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Climate Change: the Time to Act Is Now

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March 2020

By Cecelia Thirlway, freelance writer

Climate change is one of the most urgent and complex challenges of our time.
To preserve our planet’s ecosystem, we must dramatically reduce our net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, while continuing to sustain an expanding population.

That the problem is real is now mostly unchallenged: but how to tackle it remains a source of debate. Some believe we must learn simply to consume less. Others believe technological innovation alone can resolve the problem.

But can humanity’s capacity for creativity and innovation really save the world?

Climate change is one of the most urgent and complex challenges of our time. Can humanity’s capacity for creativity and innovation really save the world? (Photo: Courtesy of Climeworks)

Improving our efficiency

Meeting emissions targets to limit global warming to 1.5°C is a significant challenge and “would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems”, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change (IPCC).

Innovation is always risky, and the complexity of the landscape makes these markets tricky to predict, so intellectual property (IP) remains a powerful business asset when it comes to addressing some of our biggest challenges.

Professor Steve Evans, Institute for Manufacturing, Cambridge University, United Kingdom.

As consumers, we can play our part in reducing carbon-intensive activity: turn our thermostats down, buy local food, fly less, walk and cycle more. But such behavioral change, especially on a global scale, takes time and relies on a complex interplay of factors.

Our own efforts can feel like a drop in the ocean. Even the most well-intentioned consumer finds it difficult to make the best choices in a complex and opaque system. And besides, not all of the world’s consumers have the luxury of interrogating their personal supply chain.

So how do we ensure our emissions decline as our consumption continues to rise? Is innovation the answer? Professor Steve Evans of the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University takes a nuanced view.

The Xeros Technology Group is helping the garment manufacturing and cleaning industries reduce water consumption and energy use in processes, such as dyeing and washing. (Photo: pixedeli / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

“I’m a bit worried that we’re so desperate to invent our way out of the problem, we’re not going to change the way we see the world. We’re just going to wait for renewable energy, for carbon capture, for people in laboratories to solve the problem rather than for CEOs, politicians and citizens to get involved.”

Evidence of human ingenuity at work in the fight against climate change abounds.

Professor Evans’ work involves identifying areas of waste to improve the efficiency – of resources, time, energy, materials – in manufacturing systems. Before a product such as a car ever reaches the buyer, the process of producing it has already had a significant environmental impact. His research shows there is huge scope to reduce that impact.

Every time you wash fleeces and other synthetic garments, up to 700,000 tiny plastic microfibers are released into the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans and are entering the food chain. The good news is that innovative filtration systems can stop this from happening.

“Many may think, logically, that we should be close to best possible efficiency,” says Professor Evans. “Remember, we’re talking about energy, water, materials, pollution – which cost businesses money. Economics 101 would suggest that they would not be doing this very wastefully, but my data show otherwise.”

He points to the most efficient car factory in Europe, which, over the last 14 years, has reduced the energy used to make a car by 8 percent every year. This means they can now make four cars with the energy it used to take to make one. With a cost-saving attainable on this scale, one might expect the entire industry to have followed suit, but according to Professor Evans, this hasn’t happened.

“If the rest of the market moved halfway to where the best is now – just halfway – we’d have 12 percent more profit, 15 percent more jobs, and 5 percent fewer greenhouse gases.”

So, should we be looking to reduce waste and improve efficiency in manufacturing and industry, rather than inventing new technology to deal with the climate crisis? Not necessarily, according to Professor Evans: it’s about balance, and about speeding up and de-risking the process of bringing new knowledge to market.

“We have enough technology to be sustainable today – we’ve got to learn how to bring those things into daily operation.”

To that end, as Chairman of Project X Global, an ambitious accelerator, he is working to help scientists commercialize their inventions quickly.

“If you’re a scientist in a university research lab [and] you patent something, it takes about 10 to 15 years for that technology to scale. I’m interested in doing it in 10 to 15 months.”

Project X focuses its efforts on the conundrum of the first big order: investors often want startups to have secured a large order before they commit, but most companies won’t work with small, high-risk startups at that scale. This means organic growth typically happens over a long timescale. Project X aims to leapfrog that process.

“We work with a big company to help them define the problems they have, and then we seek out inventions that will help them solve that problem. But most importantly, before we do so, the company promises to make large orders for any technology that passes the test that they set. They dictate the tests, but if something passes, they buy 1,000 tonnes or 10,000 units or something along those lines.”

To de-risk the initiative for the company, Project X Global employs a robust research methodology, combined with peer review, to ensure only the most effective and sustainable solutions are selected.

Innovation is always risky, and the complexity of the landscape makes these markets tricky to predict, so intellectual property (IP) remains a powerful business asset when it comes to addressing some of our biggest challenges.

Xeros Technology Group is a prime example: its technologies are helping garment manufacturing and cleaning industries to reduce water consumption and energy use in processes such as dyeing or washing. The company, which is built entirely on IP, licenses its technologies to manufacturers across the world.

“Our business model is to derive license income from our IP, we do not participate in markets directly,” explains Mark Nichols, CEO at Xeros. “Therefore, it is vital that we protect our patents and trademarks to secure and protect our revenues and generate a return on the investment we have made in developing our innovations into commercial products. Quite simply, without robust patents and extensive geographic coverage, we would not have a business.”

As an example, the company’s XOrbTM technologies, which are spheroidal polymers, only need low levels of water and chemistry to remove dirt and stray dyes when washing textiles. They also make cloth-dyeing processes (e.g. penetration and fixation) more efficient, dramatically reducing the time, water and energy required.

