How Can We Measure Climate Change Better?

Do you know how much money is in your bank account? How many calories does your white chocolate mocha have? How many steps did you walk today? We measure many aspects of our lives but when it comes to climate change our measurements are vague, and often nonexistent.

This week’s climate story brings us to the beautiful rice paddies of Vietnam. Seaspray Labs partnered with the International Rice Research Institute. IRRI’s climate change team is based in Vietnam and they are working on carbon accounting tools for rice. Rice farming releases a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Traditional techniques such as flooding rice paddies release the potent greenhouse gas methane. The good news? Changing farming practices can drastically reduce emissions while still producing the same amount of rice.

We designed a web-based carbon calculator for rice growers, rice companies and scientists to better understand how different farming and processing methods for rice effect greenhouse gas emissions. We had three goals going into the project:

  • Easy access: Reach a bigger audience though a web-based tool
  • Intuitive experience: Provide a straightforward user experience
  • Understand data: Display data charts to measure, understand, and plan low emission practices

While most team members were in Vietnam, we also interviewed partners and end users in the Philippines, Thailand, India, Germany, and the US. This was followed by rapid prototypes to learn how users might use the calculator. Through different iterations and continuous feedback, the tool improved quickly. After the final development and testing phase the calculator got successfully deployed. You can read more about our process here. In early tests with the recently released calculator we see the following results:

  • Easy access: Instead of installing a tool and having to cater to different operating systems the web tool successfully allows ad hoc access in lectures and webinars.
  • Intuitive experience: Streamlined pages guide users through the complex task of entering data for growing, processing, and transporting rice. It works well for novice users but also supports efficient expert data entry.
  • Understand data: Visual results allow users to view and compare the carbon footprint of different rice products. By comparing different farming and processing methods users can explore how to best reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We partnered with an amazing team of scientists and implemented the tool within weeks. Let’s hope it helps rice growers, rice companies and scientists to adopt low emission practices for rice. And let’s hope for more tools to measure the climate impact of the food we eat, the products we purchase, and the things we do.

An Unexpected Ingredient for Climate Action

This week’s climate story brings us all the way to the island Tasmania in Australia. Imagine standing next to a beautiful bay overlooking the Tasman Sea, this is where the company Sea Forest is headquartered.

Have you heard that cows release the potent greenhouse gas methane? Have you also heard that mixing a little bit of seaweed in their diet reduces their emissions greatly? Research teams all over the world are racing to find out more: What type of seaweed works best? How much is needed? How can it be grown and mixed into feed sustainably?

Asparagopsis is an edible red seaweed, native to Australian waters. Sea Forest is the first company to produce and scale Asparagopsis at a commercial scale. They are developing innovative ways to cultivate the seaweed on land and in the ocean. This is how it works:

On the left side you can see how a boat farms seaweed in the ocean. Alternatively it can be grown in tanks on land. After it is harvested, the seaweed needs to dry. Sea Forest then produces a feed supplement for cattle.

No, the milk and meat don’t taste like seaweed. And amazingly, the cows are more productive with this supplement. They need less feed because they are saving energy by not producing methane. A 2020 study found that methane emissions from cattle can be reduced by up to 98%:

Animals whose diets contain 0.2% Sea Forest’s supplement will have methane reductions up to 98%.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652620308830?via%3Dihub#ack0010

That is a very impressive reduction of methane! There are still a lot of open questions and scientists say there is not enough seaweed for all the cattle in the world. What I like most about Sea Forest is that they are acting now. We need climate solutions now and Sea Forest is one of the teams delivering. They are planning to sell the first supplements later this year.

As with so many other amazing teams all over the world, Sea Forest is producing climate solutions right now. Their rapid and innovative approach is inspiring and I hope they succeed!

How a Small Grain Can Make a Big Impact

This week’s climate story brings us to the green rice fields of Thailand. As in many other countries, rice is a staple food here. But did you know growing rice causes a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions?

