From hurricanes to wildfires, damage from global warming is a real conundrum and related data have grown increasingly alarming. Fueled by greenhouse gases pouring into the atmosphere, global warming has caused: extreme weather events, sea level changes and shifts in the Earth’s ecosystems. All put humans and wildlife at risk.
Another side to the story, though, showed that tech researchers and startups are eager to tackle these challenges. Their creative and often surprising solutions—including nature-based ones—may just reverse current trends.
The environmental outlook for 2020 and beyond would read like a horror story if nothing were being done to address:
• Global Warming. The years 2014 to 2018 were the five hottest in the 140 years since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began keeping track, with NOAA finding a sizeable rise in temperature since the 1970s.
• Rising Sea Levels. U.S. Geological Survey data showed that, through 2050, sea levels will rise an added 4 to 19 inches depending on location. That assessment was grave, as more than 44 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas and eight of the world’s 10 largest cities are near a coast, per the U.N. Atlas of Oceans.
• Extreme Weather. Hurricane activity, droughts and other extreme events have been increasing. These trends are intensifying alongside global warming with severe effects, reported the congressionally-mandated U.S. Global Change Research Program. The Atlantic Coast is now hit annually by hurricanes which force millions to evacuate; they also do billions of dollars in damage. In the West, wildfires have scorched entire towns and raged simultaneously.
• Ocean Health. A 2016 UC Santa Barbara study found that 8 Million metric tons of plastic waste wind up in oceans each year. At the same time, reported the World Resources Institute, ocean reefs are destroyed by commercial fishing, coastal development and other human activity.
A U.N. study dated December 2019 showed that greenhouse gas levels worldwide were at an all-time high and are causing or aggravating the above problems—with the U.N. calling for drastic action to prevent disastrous effects.
The Search for Solutions
Imagine turning discarded plastic into cheap fuel or cleaning carbon from the air by increasing the whale population. Innovators from the research to startup sectors have rolled out an array of “cleantech” solutions like these and interest among investors, which waned during the 2008 recession, has rebounded.
In 2016, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and others formed the Breakthrough Energy Coalition and launched a cleantech venture firm seeking to invest $1 Billion over 20 years. Breakthrough Energy Ventures has since funded 19 companies globally. Several other big leaguers have joined the coalition, such as: former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sir Richard Branson, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Alibaba Jack Ma and SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son.
Bullish interest has led banks and others to warm to these trends, too. Form Energy, Inc., an MIT spinoff founded in 2017, began developing power grid batteries using sulfur instead of lithium to overcome an obstacle in renewable-energy storage: cost. Its progress garnered serious interest, leading to an August 2019 investment of $40 Million from BEV and the like. It was BEV’s second investment in the firm.
The Nature of Change
Some proposed solutions are less techy and more nature-based. Consider the oyster.
Oyster reefs create living shorelines which: Stave off storm surges and flooding, prevent erosion and mitigate sea-level rise. Around the world, projects have sprung up to build new reefs courtesy of the shellfish. The prior alternatives, concrete and steel seawalls, were found more costly and harmful to marine life. But, wait! Oysters are also natural water purifiers. One adult oyster can filter pollution from 50-plus gallons of water daily.
The grassroots Billion Oyster Project was founded to restore oysters across N.Y. Harbor by 2035, replacing the 1 Billion lost to fishing over time. It has recruited 8,000 students, 9,000 other volunteers and 75 restaurants, the latter providing leftover oyster shells for restoration use. By early December 2019, BOP had restored 30 Million oysters which had filtered an estimated 19.7 Trillion gallons of water.
While the effort is ongoing, there is no magic pill for reversing environmental problems. Building a sustainable future and battling climate change require diligence and a change of habits. Magic will happen along the way, though, in the form of innovation and natural discovery.
Crisis, after all, begets innovation.
Source List (run online w/URLs embedded)
Billion Oyster Project. “Our Purpose.” BillionOysterProject.org.
Breakthrough Energy Coalition. “Global Business Innovators Launch $1 Billion Investment Fund for Next Generation Energy Technologies” (Dec. 12, 2016). B-t.energy.
Burke, Lauretta, Katie Reytar, Mark Spalding & Allison Perry. “Reefs at Risk Revisited” (February 2011). WRI.org.
Cohen, Julie. “An Ocean of Plastic” (Feb. 12, 2015, Research: The Current). UCSB.edu.
Cole, Steve. “2018 Fourth Warmest Year in Continued Warming Trend, According to NASA, NOAA” (Feb. 6, 2019, Press Release). NASA.gov.
Form Energy. “Form Energy Closes Series B to Enable the Transition to 100% Renewable Grid” (Aug. 22, 2019, Press). FormEnergy.com.
Jacobson, Rebecca. “Will Your City Be Underwater? There’s a Map for That” (Mar. 14, 2012, Science). PBS.org.
NASA. “The Effects of Climate Change” (Global Climate Change: Effects). Climate.NASA.gov.
United Nations Atlas of the Oceans. “Human Settlements on the Coast” (Uses). OceansAtlas.org.
U.S. Global Change Research Program. “Extreme Events.” GlobalChange.gov.
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