At TrackerNews, we have highlighted all kinds of promising green energy ideas, from micro-wind andsolar textiles to vast arrays of concentrated solar collectorsand giant “sea snakes” harvesting wave energy.
We love them all and their heartening range of ingenuity and resourcefulness. But none of them – or even all of them taken together – can do much to move the global thermostat in the near term, especially without the political will and the investment that results to grow them to scale.
We began to wonder whether there were any ideas that could make a difference, that could actually help stabilize our feverish planet within a matter of years instead of decades. We found five – an encouraging start. Notably, all take their design cues from nature and offer multi-faceted benefits. Nature, notes Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Institute, relies on technologies that have been field tested for millions of years, the ultimate in iterative design. It works. Every time.
MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera says he can solve the world’s energy needs with a little bit water – and while he’s at it, make a dent in the water crisis. Although the most theoretical of the four ideas, Nocera’s breakthrough could lead to a quick and decisive global conversion to a hydrogen-based economy.
He began by calculating global energy needs past and future (best case and business-as-usual scenarios), comparing them with the most optimistic projections for energy generated from non-carbon sources (wind, solar, nuclear) and noting the physical limitations that prevent significant improvement in battery storage. Disturbingly, even if we all did everything possible to minimize per capita energy consumption and the number of “capitas” was kept in check by educating poor women – the fastest way, according to Nocera, to reduce the birth rate, the future looks pretty gloomy.
In the hopes of rosying things up, he studied how plants make energy by splitting water molecules. For years researchers had focused on finding catalysts that could survive the process. Nocera noticed that nature didn’t bother, instead using catalysts that simply reassembled themselves. The system was “self-healing.” Then he came up with a way to do the same thing.
Growing Power, agriculturist and MacArthur fellow Will Allen’s flagship farm in Milwaukee, has become the “go to” lab for urban agriculture. Even in sub-zero, snow-packed dead of winter Wisconsin, the suite of greenhouses spread over 3 acres a few blocks from the city’s largest public housing project produces harvest after bountiful harvest. It is literally a green oasis in the middle of a food desert.
As in nature, there is no waste, only recycling. And the more complex the system, the more robust and stable it becomes. Worms – millions of red wrigglers – convert mountains of municipal waste into castings of remarkable fertility. Fish poo feeds plants that filter water for the fish in closed loop aquaponics set-ups. Rainwater is captured and stored. Compost berms insulate and heat greenhouses. Over 150 crops – vegetables, fruit, poultry and fish – dovetail in dense exuberance, collectively generating from $5 to $30 per square foot, which is super-star status by traditional farm metrics.
Among the climate benefits:
- No petrochemical fertilizers required
- Much shorter “farm to fork” distribution chains, so a significantly reduced carbon footprint
- Growing plants that sequester carbon
Willie Smits, a Dutch-born forestry scientist working in Indonesia, is, to a certain extent, doing the same thing as Will Allen, only on a rainforest scale.
For the last 30 years, he has focused much of his work in Borneo, which now has the dubious distinction of being the world’s 3rd highest emitter of greenhouse gases, right behind China and the United States. This is due almost entirely to the wholesale destruction of its rainforests to make way for palm oil plantations. Deforestation has also dealt at crushing blow to the island’s biodiversity, turning great swaths of land into superficially green monoculture bio-deserts. The loss of coastal forests has also led to inland droughts. Trees that transpired massive amounts of water vapor into the air are gone, so oceans winds blow dry and hot.
The scourge of palm oil plantations is now spreading to Africa, where there are plans for a one million hectare (~ 3,800 square mile) operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Smits’ solution? Trade in the oil palm for the polyculture-loving, biodiversity-friendly, marginal land-suited, local economy-boosting, altogether superior sugar palm. He has developed a method to process the notoriously fast-fermenting sap (a.k.a. “juice”) before it begins go alcoholic. The juice, which can be turned either into sugar or ethanol, is only one of series of forest-based products, ranging from food to furniture. The scheme, however, can only succeed with local support to assure a vested interest in protecting the land. It is as much about preserving the stability of human cultures and local economies as it is restoring forests to thriving productivity.
