What we learned this year about how to avoid a climate catastrophe

COP26 was not a fist-in-the-air moment, and not the victory against climate change that humanity had been banking on. Sadly, politics and commerce put a hard thumb on proceedings, limiting the action possible. Commitments to “phase down” coal, rather than a firm pledge to eliminate it outright, show how far we still have to go. But the event also served to highlight the extent of what needs to be done if humanity’s going to survive beyond the next century.

One “victory” out of the event was the belief that ensuring global warming held at 1.5 degrees was still possible. It’s worth saying, however, that 1.5 degrees isn’t a target to meet so much as an acceptance of impending disaster. In October, the IPCC explained that such a temperature increase will cause significant upticks in the frequency of extreme heat waves, monsoon-like rainfall and widespread droughts. Extreme weather events that may have taken place once every 50 years a few centuries ago could become a regular, and fatal, occurrence.

All the while, the facts of the matter are unchanged: Humanity needs to avoid adding new carbon emissions while also tackling those we’ve already emitted. That means an aggressive reduction of every man-made carbon-emitting process everywhere on Earth, the total reformation of agriculture and an unprecedented rollout of carbon capture and storage technology. And, ideally, that process should have begun the better part of two decades ago.

There are many dispiriting facts about the world, but one that always hurts is the fact that coal plants are still being greenlit. Global Energy Monitor’s data has plants currently being permitted or under construction in (deep breath) China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Mongolia, Vietnam, Singapore, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Poland, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. As Reuters says, each plant will be expected to run for at least 40 years, severely damaging efforts to go Carbon Negative. Not only is it in everyone’s best interest that these plants don’t go online, but wealthier nations have a moral obligation to help provide the funding to help at least some of those names move toward clean energy.

Tunvarat Pruksachat via Getty Images

The problem is that electricity is going to be the most important resource of the 21st century, especially if we’re going to tackle climate change. Many key technologies, like transportation, will ditch fossil fuels in favor of electricity as their primary source of fuel. The world’s demand for energy is going to increase, and we’re going to need to generate that power cleanly. The US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions believes that, by 2050, the world’s power needs will jump by 24 percent. So where will we get all of this clean power from?

Fusion has, forever, been held up as a magic bullet that will totally eradicate our worries about energy generation. Unlike Nuclear Fission, it produces little waste, requires little raw fuel and can’t produce a runaway reaction. Unfortunately, Fusion remains as elusive as The Venus de Milo’s arms or a good new Duke Nukem game. ITER, the internationally-funded, French-built experimental reactor won’t be finished until 2025 at the earliest and is still just a testbed. If successful — and that’s a big if — we’re still a decade away from any serious progress being made, at which point mass decarbonization will already need to be well underway.

That means any power decarbonization will have to come from the renewable technology that’s available to us today. Nuclear, Wind, Solar, Geothermal and Tidal power all need to be ramped up to fill in the gap, but the scale of the task in the US alone is staggering. According to the EIA, the US generated just short of 2,500 billion kWh using fossil fuels in 2020. If you wanted to, for instance, replace all of that with nuclear power, you’d need to build anything in the region of 300 reactors, or increase the number of solar panels installed in the US by roughly a hundred percent — and that’s before we talk about intermittency.

Urtopia ebike.
James Trew / Engadget

One thing we can do, however, is to reduce our demand for energy to lessen the need for such a dramatic shift. That can be, for instance, as easy as better insulating your home (in cold climates) or improving the efficiency of AC systems (in warm climates). Another smart move is to ditch the car in favor of public transportation, walking, or getting on your bike. There is evidence that e-bike adoption is becoming a big deal, with Forbes saying that sales are tipped to grow from just under 4 million annually in 2020 to close to 17 million by 2030.

None of this, however, will matter much unless we can also find a way to pay off the debts humanity has racked up over the last century. The IPCC believes that we need to extract up to one trillion tonnes of atmospheric CO2 in the near future. This can be done with massive tree planting works, more of which needs to be done, but also this process may need a little help.

That’s why a number of startups have been working on industrial processes to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. Right now, such a process is very expensive, but it’s hoped that as the technology improves, the cost will start to tumble. There’s also a concern, of course, that running schemes like this will give polluting companies and nations a free license to avoid reform.

