Here’s a spooky thought for Halloween: Sunday is COP26, the United Nations annual climate change conference. Yes, that means there have been 25 previous conferences and we still haven’t shoved a stake in the heart of the climate crisis.
This one will probably also produce ghastly warnings about the state of our planet, and those warnings should probably haunt you a little. But it’s not all doom and gloom out there: Innovators across the planet have come up with unique ideas for saving Earth, from scooping trash out of our plastic-choked seas to an exercise bike that can power your devices.
“There are startups out there making a difference,” Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at NYU and a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Panel on Climate Change, told The Post.
While the politicians negotiate, here are some things to give you hope that a new day is coming.
Skimming plastics out of the ocean
The oceans are filling with plastic — one study says the amount will triple by 2040 — congregating at the famous Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii, a swirling gyre twice the size of Texas. It’s made of bottle caps, lighters and other debris gradually breaking down to microplastics that leach into the fish people eat.
The best way to fix this is, of course, to stop using single-use plastic, but one group has a plan to attack the plastic that’s already there. The Ocean Cleanup is a nonprofit that wants to remove 90% of the floating plastic by 2040. To reach that ambitious goal, they’ve deployed a device nicknamed Jenny, a half-mile long U-shaped floating barrier pulled by two boats that catches even tiny bits of plastic and funnels them into a giant net. The plastic is then recycled into products like sunglasses that are sold to help support the cleanup effort.
Dropping trees from the sky
Elon Musk recently tweeted that he would donate $100 million toward the best idea for pulling dangerous CO2 out of the atmosphere. The backlash was brutal: The answer, Twitter responded, is trees, numbskull.
Musk was looking for a tech solution to a problem nature can solve, but here is one tech man-made angle that could actually help. A Canadian startup named Flash Forest is using drones to plant thousands of trees a month as a way to combat deforestation caused by logging, fires and animal agriculture. Flash Forest — and other startups doing similar work — can plant about 100,000 trees a day by firing seedpods into the ground by drone alone, while a human could put only about 1,500 into the earth. Best yet, they can do it at a cost of about 50 cents per tree. That’s a lot less than Musk’s $100 million.
Sucking up CO2
You could argue back and forth about whether Coldplay sucks, but here’s one fact: Coldplay does want to help suck … the carbon out of the atmosphere.
The British pop band behind the song “Fix You” wants to fix the planet by partnering with the company Climeworks for its 2022 “Music of the Spheres” World Tour, with the goal of having a net-zero carbon footprint. That’s where Climeworks comes in: The Swiss company is the first to operate a direct carbon capture and storage plant. It pulls planet-warming carbon directly out of the atmosphere, drawing it in with a fan and then capturing carbon on highly selective filters, and stores it. In September, the company opened Orca, its capture and storage plant, powered by a nearby geothermal plant in Iceland. The company says it can remove 4,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year. The carbon is stored underground, eventually turned into stone and sold off for a variety of uses — farmers can use it for plant feed and soda makers can even use it for fizz.
“What they do is they commercialize the process that literally takes CO2 out of thin air. That’s fantastic,” Wagner said. “It certainly captures carbon as much as people’s imagination.”
Carbon capture, of course, is just spinning wheels if we don’t cut down the carbon emissions going into the atmosphere — but, Wagner said, we’re definitely going to need the technology.
“Yes, it’s so late in the game it’s already necessary to take CO2 out of thin air,” he said.
Growing meat in labs
For anyone who is tired of pleas to cut down on the meat and animal products in your diet because of their huge carbon footprint, good news! You will soon be able to keep your meat, just without the animal and the energy, land and resources that go into raising it.
“Cultured meat” — a k a “lab meat,” produced in bioreactors using animal cells — was approved for sale by a regulatory agency for the first time last year. Singapore allowed “chicken bites” from the US company Eat Just to go on sale in December. Dozens of companies are developing versions of it for beef, pork and chicken that could hit the US market soon.
Lab meat is still expensive until it scales up (a sampler of three dishes featuring the chicken bites at the Singapore restaurant where it debuted costs about $23), so until then, the vegans of the world remind you that beans are still cheap everywhere and don’t require a laboratory.
Using home exercise equipment to generate energy
An exercise bike that can power your home? Yes, it’s literally a “Black Mirror” episode, but it’s also an innovative new product that combines fitness and renewable energy. UK-based company Energym has released a RE:GEN exercise bike (about $2,700) that looks like a standard at-home stationary bike, except it contains a battery that charges with every pedal. After a workout, you unclip the battery and can carry it around to charge your devices all day. The average hourlong workout, the company claims, generates enough electricity to charge an iPhone 12 times. It’s not a lot of energy, but it’s something, Wagner says.
“If you’re incapable of biking outside, and you have to spend a lot of money on some gadgets to make you bike, yes, spend it on this instead of the Peloton,” he says.
Scaling up production on solar panels
Some of the most important innovations in fighting climate change are the most boring, Wagner said. One of those boring-but-momentous breakthroughs could be happening at a startup called Leap Photovoltaic, which says it has found a way to cut the cost of making solar cells that are used in solar panels in half — making clean solar energy a reality for tons more households. Instead of using the costly silicon wafers used in most solar cells, the company turns silicon directly into cells, similar to 3D printing.
It uses one-tenth of the silicon as a traditional solar panel while taking 70% less energy and 90% less water. That also cuts out the need to build factories dedicated to making solar panels, simplifying the process and opening it up to more manufacturers.
The company launched last year and hopes to serve customers as soon as 2023. It’s exactly the kinds of small revolutions climate scientists hope for.
”Fantastic, let’s do that, let’s scale this up,” Wagner said. “They’re fundamentally better than anything else you can do to produce electricity.”
Blocking trash from getting into the waterways — with bubbles
Scientists in the Netherlands have found a simple way to prevent trash from even getting into the ocean: bubbles.
The Great Bubble Barrier shoots a screen of bubbles that blocks plastics from passing through and pushes other debris to the surface. The bubbles come from air pumped from a tube at the bottom of the waterway, lifting buoyant plastic to the surface. The bubble “curtain” is angled diagonally, which uses the natural flow of the waterway to push the waste to a waiting catch area to collect it for proper disposal.
It debuted in Amsterdam in 2019 amid that city’s famous canals, which wind throughout the city, prime basins for catching all sorts of detritus. The bubbles are said to remove up to 80% of debris from the waterways, preventing them from getting into the open ocean, with no effect on wildlife or boat traffic. It’s now being used in other cities, too, and the startup hopes to make it the standard for stopping ocean pollution before it starts.