If someone were to tell you that there was a way to sequester carbon while improving soil fertility, would you bite?
Biochar, charcoal produced in a low oxygen burn, was first used by Amazonians at least 1,500 years ago as a soil amendment (called terra preta or black earth). Its porous structure attracts microbial colonization, which attracts other soil life forms, which improves the recycling of nutrients. Little did the Amazonians realize, but biochar is also very good at sequestering atmospheric carbon and nitrous oxide (which molecule for molecule, packs roughly 300 times the greenhouse gas punch).
Tim Flannery (“The Weathermakers“) thinks biochar may be “the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental future,” while James Lovelock (“The Revenge of Gaia“) suspects it may be our only chance.
It is not, however, without controversy, with some wondering how burning biomass could possibly help the environment. Proponents point out that it also improves soil moisture retention, so crops don’t require as much water – a big plus from regions hit with climate-driven drought – while reducing the need for petrochemical fertilizers.
If entrepreneurs such as Jason Aramburu are right, not only could biochar dramatically improve crop yields in developing world, its production could generate enough energy to power a village. Scaled up globally, it could bring us back from the brink of climate catastrophe. “If we can get two billion tons of CO2, two gigatons out, in year,” says Araburu, “we could roll back emissions to pre-1982 levels in just 10 years.”
When a population of anything – bacteria, bugs or bunnies – grows beyond its supplies of food, water or shelter, or pollutes its environment to the point it becomes poisonous, there will be die-offs. The species may survive. Or not. This is Nature’s ultimate feedback loop and there is no negotiation.
In 1900, the global human population was 1.65 billion. In 2000, it was just over 6 billion. In another 40 years, the U.N. estimates it will be over 9 billion. And if something isn’t done fast to slow or reverse climate change, at least 250 million of them are expected to be “climate refugees.” These will be people whose island homes or coastal cities have been submerged by rising seas. Fresh water supplies will have been fatally fouled. Others will have fled drought-scarred lands left dry and desolate by the retreat of glaciers. Still others will find their homelands flooded by ever more frequent and fierce typhoons, hurricanes and tornadoes.
As a species, we are running out of everything: food, water, shelter, clean air and especially time. But we can buy at least a little time if population growth can slowed.
Daniel Nocera is right: Investing in the education of poor women (along with providing ready access to contraceptives) is a critical part of addressing the energy crisis and, by extension, climate change. Women who attend school have fewer children because they are in a better position to make decisions about their families and their futures.According to WHO, there are 51 million unplanned children born in the developing world each year. That’s 1/6 of the population of the United States. Each year.
Each one of five ideas offers the extra bonus of multiple bottom lines: Save the climateand provide energy / clean water / food / jobs / habitat restoration / education. We can either learn from nature and biomimic our way to a more promising future, or defy it and suffer.
The really good news: We don’t have to wait for politicians. We can start to make a difference right now.
- “Janine Benyus: Biomimicry in action” (TED talk – video)
- Biomimicry: Nature as Model, Measure and Mentor (Benyus’ website)
- “Chemistry and Personalized Solar Power” (NPR “Science Friday” interview with Daniel Nocera- audio)
- “The Farm Next Door: Urban Agriculture, Biomimicry, Aquaponics, Why Worms are Priceless & How Will Allen Aims to Fix the World” (TrackerBlog post)
- Tapergy: Willie Smits’ business to commercialize the sugar palm and related rainforest products (website)
- “The Carbon NEGATIVE Option: Why Tim Flannery & James Lovelock Love Biochar” (TrackerBlog post)
- “The Way Forward: Researching the Environment and Migration Nexus” (report by the Institute for Environment and Human Security, United Nations University – pdf)