With major climate-change related disasters hitting the headlines over the past years, the future of the planet can seem bleak – but new breakthroughs are providing scientists with a glimmer of hope.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of the world’s leading climate scientists, last month warned that the window for action was rapidly closing. “Climate change has very much become a ‘now’ problem rather than a future problem,” said Brad Plumer, a reporter for The New York Times’s climate desk. “But there’s always a way to improve the situation.”
Here are some of the good-news stories in 2023.
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Save the whales to save the planet
Scientists have found that whales absorb a large amount of the CO2 being released into our atmosphere, much more than trees. Although nature-based solutions for climate change often focus on forests and wetlands, the oceans absorb an estimated 31% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere.
In a new paper, scientists have argued that whales play an important, and overlooked, role as natural carbon sinks. The mammals accumulate carbon in their bodies during their lifetimes. Their longevity (they can live for up to 100 years) makes them “one of the largest stable living carbon pools” in the ocean, according to the study. When they die, they sink to the ocean floor, locking up carbon for centuries. Even their excrement helps, being rich in the nutrients required by phytoplankton – organisms that also absorb carbon.
It has been estimated that the average great whale sequesters 30 tonnes of CO2 a year; by contrast, a tree absorbs 22kg. This, said the paper, suggests that restoring whale populations should be just as much a priority as planting forests.
“You can think of protecting whales as a low-risk and low-regret strategy, because there’s really no downside,” study author Dr Heidi Pearson, of the University of Alaska Southeast, told CNN.
Wheat for a warmer world
A “climate-proof” wheat that flourishes in high temperatures has been developed by a British research team.
Wheat provides 20% of the calories consumed globally, more than any other crop, but it has limited variation and there are fears that as temperatures rise existing crops will start to fail.
With this in mind, researchers from the Earlham Institute in Norwich, working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, set up a two-year trial in the Sonoran Desert, in Mexico. They studied 149 wheat lines, including some that had been selectively bred to include DNA from wild relatives, and locally adapted varieties from Mexico and India.
To put the crops under the kind of heat stress that is likely in the future, these were planted late in the season, when temperatures are higher. The teams found that plants with “exotic” DNA fared no worse than standard “elite” lines under normal conditions, but achieved 50% higher yields in the hotter temperatures.
They were also able to identify markers that would allow beneficial aspects of the exotic DNA to be introduced into elite lines, offering a quick way to boost their resilience. “This is science we can now use to make an impact almost immediately,” Professor Anthony Hall told Science Daily.
A climate ‘Moonshot’
Researchers have proposed an outlandish new method of combating climate change: firing plumes of moon dust into space in order to deflect the Sun’s rays away from Earth.
In an study published in science journal PLOS Climate, a group of astrophysicists argued that dust fired from the Moon could act as an adjustable solar shield. It would, they suggested, take much less energy to fire dust from the Moon than from Earth, and one strategically directed burst could significantly reduce warming for six days or more.
This could act as a “fine-tuned dimmer switch”, said Professor Ben Bromley, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Utah. And unlike many geo-engineering solutions to climate change, it would leave our planet “untouched”. But he added that getting the mining equipment and a ballistic device to the Moon would be a “significant project”.
The bacteria-eating ocean plastic
Around 12m tonnes of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans each year, but in sampling surveys, only 1% of this plastic has shown up. Now researchers think they have found out where some of the missing plastic is going: it seems that bacteria are eating it.
When plastic is in the water, sunlight degrades it into tiny “bite-sized chunks”, said Maaike Goudriaan, a doctoral student at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, which are then devoured by the bacteria Rhodococcus ruber, which digests it and excretes carbon dioxide.
She stressed, however, that the bacteria do not provide a total solution to the plastic waste problem: lab tests suggest they eat around 1% of the plastic that enters the ocean and though it would be possible to grow more bacteria to eat more plastic, it would require “stupendous amounts” of the bacteria, which would then produce alarming amounts of CO2.
As for the rest of the missing plastic, previous studies have suggested that much of it may have simply sunk to the bottom of the ocean. In 2019, a plastic bag was found in the Mariana Trench, in the Pacific Ocean, the deepest place on Earth.
The ‘end of the fossil age’
The world has reached a “turning point” in its energy use, according to a report from the energy think-tank Ember.
Humans are set to use less oil, coal and gas to produce electricity this year than last year – the first ever annual drop in the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity not caused by a pandemic or a global recession. In 2022, wind and solar produced 12% of global electricity, up from 10% the previous year. Together with nuclear and hydropower, total low-carbon sources produced 39% of global electricity. Because overall demand for electricity grew, fossil fuel emissions also rose last year.
However, Ember’s analysts predict that 2022 will represent the peak of carbon pollution, with future reductions driven by the boom in Chinese renewable energy. “In this decisive decade for the climate, it is the beginning of the end of the fossil age,” said author Malgorzata Wiatros-Motyka.
Methane blockers for cows
British cows could be given “methane blockers” to help the Government meet its climate change targets, reported The Guardian.
There are 9.4 million cows and calves in the UK, and the methane emitted from their burps and manure is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. In its new net-zero strategy, the Government said that “high efficacy methane-suppressing products” were likely to enter the market in 2025, and that if they prove effective, it might become obligatory to add them to cattle feed.
It is not anticipated that this would lead to significantly higher prices for consumers, and farmers’ groups broadly welcomed the idea. However, green campaigners were sceptical; they argue that if this “fix” works at all, it would only address one of the environmental problems created by farming, and that the real solution is to reduce the consumption of beef and dairy products.
England says no to single-use plastic
Polluting single-use plastics are to be banned in England, the government has confirmed.
Research shows that each year England uses billions of items made of single-use plastic and only recycles about 10% of it. Most of these items used for takeaway food and beverages. In order to combat these numbers the government has placed a ban on single-use plastics, set to go into effect this October.
Those living in the UK “won’t be able to buy these products from any business – this includes retailers, takeaways, food vendors and the hospitality industry”, according to government guidance.
Plastic cutlery was in the top 15 most littered items in 2020, according to the government, adding that plastic pollution “takes hundreds of years to break down and inflicts serious damage to our oceans”.
This new ban is projected to have a significant effect on waste reduction in England. “Plastic is a scourge which blights our streets and beautiful countryside and I am determined that we shift away from a single-use culture,” said Environment Minister Rebecca Pow.
Edinburgh’s Plant Based Treaty
Edinburgh has become the first capital in Europe to endorse a plant-based diet in order to tackle the climate crisis.
The city council has signed up to to the Plant Based Treaty, an initiative which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture.
The city hopes to see a reduction in the city’s consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions with “a shift to plant-based diets”, according to an impact assessment report published by City of Edinburgh council in January. The report found food and diet account for 23% of Edinburgh’s consumption-based footprint, with 12% of these emissions from the consumption of meat.
Over 240 councillors from all over the UK have signed this treaty, spurring hope that Edinburgh will light the path for other cities around the world.
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