As much as we can hope that this technology matures quickly, the rate of progress needs to get a lot faster a, uh, lot faster. For instance, Climeworks’ Orca, its new flagship carbon capture plant in Iceland, will extract 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. If we’re going to reach the point where we can avert a climate catastrophe using extraction alone, we’ll need this capacity to increase by about a hundred million times.

The point of this is, broadly speaking, to outline how much more sharply our attitudes toward the climate need to shift. If we’re going to succeed at defeating climate change then we’re going to need to go onto the sort of war footing – where resources are devoted to nothing but solving the crisis – that few can ever imagine undertaking. But, as most of the resources point out, the only way that we’re going to stave off the damage after dragging our feet for so long is to go all-out in search of a solution.

Biden orders federal buildings, vehicles to adopt renewable energy by 2050

The White House's renewable energy push now includes a transformation of the federal government. President Biden has issued an executive order that would require the government to stop buying combustion engine vehicles by 2035, and to switch all buildings to renewables and other zero-carbon energy sources by 2050. The administration willbuy only carbon-free electricity by 2030, and aims to cut building emissions in half by 2032.

Biden saw the measure as a way to "lead by example" and encourage both a "carbon pollution-free" electricity industry by 2035 and net zero emissions for the entire economy by 2050. The federal government is the largest employer, energy user and land owner in the US, the President said, and its shift to renewables could influence private businesses.

It's a modest goal in some ways. The timeline is very long, for a start. Multiple states will have banned gas-powered car sales by 2035 — why would it take the federal government that long to switch a relatively modest 600,000-vehicle fleet to EVs and other emissions-free machines? The 300,000 buildings are more daunting, but the order gives officials roughly three decades to make the transition.

At the same time, there are plenty of challenges. The feds depend on a wide range of buildings and vehicles across the country, many of them with different requirements. It may take a highly coordinated effort to transition everything to zero-emissions transport and renewable energy, even if the scale is relatively modest. And then there's the question of future administrations. As we've seen before, a new presidency can undo environmental regulations and delay or even thwart emissions reduction plans. The targets offer plenty of opportunities for reversals.

The order is still notable even if there are setbacks. It's an acknowledgment that efforts to limit climate change aren't confined to the private sector, and it could prompt contractors to transition to environmentally friendly products in a bid to win federal deals.

This bamboo cooling device combats climate change as a sustainable alternative to modern AC units!





French multidisciplinary firm AREP developed an alternative, energy-efficient cooling device out of bamboo as a sustainable, low-tech, and affordable means for cold air.

The ongoing threat of climate change has spurred many designers to action. Facing the imminency of prolonged storms, flooding, and recurrent heatwaves, coastal cities, and dry areas are especially vulnerable to the effects of our changing climate.

Vietnam is particularly affected by heatwaves, the city’s most chronic and cyclic of climate events. With excessive heat increasing the need for cold air, air conditioning units are constantly taking great amounts of energy to cool the city down and leaking coolant gas in the process, directly fueling the climate crisis.

Following cues from the Seoul Architecture and Urbanism Biennale 2021 “building the resilient city,” French multi-disciplinary firm AREP designed an alternative, energy-efficient cooling device for a sustainable, low-tech, and affordable solution to combatting the climate crisis. Forming a hyperboloid shape for structural stability, the cooling device stands as a bamboo tower that naturally cools air through the adiabatic principle by using, “the natural freshness of water.”

Explaining the cooling process, architects behind the bamboo tower describe, “To evaporate, water needs energy, which is ‘absorbed’ from the heat of the ambient air, thus generating the cooling effect.” More simply, the firm reasons that the process can be compared to moving closer to an open-air pool on a summer day–the closer you get, the cooler the air feels.

Inspired by the city’s local craftsmanship, the hyperboloid bamboo structure is stationed in Hanoi, Vietnam, where craft villages specialize in bamboo, silk, and pottery, among other trades. Relying on sustainable building and operation methods, AREP designed a cooling device that can be built responsibly from abundant, local resources.

Depending on the adiabatic principle for function, the bamboo tower features a grid of main poles that transfer water through gravity. Then, “at its center is installed a blower taking the hot air from above and pushing it down at human height. As it crosses the water twice, the air is naturally cooled by the adiabatic principle.”

Upon developing their own BIM parametric digital model for prototype phasing, AREP envisions the alternative cooling device in dryer climates, like near the Mediterranean basin or in the gulf, for public squares, sunny pedestrian streets, and larger buildings like train stations.