Traditionally, rice is grown on flooded fields called rice paddies. These paddies create ideal conditions for bacteria that emit methane. Why is methane bad? Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.

Today’s story shows how rice farmers in Thailand and all over the world tackle global warming. Reducing and interrupting the period of flooding reduces emissions. This method is called “alternate wetting and drying” and this is how it works:

Traditionally, rice fields are continuously flooded as you can see in the left picture. When irrigation is stopped, the water level slowly decreases, as shown in the center. On the right, the water level is about 15 cm below soil level, where the roots still get water. Once the water level gets lower, the fields gets flooded again and the process of alternate wetting and drying starts all over. This actually increases yields while farmers safe water and electricity to pump the water.

Let’s get back to Thailand. A project funded by the climate finance program NAMA Facility will outreach to 100,000 rice farming households to shift from conventional to low-emission farming. They are implementing best practices from the sustainable rice platform :

  • Alternate wetting and drying: Mid-season drainage alone reduces methane emissions by 35 to 70 percent.
  • Laser land leveling: Fields are leveled with the help of lasers to reduce water usage and increase grain yield and quality.
  • Site specific nutrient management: Farmers reduce the amount of fertilizer and apply it based on local conditions and only when needed.
  • Straw and stubble management: Instead of conventional burning, rice straw and stubble get removed from the field and used for other purposes or incorporated back into the soil.

In Thailand, rice farming has long traditions. The NAMA rice project works with the government and directly with rice farmers to change to new, sustainable farming methods. Here is a quote from Rampha Khamhaeng, a rice farmer from central Thailand:

To be honest, at first I didn’t buy it….Now I tried it and it works — it’s the best way

https://www.ft.com/content/8ff2b454-9390-11ea-899a-f62a20d54625

What I like most about this project is that it reduces emissions and the same time safes farmers money by using less water, fertilizer, and energy. This is another climate solution that is not only more sustainable, but also safes money. Let’s hope many more farmers all over the world are switching to sustainable rice growing practices soon!

More Than Just a Snack – How Seaweed Tackles Climate Change

Imagine you are swimming in the ocean and something soft touches your leg. Startled you take a look and realize it was just some seaweed… You guessed it, this week’s climate story is about seaweed.

Did you know last Thursday was Seaweed Day? Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the United Nations Global Compact launched a seaweed manifesto. During the launch, short, inspiring talks from companies, non-profits, research institutions and UN agencies highlighted how important seaweed is.

Besides being a sustainable option for food and feed, packaging and even biofuels, seaweed could also play an important role in capturing greenhouse gases. One of the speakers at Seaweed Day was Jorunn Skjermo, a scientist at SINTEF Ocean in Norway. During her talk she covered three ways in which seaweed is beneficial to the climate.

The first way is replacing fossil-based products like fuel or plastics with seaweed-based fuels and plastic. By replacing fossil-based products with sustainable alternatives, a lot of greenhouse gas emissions can be avoided.

Her second point is about food. We need protein in our diet and meat production has a big carbon footprint. Vegetarian options such a soy protein have a much lower carbon footprint. Seaweed has by far the lowest carbon footprint. It grows in the ocean without the need of deforestation, watering, or fertilizing. Besides being an extremely sustainable food option, this superfood is packed with protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

The third way seaweed is beneficial to the climate is by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This is how it works:

On the left side you see how carbon dioxide gets absorbed by the ocean surface. In the water, seaweed transforms carbon dioxide into oxygen, just like land plants. On top of that, seaweed stores carbon dioxide in its biomass. Pictured on the right side is what happens when seaweed dies off. It sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where it stays for hundreds of years, storing the carbon dioxide.

During her talk Jorunn showed a map of Norway with a small rectangle off the coast. The size of that rectangle was a 20.000 square kilometer area. A seaweed farm that size could offset Norway’s yearly greenhouse gas emissions.

