Fifteen projects working on the top five climate solutions

We can solve climate change in the next 30 years using only existing technology.  That’s the conclusion of Project Drawdown, a coalition of researchers led by environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawkens.  Earlier this year, the group published rankings of the top 80 existing solutions as well as discussing 20 more solutions that are still being developed.

I decided to take a look at some projects and businesses that are working on the five areas with the most potential to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Read on for inspiration!

1. Refrigerant management

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), leaking from fridges, freezers and air conditioning units, damage the climate thousands of times more strongly per kilogram than the better-known culprit carbon dioxide (CO2).  Perhaps surprisingly, managing refrigerants more carefully could be a top contributor to tackling climate change – the Kigali deal signed in Rwanda last year will see HFCs phased out in 170 countries and could decrease global temperatures by 0.5°C compared to business-as-usual.  That’s a big deal, since we’re trying to keep the total global temperature increase under 2°C.

Alternative refrigerants that are better for the climate are already available, such as ammonia, propane and CO2.  Sainsbury’s supermarket is even trialling a CO2 refrigerant made from sugar beet, known as eCO2.  As the sugar beet ferments to make bioethanol, CO2 is formed as a waste product.  Since sugar beet absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere as it grows, the maker A-Gas claims that the production of eCO2 is green compared to CO2 derived from fossil fuels.

Sugar beet plants.  Image credit: WikimediaImages (Pixabay Licence).

What if we could avoid using refrigerants in the first place?  A researcher at ETH Zurich has designed a membrane that could potentially be used as a curtain that cools the air in a house, perhaps reducing the load on air conditioning units.  The only energy source required would be the sunlight falling on the curtain and no refrigerant gases would be used.

In magnetic refrigerators, which use special materials that heat up in a magnetic field and cool down outside of it, there is no need to use refrigerant gases since heat can be moved around inside the refrigerator using water-based liquids.  This eliminates the risk of gases escaping into the atmosphere.  Award-winning company Cooltech Applications, one of several developing magnetic refrigerators, claims that its product could reduce energy use by half compared to some conventional refrigerators, as well as being safer by operating at lower pressures.

2. Onshore wind turbines

Land-based wind farms are becoming a common sight across landscapes from California to Scotland, and have been increasing in capacity by around 20% each year for the last decade.  While Project Drawdown’s calculations assume that only existing technology is used, there are many businesses trying to improve wind energy.

Wind turbines in Italy.  Image credit: tpsdave (Pixabay Licence).

Project Drawdown says that wind energy costs are falling every year.  Machine learning algorithms are cutting costs even further by detecting maintenance issues before they become serious (and expensive).  For example, Danish start-up Wind Power LAB uses artificial intelligence to automatically find defects in pictures of wind turbine blades, allowing maintenance work to be carried out before the turbine fails.

Some companies are taking a radically new approach.  Seeking to protect birds and reduce noise, the crowdfunded Vortex Bladeless design has no rotating blades; instead, it is shaped like a tall cylinder and harvests energy by wobbling from side to side in the wind.  The creators claim that manufacturing and maintenance costs are lower than for conventional turbines.

Sheerwind’s Invelox design uses large funnels to capture and concentrate low-speed winds.  Sheerwind claims that the design lets wind energy be harvested in urban areas, is safe for birds because the blades are enclosed and would reduce maintenance costs because the machinery is at ground level.

3. Reduced food waste

The global food system causes around one third of our greenhouse gas emissions, but around one third of the food produced is never eaten.  Many charities and businesses are taking advantage of this huge opportunity to cut our environmental impact.

Toast Ale turns surplus fresh bread from bakeries and sandwich factories into tasty craft beer.  As well as saving one slice of bread from waste for every bottle brewed, Toast Ale sends its profits to food waste charity Feedback.

Toast Ale’s collection of beers.  Image credit: Toast Ale.

The free app OLIO makes it easy to give your leftover food to neighbours instead of throwing it out.  So far, over 400,000 items of food have been shared!  There’s the option to pay an amount of your choosing in exchange for food that you receive, most of which goes to food waste charities (the remainder covers OLIO’s own costs).

If you’d rather pick up ready-to-eat food, then try the Too Good To Go app, where restaurants, bakeries and more list cut-price food that might otherwise be wasted at the end of the day.  You can reserve and pay for your order in the app and then collect your food shortly before the restaurant closes.

4. Plant-rich diet

Eating more plants, and especially reducing red meat intake, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically.  One study estimated that vegan diets in the UK cause only half the carbon footprint of meat-based diets, per person.  However, you don’t have to be fully vegan to make an impact: the study found that emissions are 17% lower for a low-meat diet than for a medium-meat diet.

Plant-based diets are growing in popularity.  In the UK, as many as one in three people identify as part-time vegetarians and there are over half a million vegans, more than three times as many as there were in 2006.  The Veganuary campaign helped 60,000 people try a vegan diet during January 2017, with 66% of participants remaining vegan six months on.  Take a look at Veganuary’s website for recipes, shopping guides and nutritional information.

Those who don’t want to give up meat may be encouraged by recent developments in cultured meat, where muscle cells are grown in the laboratory instead of rearing an entire animal.  This could reduce environmental impacts significantly.  For example, Memphis Meats, backed by Bill Gates and Richard Branson, has already produced what it calls “clean meat” versions of meatball, chicken and duck.

Memphis Meats’ Southern Fried “Chicken”.  Image credit: Memphis Meats.

Impossible Foods has taken a different approach, using plant-based ingredients rather than real animal cells to make a burger.  The difference from existing plant-based meat replacements (such as Quorn) is that Impossible Foods has apparently replicated the taste of meat by adding the molecule heme.  The heme is produced in tanks of genetically modified yeast – the same technique that makes many vital medicines today.

5. Tropical forests

Tropical forests are being destroyed, often to make way for cattle.  Restoration of tropical forests can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as well as having many benefits for local communities, including reducing droughts and protecting soil.  Working on other solutions to climate change will relieve pressure on forests by reducing demand for land for food, but some projects are taking an active approach to restoring tropical forests.

Ecosia is a search engine that uses 80% of its advertising revenue to support tree-planting projects around the world.  It has so far planted over 16 million trees, taking care that the projects it supports are appropriate for local communities.

A tree nursery belonging to The Friends of Usambara Society, a Tanzanian project supported by Ecosia. Image credit: Ecosia.

American non-profit Conservation International, together with several partners including the World Bank, will plant 73 million trees in the Brazilian Amazon by 2023 in what it claims is “the largest tropical forest restoration in the world“.

BioCarbon Engineering plans to revolutionise reforestation by using drones to survey degraded land and quickly plant biodegradable pods containing sprouted seeds and a gel to feed them.  The drones will be able to reach areas that would be hard to reach on foot.  Customers will include mining companies that want to restore their land.  CEO Lauren Fletcher claims that BioCarbon Engineering will be able to plant one billion trees a year!

These fifteen projects, businesses and organisations are just the tip of the iceberg.  There are many more people working on these solutions in different ways, and I haven’t even discussed the other 95 solutions to climate change that Project Drawdown identified.

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