How Whales Could Offset Global Warming

To stop global warming we need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I have been writing about different ways to do this, from planting trees, restoring wetlands, to capturing carbon. Although I have been writing about the importance of seaweed, I haven’t looked at marine animals before. So here we go…

Imagine you are on a boat off the San Diego coast. The sun is shining, and you are looking over the calm water. Suddenly there is a splash and a huge whale comes out of the water and dives back in. What an incredible experience.

Turns out, besides being amazing animals, whales help to offset global warming. An article from the International Monetary Fund explains how they do this and what monetary value whales have.

Whales store carbon in their bodies and help phytoplankton growth. Wherever whales are, phytoplankton increases. What do these tiny microorganisms have to do with climate change? Let’s find out…

Basically, whales are natural fertilizers. They move from cold, nutrient rich water where they feed to nutrient poor water, such are surface waters, stimulating phytoplankton growth. They also migrate from cold, nutrient rich waters to warm waters for breeding and stimulate phytoplankton in the process.

Phytoplankton not only contribute at least 50 percent of all oxygen to our atmosphere, they do so by capturing about 37 billion metric tons of CO2, an estimated 40 percent of all COproduced

https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2019/12/natures-solution-to-climate-change-chami.htm

Before whaling there we 4-5 million whales, now there are only 1.3 million left. This is how whales could help tackle climate change:

Even a 1 percent increase in phytoplankton productivity thanks to whale activity would capture hundreds of millions of tons of additional CO2 a year, equivalent to the sudden appearance of 2 billion mature trees

https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2019/12/natures-solution-to-climate-change-chami.htm

Beside stimulating phytoplankton growth, whales themselves store massive amounts of carbon dioxide. When whales die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean where this carbon is stored for hundreds of years.

What I like most about the article is that they show the economic benefits of restoring whale populations. They value an average great whale at $2 million. Subsidizing whale’s greenhouse gas sequestration would be worth $13 per person a year.

Whales are helping to restore ocean health and capture massive amounts of greenhouse gases. What’s stopping us from helping whale populations to grow right now?

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!

Can Our Streets Absorb Greenhouse Gases?

I wrote about driving to work before, wondering if we could cut emissions with sustainable fuels. Now I’m wondering – what about the roads we drive on?

From streets to buildings, concrete is the most widely used material in the world. Concrete is made from sand, crushed rocks, and water and is glued together with cement. Unfortunately, cement factories are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. The emissions come from decarbonizing limestone and the very high temperatures needed to manufacture cement.

Manufacturing a single ton of cement requires the equivalent energy of burning four hundred pounds of coal

Paul Hawken https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/materials/alternative-cement

So, how can we design a more sustainable version of concrete? Imagine a high-tech skyline with remarkable towers and shopping centers. And heat, a lot of heat. This week we are covering an invention from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Kemal Celik, an assistant professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, researches how to make sustainable cement. He explores using by-products from other industries. Basically, making cement from recycled materials.

There are a lot of desalination plants in the United Arab Emirates to produce drinking water from seawater. A by-product of the desalination process is residual brine. Kemal figured out a way to make cement with the leftover brine. This is how it works:

His invention, reactive magnesium oxide cement, is produced at much lower temperatures than traditional cement. And the best thing? It actually absorbs carbon dioxide during the hardening process and long after it has been mixed into the concrete, making it carbon negative.

Roads and buildings made with it could actually absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the years and help combat climate change

Kemal Celik, https://nyuad.nyu.edu/en/research/impact/our-research/2018/just-add-salt.html

Another inspiring innovation. Let’s hope we can all drive on roads made from sustainable concrete sometime soon.

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Can we Turn Greenhouse Gases into Water Bottles?

As user experience designers we create customer journeys. In those journeys or scenarios we design how a customer might use our product. Imagine we wanted to design a smartwatch. We don’t just think about the moment someone interacts with the watch but sketch out an entire day. This helps us make better design decisions.

That got me thinking… What is the customer journey of a plastic bottle? We drink the water, but what happens before and after? What is the entire lifecycle of a water bottle? This is what I sketched up…

Lifecycle of a water bottle from production to

Nearly all bottles are made from petroleum. During the oil extraction and the manufacturing of plastic, greenhouse gasses are released into the air. Then during transportation more greenhouse gases are released. After we enjoy the water and throw it away, I sketched five different endings:

  • A. Recycle into other plastics for carpets or tiles (only 7 % of plastic in the US is recycled)
  • B. Greenhouse gases and toxins are released when burning plastic
  • C. It takes hundreds of years to decompose and toxins each into soil and groundwater when put in the landfill
  • D. In the ocean it kills and negatively affects marine life and ends up in our food chain
  • E. When decomposing into microplastics it kills or harms bacteria that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen

I promised you positive and inspiring stories and so far this post has been pretty depressing. In a recent post I featured water pouches made from algae.

Here is another fantastic startup, this time from California.  Cove makes water bottles out of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) – wow, that’s a long word. It’s biodegradable, compostable and produces zero toxic waste.

It is produced by microorganisms feeding on sugar, starches or greenhouse gases. I love this part: Microorganisms can actually turn greenhouse gases, such as waste methane and carbon dioxide, into biodegradable PHA plastics. Companies like Newlight Technologies are developing these kind of bioplastics.

Imagine a plastic-like material that is produced by greenhouse gas eating bacteria! Cove is currently testing how long it will take to break down the bottles in different scenarios. They are launching in California this year, so stay tuned!

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Can Drones Capture Carbon Dioxide?

The British Startup BioCarbon Engineering develops drones to restore wetlands by planting mangroves. Wetlands sequester a huge amount of carbon dioxide in plants above ground and in the soil. In fact, they store five times more carbon dioxide than tropical forest.

The soil of mangrove forests alone may hold the equivalent of more than two years of global emissions—22 billion tons of carbon, much of which would escape if these ecosystems were lost.

https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/land-use/coastal-wetlands

Besides capturing carbon dioxide, mangroves provide protection from storm surges. Once restored, they clean the water and bring back marine animals.

Unfortunately, mangroves are being cleared at an alarming rate. More than half of the world’s mangrove forests have been lost in the last 50 years. That brings me back to BioCarbon Engineering’s drones and how they help to restore coastal wetlands. So, how does it work?

Drone crates a 3d map, drops seedlings, and monitors reforestation

First, a drone flies over the area to create a 3d map. This map is then used to decide where to plant. It drops biodegradable pods that are filled with a germinated seed and nutrients while recording each pod’s location. After planting the drone monitors the progress of the reforestation.

One of BioCarbon Engineering projects is in the Thor Heyerdahl Climate Park in Myanmar. Locals appreciate the restored mangrove forests because they are flood barriers and bring back crabs and fish. Long term success of the restoration can only be achieved with support from locals. Non-profits such as Worldview International Foundation work with local communities to train them to fly drones and monitor progress. Instead of making a living by selling the mangrove wood, locals are now making a living by restoring these wetlands.

And who pays for it? Non profits such as Sustainable Surf are launching projects for consumers and companies all over the world to finance the restoration of coastal ecosystems.

What I like most about BioCarbon Engineering is how the drones can scale up the reforestation of wetlands. We need all the help we can get to balance out our carbon dioxide emissions and this looks like a promising approach.

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