A restored ocean and seaweed farming forests should be considered carbon sinks to mitigate climate change

http://www.seaweedmanifesto.com/

How would that work in practice? I envision offshore seaweed farms that produce seaweed for food, feed, packaging or other uses. Seaweed forests clean the ocean and make the water less acidic. If a percentage of the seaweed is cut so it can sink, big amounts of carbon dioxide could be stored.

Seaweed day was packed with insightful talks, from selling seaweed snacks in Japan to blue bonds in Portugal. What I liked most about the seaweed manifesto is how teams from all over the world worked together. It lists milestones and success criteria for a successful seaweed industry. Let’s hope we can accelerate pilot projects and build more seaweed farms soon so we can restore ocean health and mitigate climate change.

How to Accelerate 100 x – Lessons Learned from China’s Coronavirus Response

This week’s climate story brings us to China. To be more specific, to the construction site for a new hospital in the city of Wuhan. Wuhan is the center of the coronavirus outbreak and the new hospital is being built to isolate and treat people with the virus. Imagine construction noise day and night. Cranes are moving and workers are assembling pieces. The remarkable thing: They are building the hospital in 10 days. Yes, you read correctly, 10 days.

How can that be? In the US it takes years to build a hospital. Building a hospital in 10 days is less then 1% of time compared to a three-year timeline. How can China build a hospital 100 times faster in this emergency situation? What lessons can we learn? And what can we apply to the climate change emergency?

Lesson 1: Scale what works. The plans for the hospital were copied from a similar hospital, built in 2003 during the SARS virus outbreak. The modular design has prefab rooms that have been constructed in factories and just need to be assembled onsite.

There are many climate solutions that work and exist today. According to project drawdown some of the most important solutions are installing wind turbines, restoring tropical forests, and building solar farms. These solutions are there today, we need to copy, apply, and scale them.

Lesson 2: Rethink what doesn’t work. Basically, we are building hospitals the same way we have been for hundreds of years. The new hospital is not a full-service facility, its designed for a single purpose: Isolating and treating people with the coronavirus. They looked at what is needed and removed everything not needed. The planners rethought how this hospital is being used and how it’s being built. With razor sharp focus, they delivered exactly what’s needed, 100 times faster.

Electric cars are a powerful climate solution. If charged by renewables, carbon dioxide emissions fall by 95 percent. Tesla is an example of a climate solution that re-examined, focused, and modernized a product. Their goal was to make an electric car that’s better than a gasoline powered car. By rethinking the dashboard and replacing screens, buttons and the entire conventional dashboard of a car with only one screen, they saved time and money during production while modernizing the way we interact with cars.

Lesson 3: Share a vision. One of the reasons the hospital is being built so quickly is that everybody is working together with the shared vision to contain the virus. Policy, regulations, and funding work towards the same goal. And thousands of workers are building the hospital around the clock in only 10 days.

For climate solutions, funding, policy and people need to be aligned. Right now, a lot of funding and policy works against climate solutions. Seaweed, for example, is a promising climate solution. It captures greenhouse gases and can be used to produce sustainable food, feed, fertilizer and packaging. Yet, it’s incredibly hard to get permissions to start a seaweed farm. Carlos Duarte, a leading seaweed scientist said in an interview with National Geographic it might be easier to obtain a license for an oil rig than it is for seaweed farming. We need to mobilize funding, policy and regulations, and the people working on it towards the same goal.

The new hospital in Wuhan is an incredible accomplishment. There are questions about the sustainability of the prefab rooms as well as its usage after the outbreak. But what we can learn from China is how to respond to an emergency and then apply these principles to the climate emergency.

What do I like most about these lessons in acceleration? They give me hope. Imagine we could respond to the climate emergency 100 times faster than we thought was possible. We need to look at what works and scale it. We need to look at what doesn’t work, and modernize it. And most importantly, we need to all work together. I hope we can respond to the climate emergency faster and better than we ever imagined!