sea.
Sequestered in secure areas deep beneath the sea, this carbon would no longer contribute to the greenhouse effect – and it could even be synthesised into new fuels for transportation systems in the future.
The aim, as the NZT project’s name suggests, will be to reduce carbon emissions in a number of carbon-intensive industries in the North East to zero by as early as 2030.
But the scale of the Earth’s problem is far more significant than can be solved by the selective decarbonisation of a low number of businesses.
2. Feeding cows seaweed
Another significant greenhouse gas is methane, emissions of which are reaching record levels due to cattle farming.
Agriculture accounted for roughly two-thirds of all methane emissions related to human activities between 2000 and 2017 according to one recent study, with fossil fuels contributing most of the remaining third.
This methane primarily comes from burping cattle, due to how cows digest food – fermenting it in their stomachs where the sugars are converted into simpler molecules that can be absorbed by the body.
Scientists have discovered that a red seaweed which grows in the tropics can reduce methane emissions by 80% in cows when it is added as a supplement to cattle feed.
However, with nearly 1.5 billion head of cattle globally, there is simply not enough of this seaweed currently available to suppress these burps – although perhaps some scientists might be able to reproduce the crucial ingredient which will help keep them down.
3. Delicious insects
While individuals’ dietary decisions don’t come within the purview of potential technological solutions to climate change, innovative food creation definitely does.
Another interesting way to reduce the methane pollution from cattle farming would be to replace the beef with a substitute made from insects – and this is already taking off in places.
Protein-rich insects such as mealworms can be farmed without the demands on land or water that cattle farming requires – but even if the insects are high in protein there are a number of other crucial nutrients which humans generally only find in meat – including iron.
Some scientific research suggests that a range of insects could provide all of the mineral nutrients which humans need – but of course, even this isn’t a quick fix – insect burgers largely remain a novelty item rather than something which can be mass produced and consumed.
4. Climate repair
The Centre for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge is investigating a number of ideas which would repair the damage being done by human pollution.
Among their ideas are refreezing the poles by brightening the clouds above them, essentially by spraying tiny drops of salt into the sky to assist the clouds in reflecting radiation back into space.
Another suggestion has been “greening” the oceans, essentially fertilising them to encourage the growth of plant matter and algae which could absorb more CO2.
However some research warns that this could cause enormous disruption to the oceans’ ecosystems, and potentially wouldn’t even then be able to capture enough CO2 to offset emissions.
5. Remote working
As the coronavirus pandemic has shown, many office jobs can be successfully fulfilled from home – potentially offering a route to reduce emissions from transport and office buildings.
Driving to and from work is the largest source of carbon emissions in the developed world.
The technology to support remote working has been rapidly adopted as businesses attempted to manage the impact of COVID-19 on their workers, and governments rushed to lock down their countries and prevent mass deaths.
However remote working may only be an effective method of reducing emissions during the summer.
It turns out that when buildings need to be heated during the winter it is much more efficient to have numerous people in a single building rather than distributed across their own homes, and some research suggests this might even offset the emissions from transportation.
6. Greater use of data centres
A similar logic regarding the heating of individual homes versus office buildings can be applied when it comes to computation.
The advent of computers has increased electricity consumption considerably, but modern data centres are often far more energy efficient than personal computers.
Rather than performing energy-intensive applications on local machines – from crunching complicated numbers through to playing video games – people could begin to offset a considerable amount of energy expenditure by having these applications performed in the cloud.
The big technology companies which specialise in providing cloud computing services – Amazon, Google and Microsoft – are large consumers of renewable energy.
Google and Microsoft have both launched cloud gaming platforms too which don’t require gamers to purchase consoles (the production of which also cause emissions) to play them.
But data centres are dependent upon quality internet connections, which themselves can produce emissions, and for many people across the world those connections simply aren’t available.
7. Household energy efficiency
The single-most effective technological solution to climate change is going to be reducing energy consumption overall, and nothing is going to do that more than making homes more energy efficient.
The technology to achieve this is already there, with many of the newest products on the market capable of shaving hundreds of pounds off of household bills annually.
The European Union has established an energy labelling scheme that labels appliances for how energy efficient they are, informing consumers about how much it will cost them to run refrigerators and washing machines, as well as other products from light bulbs to televisions.
Energy savings made through design innovations for these household goods might be small individually, but they have the potential to scale and significantly impact energy consumption across the course of a year for a household, and even more significantly across all households in a country.
Across the EU, buildings consume 40% of overall energy and are responsible for 35% of CO2 emissions – although energy consumption per household has dropped over the past 50 years due to efficiency measures.
But according to the independent, statutory body the Committee on Climate Change, homes in the UK are “unfit” at the moment to meet the challenges posed by warming global temperatures and the need to reduce energy consumption. Newer, greener, electronic goods could be a good place to start.
Coronavirus is the greatest global challenge many of us will experience in our lifetimes. But before the pandemic hit, it was climate change that loomed over us as the planet’s biggest problem.
So what happens now? How do we deal with both of them at the same time?
Watch our special live show – Climate After Covid: A Green Recovery? – from 8-9pm on Sky News, and from 8-9.30pm on the Sky News website and app this Thursday as we look for the answers.