Science | Design & Technology

Sparks of genius give hope on climate

Does ingenuity always save us in the end? Humans have often averted disaster through the power of imagination. Some argue that we will do the same with the climate crisis. The farmer slammed the door in a fury. He had trudged all the way back from the cow shed, only to realise that he had forgotten something. He had not put the cows’ masks on! The Zelp mask is one of the winning entries for this year’s Prince of Wales' Terra Carta Design Lab awards. It could be the answer to one of the biggest causes of global warming: methane emissions from farm animals. When the cow burps, the methane it produces reacts with a catalyst in the mask. This turns the methane into CO2 and water vapour. Another of this year’s winning inventions solves the problem of rubber particles shed by tyres as they roll along the road – the second largest cause of plastic pollution. The device uses static electricity to attract the particles before they are carried away. The other winners were Amphitex – a biodegradable fabric – and Aerseeds. These are pods made from food waste that are carried by the wind to spread seeds and nutrients over ground difficult to reach. Other brilliant ideas for helping the environment are already in use. An office above a Stockholm subway station is partly warmed by the body heat of travellers passing below it. Human genius often rescues dire situations. In 1854, a doctor called John Snow helped end a cholera epidemic in Soho. Most people thought that the disease spread via a miasma. But Snow believed dirty water was the problem. By mapping the places where people fell ill, he was able to pinpoint a public pump as the source. Once its handle was removed, the death rate began to fall.  In the US, the Great Depression of 1929-1939 caused huge suffering. But the worst was averted, thanks to the visionary New Deal put together by President Roosevelt. It provided help for the poor and created an enormous number of jobs. Does ingenuity always save us in the end? Emergency urgency Yes: Just look at the Covid-19 crisis. It was a mysterious disease that no one initially knew how to deal with. Yet within a very short time, vaccines and ways of testing for it were developed. No: There are some crises which are just too big and too complex to deal with. The chances of restricting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels are looking increasingly thin. Or... Ingenuity is of no use unless it is matched by determination. We can solve climate change with the inventions we already have – what is lacking is a willingness to make the necessary sacrifices.     KeywordsSecond largest - Single-use plastics are the largest.

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