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Post COP15, Part 2: Five Ideas That Could Help Save the Climate (Really)

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On biomimicry and the answers right in front of us; Photosynthesis & personal power; Urban farming, tropical agroforestry and (eco)system modeling; A carbon negative idea with fertile perks; Population balance

Waiting for diplomats to resolve the global climate crisis may take so long, it won’t matter. So what do we do in the meantime?

At TrackerNews, we have highlighted all kinds of promising green energy ideas, from micro-wind and solar textiles to vast arrays of concentrated solar collectors and 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.

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1) TAKING A LEAF FROM NATURE

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.

Within  “8.1254 years, ” Nocera envisions homes outfitted with solar panels tied into  inexpensive water-splitting systems (no pricey precious metals such as platinum required – common pvc pipe will do). The resulting hydrogen will be stored on site to take care of the home’s energy needs and recharge electric cars.  Each building will become its own power station, with no grid  – and no coal-powered central power stations – required. As a bonus, the catalyst is hardy enough to handle dirty water, so the system  can be set up almost anywhere. And if you reverse the process, reuniting hydrogen with oxygen, presto, clean water.

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2) AN (ECO)SYSTEMS APPROACH TO URBAN AGRICULTURE

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

Additionally, water is recycled wherever possible, so less is required overall. In regions facing climate change-related droughts (retreating glaciers, shifting rain patterns), this is a significant advantage.

With over half the world’s population now living in cities, urban farming has become a world-wide phenomenon. From small rooftop plots that also help curb the “urban heat island effect” (localized warming caused by the mix of heat absorbing asphalt and auto-exhaust-fueled particulate pollution), to sophisticated integrated greenhouse operations, urban farms offer the benefits of a distributed system: local, modular, adaptable, scalable. Since food is fresher when it reaches the consumer, it is also more nutritious.

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3) TROPICAL AGROFORESTRY

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.

So far, Smith has tested his ideas at two sites, one in Borneo and the other in nearby North Sulawesi. Over the last decade, millions of trees have been planted, thousands of jobs created, local micro-climates stabilized, hillsides stabilized, river health improved, wildlife populations restored and tons upon tons of carbon sequestered. The system is scalable, replicable and could just save the “lungs of the planet.”

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4) GOING (CARBON) NEGATIVE: MAYA-MIMICKING SOIL

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.”

Araburu uses plant waste to make biochar – the same material MIT’s Amy Smith and her D-Lab students use to create a clean burning charcoal alternative to cheap cooking oil (ironically, palm oil). Did they reach essentially the same answer for two completely different problems? Very possibly. In which case this virtuous circle just gets better and better.

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5) POPULATION BALANCE

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.

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NATURE BATS LAST

Each one of five ideas offers the extra bonus of multiple bottom lines: Save the climate and 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.

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RELATED READING / LISTENING / VIEWING

6 Responses

  1. Nature Bats Last. We are Part of Nature Too…
    (http://www.sldtonline.com/content/view/509/)

    “The cornerstone of our new-found knowledge of sustainability is the philosophy of “doing more with less,” and the best sustainable models to study are the earth’s natural systems. By emulating the efficiency of nature, we can sustain our species at a desirable standard of living and at long last, the often repeated cycle of natural resource exploitation, and the rise and fall of civilizations from the dawn of human time, will be broken.”

    Southern Oregon Coast Mixing ­Nature, Tradition, and Economics for Sustainable Future – (http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/sldt/0509/#/24)

    “Located in the headwaters of the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area in Southern Oregon, Ocean Mountain Ranch overlooks the newly-designated Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve and the largest remaining old growth forest on the southern coast in Humbug Mountain State Park. OMR is planned to be developed pursuant to a forest stewardship management plan which has been approved by the Oregon Department of Forestry and Northwest Certified Forestry under the high standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).”

    Sustainable Land Development Goes Carbon Negative – (http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/sldt/0809/#/18 )

    “Ocean Mountain Ranch is also serving as a pilot program and is expected to achieve carbon negative status through the utilization of low impact development practices, energy efficient buildings, renewable/clean energy systems, distributed waste management systems, biochar production, and other practices – with certification as a SLDI-Certified Sustainable Project.”

    Terry Mock
    Executive Director
    Sustainable Land Development International
    http://www.SLDI.org

  2. House uses Biomimicry- to heat and cool itself.

    http://www.EnergyWithoutOil.com

    Car uses surplus energy not needed by House:

    http://www.EnertiaMotors.com

  3. This is very close to my own feeling – we can’t wait for politicians to act, so we must become the leaders. Another aspect is documenting these kinds of options, to raise the level of public debate, and to raise awareness of the options we have, so we make more intelligent decisions, whether buying a car, building a house, or developing a policy proposal. This is what our online community is enabling, through the structured knowledge bank at http://www.appropedia.org/

  4. […] “Post COP15, Part 2: Five Ideas That Could Help Save the Climate (Really)” by J. A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews Editor’s Blog […]

  5. You’ve got great insights about green,earth,care,ideas,help the planet, keep up the good work!

  6. The Paleoclimate Record shows agricultural geo-engineering is responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. To fix the consequences of the excess fossil carbon, we must look to: wise land management and the pathways for the thermal conversion of biomass by Pyrolysis, Gasification and Hydro-Thermal Carbonization for returning carbon to soils. These are known biofuel technologies, What is new are the concomitant benefits of biochars for Soil Carbon Sequestration; building soil biodiversity & nitrogen efficiency, in situ remediation of toxic agents, and cutting the carbon foot print of livestock as a feed ration. Modern systems are closed-loop with no significant emissions. The general life cycle analysis is: every 1 ton of biomass yields 1/3 ton Biochar equal to 1 ton CO2e, plus biofuels equal to 1MWh exported electricity, so each energy cycle is 1/3 carbon negative.

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