Designer: AREP

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Earth Black Box is an indestructible recorder built by scientists to record climate change & civilization

This giant steel box sitting on a remote outcrop in Tasmania is an indestructible tool designed to outlive us all while recording every action and inaction towards climate change that affects our civilization…and it has already started recording! The Earth Black Box is similar to the black boxes that are designed to survive airplane crashes and provide investigators valuable data on what led to the disaster — except on a planetary scale so whoever finds it has access to all the data that led to our eventual downfall. Slipping into an existential crisis? The only way to combat that is dramatically changing the way we live and work towards sustainability on all accounts.

It is a 10-meter x 4-meter x 3-meter steel monolith located in Tasmania which was chosen for its geopolitical and geological stability, ahead of other candidates like Malta, Norway, and Qatar. The idea is that the Tasmanian site can cradle the black box for the benefit of a future civilization, should catastrophic climate change cause our downfall as we are currently on track for as much as 2.7 C of warming this century. The project is completely non-commercial and the guiding design principle is functionality, according to Jim Curtis from Clemenger BBDO.

The box will be made from 7.5-centimeter-thick steel, cantilevered off the granite, and will be filled with a mass of storage drives and have internet connectivity, all powered by solar panels on the structure’s roof. It will also include batteries that will provide backup power storage according to Jonathan Kneebone, co-founder of artistic collective the Glue Society that is a part of the project along with the researchers at the University of Tasmania.

When the sun is shining, the black box will be downloading scientific data and an algorithm will be gleaning climate-change-related material from the internet. It will collect measurements of land and sea temperatures, ocean acidification, atmospheric CO2, species extinction, land-use changes, as well as things like human population, military spending and energy consumption. It will collect contextual data such as newspaper headlines, social media posts, and news from key events like Conference of the Parties (COP) climate change meetings.

The black box will record backward as well as forward in time, to document how we got to where we are — pulling any available historical climate change data off the internet. And although construction of the housing structure itself will only begin early next year, the hard drives have already begun recording, beginning with the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November this year. Using compression and archiving, the developers estimate there will be enough capacity to store data for the next 30 to 50 years.

In the meantime, the team is investigating ways to expand that capacity and more long-term storage methods including inscribing to “steel plates”. It will enable the box to be far more efficient with how each tier of storage is used and make it possible to store data for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Gaining access to the box’s interior through its three-inch-thick steel casing will already require some ingenuity. “The idea is if the Earth does crash as a result of climate change, this indestructible recording device will be there for whoever’s left to learn from that,” says Curtis.

The developers presume whoever is capable of that will also be able to interpret basic symbols. “We are exploring the possibility of including an electronic reader that stays within the box and will be activated upon exposure to sunlight, also reactivating the box if it has entered a long-term dormant state as a result of a catastrophe.” It is not the first of its kind, we already have a doomsday vault full of seeds to restart agriculture and even a meteor-safe vault for Oreo recipes…you know, just in case you are craving a cookie post-apocalypse.

Designer: Earth Black Box

 

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These wooden urban architecture sculptures in Venice are calling for climate action!

Climate change has inspired a lot of designs and installations over recent years, but there is something poetically ironic about Issori’s ‘A Line of Water’  which was unveiled during Dutch Design Week 2021. It is a sculptural gesture and call to climate action designed to live in Venice, one of the cities that will face the wrath of rising sea levels faster than others. The wooden installation spreads awareness about the water levels while also giving the community a space to relax in – didn’t I say poetically ironic?

The series of wooden installations enable its inhabitants to be fully immersed in the city’s lagoon landscape. The urban architecture proposal includes benches, platforms, and pier-like extensions that would be partially immersed during high tide and fully accessible during low tide. The aim of the project is to foster more awareness of the shifting sea levels, which are increasing the frequency of high tides in the city. At the same time, Issori wanted to create a place to relax and be together. She describes it as an “urban living room”.

“The phenomenon of high and low tide is unique,” says Issori. “It is part of the everyday life of locals, as well as an attraction for tourists. Related to atmospheric events and climate change, the raising of the tide is more and more frequent not only in this area but also in other parts of the world. In the research, I wanted to explore a way to embrace the water and connect with nature, while taking the time to be fully immersed in the lagoon landscape.”

Building on the area’s historical blueprint, Issori imagines the contemporary interventions in the gardens of Sant’Elena in the Castello district. The district was an uninhabited lagoon until the 1920’s when the land was reclaimed and a new residential area was built. The series of platforms extend outward from the water’s edge as well as multiple circular designs with tiered seating for people to gather.

