Four inventions that could save the world

Bright ideas: Heliogen’s “solar oven”; slaughter-free burgers; a Swiss carbon capture machine; Mount Pinatubo.

Can technology fix the climate crisis? Unless we act now, Earth will be 2C hotter in 2100. Storms will ravage the planet. Southern Europe will be a barren desert. But these four ideas could offer hope.

1. Heliogen solar power. This week saw one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of solar energy. Heliogen, a secretive company backed by billionaire Bill Gates, has succeeded in using solar power to generate temperatures over 1,000C — a quarter of the heat on the surface of the Sun.

This means that, for the first time, solar energy can produce the extreme temperatures needed to create cement, steel and glass. Heavy-carbon industries, which have so far been untouched by the green energy revolution, could soon be fossil fuel-free.

2. Lab-grown meat. Livestock farming is responsible for around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This figure is only set to rise as demand for meat rockets by 70% by 2050.

But lab-grown meat could change everything. Scientists in several different countries have now successfully taken cells from living animals and multiplied them in a laboratory to produce meat. Last month, US company Just announced that it is in talks with food regulators to get its $50 (£39) slaughter-free chicken nuggets into restaurants.

3. Carbon capture plants. Carbon capture technology mimics what the planet does naturally: breathe in the carbon we produce.

Within two years, a UK-based carbon capture plant is aiming to extract 40,000 tons of CO2 a year from the atmosphere, turning them into chemicals that go in eyedrops, Pot Noodle and more. The greenhouse gas could even be injected into concrete, which currently has a colossal carbon footprint.

But there’s a catch. These plants would need to remove 20 billion tons of CO2 every year for a century to return carbon in the atmosphere to near pre-industrial levels. This is an impossibly huge target.

4. Solar radiation management. Perhaps the wackiest idea of them all. When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, it released a thick, sulphurous plume that partially blocked out the Sun and caused global temperatures to fall by 0.5C.

Scientists now think they could make their own artificial plume to mimic an eruption, effectively creating a pair of sunglasses for the planet. The plume would probably consist of calcium carbonate rather than toxic sulphur.

To test the idea, Harvard University’s SCoPEx team is sending a balloon high into the atmosphere, which will release a small-scale artificial haze. But many scientists are fearful.

“The climate of Earth might be changed,” says Sir Brian Hoskins, one of the world’s top climatologists. “It opens all sorts of things in terms of management, getting countries to agree to go along with that.”

Can technology fix the climate crisis?

Make or break

“We know how to do it,” says Brian Hoskins. Indeed, scientist Bjorn Lomurg compares the climate crisis to living with diabetes. “It’s a liveable condition that you have to tackle. Once you are taking your medication, once you’re dealing with it, you also need to recognise that this is not the major part of your life.” We have every reason to be optimistic.

“We cannot trust technology to come to the rescue,” says Professor Michael Norton. Many scientists agree that while new technology may have a role to play in reducing climate change, all the current contenders have drawbacks that mean it will be difficult to use them at the huge scale needed to make a real difference. We must stop clinging to this comfort blanket and start overhauling our societies to slash emissions.

You Decide

  1. Would you eat lab-grown meat?
  2. Will technology solve the climate crisis?

Activities

  1. Rank these four technologies in order of usefulness.
  2. Draw a detailed plan for your own invention to fix the climate crisis.

Some People Say...

“The value of an idea lies in the using of it.”

Thomas Edison (1847-1931), American inventor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Evidence from ancient rocks and ice cores shows that the Earth’s climate is warming roughly 10 times faster than the average rate in an ice-age recovery period. The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 0.9C since the late 19th century as levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have increased.
What do we not know?
What attitude we should have towards the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg’s message is clear: our house is on fire and we should be panicking. But all this talk of doomsday is affecting our mental health: last month, psychologists held a conference in London to discuss two new mental disorders: climate anxiety and depression. They asked: how do we go “from helplessness to action, from fear to hope?”.

Word Watch

Solar power
The company uses artificial intelligence and a field of mirrors to generate extreme heat.
70% by 2050
As countries get wealthier, the middle classes demand richer, meatier diets. In the past couple of decades, there has been a remarkable increase in the consumption of animal products in countries such as Brazil and China.
Breathe in
Across the world, 70 quadrillion (70,000 trillion) tons of CO2 have been turned into rock; a single tree can absorb 48 tons of CO2 in a year.
Colossal
The concrete industry alone produces roughly 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions.
Sulphurous
Containing sulphur; also used to express intense anger.
Calcium carbonate
A mineral that makes up 4% of the Earth’s crust. It is the main component in pearls and snail shells.
SCoPEx
Stratospheric controlled perturbation experiment.

Subjects

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