With over 40 patent families across a wide range of technologies, Xeros takes a focused and strategic approach to its IP and attracts investors who understand the value of the technologies it develops, and the need to protect them.

“We see an increasing number of funds being created to make ‘green’ investments, with the London Stock Exchange now also affording a Green Economy Mark to companies that generate at least 50 percent of their revenues from products and services that contribute to the global green economy.”

Direct air capture technology is very much part of a portfolio of solutions. It’s not a silver bullet in any way: the scale of the climate crisis is such that we need all solutions working together.

Louise Charles, Communications Manager, Climeworks.

Removing CO2

The science demonstrates that if we are to meet established temperature targets, we need not just to reduce our emissions, but also to remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Much of the technology for carbon capture and sequestration has existed for decades: the problem has always been one of scale. Take, for example, direct air capture.

Climeworks, a Swiss-based company, has developed the world’s first commercial direct air capture technology that removes carbon dioxide from the air. Each collector is the size of a small car and can be stacked to create a plant of any size. (Photo: Courtesy of Climeworks)

“Capturing CO2 from the air is not new; it’s been used in submarines and in space travel, anywhere humans have needed to breathe in an enclosed space for a longer period,” explains Louise Charles, Communications Manager at Climeworks. “What Climeworks is doing differently is capturing CO2 on a much larger scale.”

Founded by two Swiss mechanical engineers who studied direct air capture at ETH Zurich, Climeworks has developed large-scale direct air capture plants based on a modular system of CO2 collectors. These collectors, each the size of a small car, can be stacked in any number of configurations to create a plant of any size that extracts CO2 from ambient air. The CO2 can then be sold for making fizzy drinks, carbon-neutral fuels or fertilizer. The captured CO2 can also be stored underground by injecting a mix of CO2 and water into suitable rock formations, where a chemical reaction turns the CO2 into stone. The only requirement is a source of renewable energy, and if the CO2 is to be stored rather than sold, a suitable geological site to store it.

Our climate is an interconnected system that depends on a multitude of factors. This means that even defining the right problems to solve – the normal first step to innovation – is in many ways harder than coming up with a solution.

“We currently have grey emissions of 10 percent, so for every 100kg of CO2 we remove from the air, over the lifecycle of that plant we will re-emit 10kg. In other words: we have a net efficiency of 90 percent, and our goal is to bring that up to 94 percent. Direct air capture doesn’t require much land, and the process requires no water – in fact we produce water as a by-product.”

Climeworks holds several patents on its technology and is positive about their worth in terms of protecting its knowledge and helping to secure investment. Originally funded through accelerator programs and research grants, the company began operating in 2009, and has thus far secured CHF 50 million in investment.

Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, founders of Climeworks (Photo: Courtesy of Climworks).

Direct air capture technology is very much part of a portfolio of solutions. It’s not a silver bullet in any way: the scale of the climate crisis is such that we need all solutions working together.

But is there a robust market for this technology? The answer is yes. The renewable fuels industry is gaining momentum and the voluntary CO2 removal market (as opposed to offsetting required for compliance) is growing rapidly. The latest report from Forest Trends pdf on carbon capture shows a 52 percent increase in offsetting since2016, and suggests the market is approaching its tipping point.

Returning to nature

Other initiatives to tackle climate change, however, do not require much invention at all. Strikingly, the aforementioned Forest Trends report shows a 264 percent increase in offsets generated through forestry and land use activities – of which 57 percent are concentrated in Peru. Reforestation can have a dramatic effect on carbon sequestration, biodiversity and ecosystems in general.

In 2000, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell began rewilding their 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in the UK, allowing it to return completely to nature. The results were startling: within two years, the land was replete with vegetation and thrumming with insects in numbers not seen for generations and is now a breeding hotspot for multiple critically endangered species of birds. But just as importantly, the Knepp Estate’s value as a carbon sink, as assessed for DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) by Bournemouth University, has risen from a score of 1 to a maximum score of 5. According to Ms. Tree’s book about the Knepp Estate, the assessment estimates that over 50 years, it will capture and store an additional GBP 14 million worth of carbon through its restored grasslands and broadleaved woodland.

But while the IPCC suggests that an increase of 1 billion hectares of forest is required to help limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2050, recent mapping of the Earth’s canopy cover reveals that there may only be 0.9 billion hectares available for reforestation without disrupting current human use. The timescales are also a challenge:

“The carbon capture associated with global restoration could not be instantaneous, because it would take several decades for forests to reach maturity.”

Evidence of human ingenuity at work in the fight against climate change abounds. Project Drawdown, a research organization that reviews, analyzes, and identifies the most viable global climate solutions, lists over 80 categories of solutions ranging from reducing our food waste and family planning to innovative micro-grids and bio plastics.

But tackling such a complex problem isn’t easy. Our climate is an interconnected system that depends on a multitude of factors. This means that even defining the right problems to solve – the normal first step to innovation – is in many ways harder than coming up with a solution.

What is certain in the race to save our precious planet is that new knowledge and know-how is being created at an unprecedented rate. Our success in overcoming this daunting challenge will likely hinge on a combination of inspired innovations, deep changes in living habits, and a more responsible attitude to this planet’s biodiversity and natural systems. As David Attenborough recently told a five-year-old boy who asked what he could do to save the planet:

Don’t waste electricity, don’t waste paper, don’t waste food. Live the way you want to live but just don’t waste. Look after the natural world, and the animals in it, and the plants in it too. This is their planet as well as ours. Don’t waste them.

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