A look to the future

The tech that'll help us fix climate change, in partnership with our friends at Curation.

If lofty climate targets are going to be hit and environmental concerns are going to be addressed, we’re going to need some help. The world’s population is growing. We need places to live and food to eat. We need fuel to keep the lights on and jobs to ensure security and prosperity. 

Technological advances are baked into future climate targets. There’s an assumption that efforts to tackle global warming will be supercharged when commercially viable innovation is introduced. While much is obviously unknown about the effectiveness of technology that’s in its infancy, let’s look at what may make a difference in the coming years. 

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) – You may well have heard about CCS before. Its large-scale application is a feature of many 2050 net-zero emission goals. And it’s likely we’ll need to rely on it – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios that keep temperature increases below 1.5C all rely to some extent on negative-emissions technologies.

CCS does what its name suggests – removes CO2 from the atmosphere. There are a few iterations. Direct air capture, for example, takes carbon out of the atmosphere which can then be sequestered underground. 

A further negative-emission technology involves combining bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, otherwise known as BECCS. A potentially carbon-neutral fuel – biomass – is burned in a power station and the emissions are captured and stored underground. 

Neither of these processes are perfect. Direct air capture is expensive – it costs about $600 to remove a tonne of CO2. BECCS, meanwhile, requires land and water to grow biomass and its use may have an impact on crop prices, particularly in developing countries.  

Still, large companies are investing in CCS. Microsoft, for example, has put money to work in several projects looking to capture carbon. The firm is aiming to be “carbon negative” by 2030. Elsewhere, payments firm Stripe is setting aside $1m annually to fund carbon-capture projects. 

Future food, feed and fertilisers – You’ve probably read about lab-grown meat and fish, but there’s plenty of innovation happening on farms seeking to reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture. 

Let’s start with something you may not think about everyday – fertilisers. Synthetic fertilisers are deployed excessively in commercial farming. Overuse is depleting global reserves of essential nutrients like phosphate and causing an almost universal growth in nitrogen oxide emissions – which have 300 times the climate impact of CO2 – from agriculture.

Advanced, slow-release fertilisers made from under-utilised organic waste can be both better for agriculture and the planet. By using by-products as an input, these can turn environmental liabilities like food waste and animal excrement into a circular, profitable product.

Of course, fertilisers are hardly the highest-profile source of emissions from farming. Livestock is responsible for 14.5% of all human-created greenhouse gas emissions, and cattle alone represent two-thirds of this total.

Against this backdrop, advanced animal feeds are being developed, with the hope being that an alteration in diet will reduce the emissions produced. Adding seaweed to a cow’s diet, for example, has been found to limit the amount of methane produced during the enteric fermentation phase of the animal’s digestion, which makes up around 70% of agricultural methane. Essentially this means cows belch out less of the gas. Similar methods are being explored to reduce emissions from other livestock, such as adding willow leaves to sheep diets, which has a comparable effect.

Cleaning the air… with cars? Air quality is pretty terrible in urban areas around the world. City air pollution levels worldwide are on average around four times higher than those recommended by the World Health Organization. 

One solution, however, may be turning to a traditional source of this pollution – cars. Heatherwick Studio has revealed a concept for an electric vehicle (EV) that can “vacuum up” air pollution generated from other cars while in motion. 

While it’s unlikely we’ll see “vacuum cars” on the road in the near future – insert joke here about Dyson’s ill-fated electric vehicle efforts – transport is being used to track urban pollution and greenhouse gases today. 

In Salt Lake City, for example, researchers have installed sensors on trains to monitor air quality and CO2 emissions as they move across the city. Meanwhile, electric scooter provider Voi has launched an e-scooter with air-pollution sensors that can help users avoid pollution hotspots.