Issori imagines the platforms being made from oak and larch wood, the same materials used to create the piles on which Venice’s foundation is built. These types of wood are used because of their density, strength, and water resistance. “The construction system involved is the same one used to build Venice. The wooden poles are planted in the clayey soil where the oxygen is not present so that the deterioration process doesn’t take place. The part of the pole which is in contact with water will slowly be damaged and would need to be replaced with the passing of years,” she explains.

There are also several installations on land for people to interact with specifically during high tide, which include sloped platforms and a curved bench. ​​Italian squares and the rounded shape of Sicilian amphitheaters were reference points when opting for rounded forms, as well as a desire to make users feel protected. The circular shape is a kind of hug and invites people to sit together, share, walk on them or lay down – either way, you will be fully immersed in the landscape and closer to water.

Designer: Margherita Issori

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COP26 climate change deal falls short on coal targets

The COP26 climate conference has come to an end, but it probably won't satisfy some of its more outspoken critics. Reuters and The Washington Post report that the United Nations-helmed summit has reached a final deal on efforts to accelerate emissions reduction and otherwise keep to a Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5C. There are some areas where the new arrangement (billed by the UN as the Glasgow Climate Pact) may offer significant progress, but there are also concerns it doesn't hold countries to stricter standards — including a move away from coal energy.

In negotiations that extended roughly a day past the original November 12th deadline, representatives from China and India successfully changed language in the COP26 agreement that asked countries to "phase-down" unabated coal use rather than "phase-out." While COP26 president Alok Sharma and numerous countries' delegates wanted the tougher language, Sharma said it was "vital" to protect the deal. However, there are worries this will give coal-dependent countries like China and India an excuse to avoid firmer commitments to emissions reduction.

Previous critics blasted wealthier nations for failing to act on a promise of giving poorer countries $100 billion per year until 2023 to help them deal with climate change. The Glasgow deal only committed to making a new plan in the next three years.

The final pact does include some notable measures. It asks countries "revisit and strengthen" their climate change plans before the end of 2022, as New Scientistnoted. Similarly, there's a strategy to address long-running disputes over global carbon credit markets. Numerous countries promised to reduce methane emissions and stop deforestation, and the agreement called for reduced subsidies on fossil fuels. Separately, the US and China reached a deal to limit climate change in the 2020s, including a new recognition from China that methane had a significant impact on rising temperatures.

Nonetheless, there are fears the COP26 arrangement is generally too soft. It doesn't set many binding targets. The final language only "requests" that countries rethink their plans, for instance. The pact might prompt some countries to step up their environmental initiatives, but others may face relatively few consequences if they fall short.

US and China will cooperate to limit climate change this decade

The US and China are at odds on many fronts, but climate change might not be one of them. The Washington Postreports the two countries have issued a joint pledge at COP26 to limit global warming during the 2020s. Both nations said they recognized a gap between current actions and the Paris agreement target of keeping that warming below 2C, and ideally no higher than 1.5C.

The exact terms weren't available as of this writing, but US climate envoy John Kerry said China committed to reducing methane emissions and coal use "as fast as is achievable." China wouldn't, however, join a US-Europe initiative to cut methane emissions by a third no later than 2030.

Whether or not this translates to meaningful action is far from clear. China has made some efforts to promote electric vehicles and reduce coal dependence, but it's still the largest contributor to emissions and hasn't radically reduced its harmful output. It also hasn't had much of a presence at COP26, with President Xi Jinping declining to show up where US President Joe Biden was happy to attend.

The US isn't immune to problems, either. While the Biden administration has promised to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and spur EV adoption, there's no guarantee it can pass legislation needed to honor its side of the pledge. That's also assuming the next White House doesn't undo previous environmental efforts.

It's still rare to see the US and China agree on climate change issues, though, and the very existence of the pledge represents progress for China. The country hadn't previously acknowledged the impact of methane on global warming, for instance. That suggests China is at least aware of the scope of the problem, even if there's a long way to go before it addresses that problem.

This floating farm turns salty seawater into nutrients for agriculture & improves marine environment!

A Japanese start-up has designed this floating marine farm called Green Ocean using agricultural technology that cultivates seawater as a direct nutrient source! The innovative structure combines salt-resistant technology and sea-friendly architecture to the world a potential solution for the climate change-induced rising sea level problem which comes with heavy salt damage. It harvests rainwater, improves the quality of the water around it, helps with food production while saving water and being a sustainable architectural structure.

Sea level rise is getting progressively worse due to climate change which affects agriculture heavily – it means less land to farm on and also damage to coastal land because of excessive salt. N-ark has developed Green Ocean in partnership with Cultivera which is an agrotechnology R&D company that aims to build the prototype of the floating marine farm by 2022. Seawater agriculture is a special cultivation method that absorbs water and nutrients in the ground and air by mixing and neutralizing alkaline seawater and acidic rainwater. As a result, a huge variety of vegetables can be grown by utilizing the minerals and nutrients contained in seawater!

Green Ocean is a floating, solar-powered, salt-resistant greenhouse constructed with thinned wood and carbon joints. Once it is out on the water, the marine farm will create two new green areas – one will be a food production space that floats on the surface and uses salty agricultural technology and the second will be a layer of algae that will improve the underwater environment. It has a distinctive angular roof that helps to collect rainwater which is then mixed with seawater and used as fertilizer for the plants. Cold seawater is also used for air conditioning within the farms. “By creating a cyclical system environment, Green Ocean plays the role of an adhesive plaster of the Earth,” explains the team.

The basic technology behind seawater agriculture is ‘moisture culture’ which allows cultivation under humidity control. With this method, about 15 cm of the surface layer of natural soil can be reproduced with a special fiber of approximately 5 mm, and vegetables with fortified sugar content and vitamins can be grown by evaporating water with the special fiber by applying water depletion stress to plants. Moisture culture uses one-tenth of the water that is needed in conventional irrigated farming methods and can be applied even in areas where water is not abundant making it a sustainable way to farm at scale.

Designer: N-Ark

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US Department of Energy wants to dramatically reduce the cost of carbon capture technology

The US Department of Energy wants to accelerate the development of carbon capture technology. On Friday, the agency announced a program called Carbon Negative Shot. Part of its Energy Earthshots initiative, the goal here is to foster the development of carbon capture technology that can sequester CO2 at a cost of less than $100 per ton, and can be deployed at the gigaton scale. To put that in perspective, that much carbon is equivalent to the annual emissions of approximately 250 million cars.

“By slashing the costs and accelerating the deployment of carbon dioxide removal — a crucial clean energy technology — we can take massive amounts of carbon pollution directly from the air and combat the climate crisis,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “With our Carbon Negative Shot, we can help remove the greenhouse gases already warming our planet and affecting our health — positioning America as a net-zero leader and creating good-paying jobs for a transitioning clean energy workforce.”

If it wasn’t clear already, the Energy Department has set an ambitious target. In September, Orca, the largest direct carbon capture facility ever, opened in Iceland. The plant will capture 4,000 tons of CO2 per year at a cost of about $600 per ton for bulk purchases. Chimeworks, the company that operates Orca, aims to reduce the cost to $300 or less per ton by 2030. That’s a long way away from the Energy Department’s goal of less than $100 per ton, but sustained and substantial support and investment from the government is exactly what could make that happen.

US Department of Energy wants to dramatically reduce the cost of carbon capture technology

The US Department of Energy wants to accelerate the development of carbon capture technology. On Friday, the agency announced a program called Carbon Negative Shot. Part of its Energy Earthshots initiative, the goal here is to foster the development of carbon capture technology that can sequester CO2 at a cost of less than $100 per ton, and can be deployed at the gigaton scale. To put that in perspective, that much carbon is equivalent to the annual emissions of approximately 250 million cars.

“By slashing the costs and accelerating the deployment of carbon dioxide removal — a crucial clean energy technology — we can take massive amounts of carbon pollution directly from the air and combat the climate crisis,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “With our Carbon Negative Shot, we can help remove the greenhouse gases already warming our planet and affecting our health — positioning America as a net-zero leader and creating good-paying jobs for a transitioning clean energy workforce.”

If it wasn’t clear already, the Energy Department has set an ambitious target. In September, Orca, the largest direct carbon capture facility ever, opened in Iceland. The plant will capture 4,000 tons of CO2 per year at a cost of about $600 per ton for bulk purchases. Chimeworks, the company that operates Orca, aims to reduce the cost to $300 or less per ton by 2030. That’s a long way away from the Energy Department’s goal of less than $100 per ton, but sustained and substantial support and investment from the government is exactly what could make that happen.