Top technologies in climate change battle

artificial intelligence

AI and machine-learning algorithms will increasingly help to mitigate and manage climate change related risk in the future.

Photo credit: File

Since the 2016 Paris Agreement, which targets to keep global temperature increases under 1.5 degrees Celsius, innovators across the globe have been working on a number of tech solutions to combat climate change.

Nation.Africa looks at the most potential technologies currently in use from around the world.

 1. Direct air capture technology, turning carbon dioxide to stone

 Think of giant vacuum cleaners that could remove climate-relevant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere within ten years. Climeworks, a Swiss company, is out to halt global warming by just doing that.

 Climeworks operates 14 plants globally that remove hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. This could rise, potentially, to millions in the coming years.

 “Direct air capture is the technology that we use within our carbon dioxide collector units. These units are essentially large boxes with a fan attached on one side. These fans act like giant vacuum cleaners, sucking in air. Inside the box is a unique filter material, which selectively captures carbon dioxide molecules,” says sales manager Nino Berta .

 Once the filter has collected enough carbon dioxide, the inlet and outlet lids close then the unit heats to 100 degrees Celsius. The carbon dioxide is thereby released and then collected. After that, we either sequester it or sell it to different industries to use in their products.

 “With our service, we give companies and individuals the possibility to fight the climate crisis by turning their emissions into stone,” says Nino.

 The company has partnered with a geothermal power plant in Iceland and the CarbFix consortium, which mixes carbon dioxide with water and pumps it deep underground into basaltic rock formations. It eventually turns to stone, generally after around two years, so it’s safely and permanently stored.

 The biggest plant it owns can remove 900 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

  2. Cement technology

 Cement creates substantial yet ignored amounts of human-produced carbon dioxide, contributing up to 8 per cent of the global total, according to London-based think tank Chatham House.

 Factually, if cement production were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter after China and the US.

 The emissions from cement production result from the fossil fuels used to generate heat for cement formation, as well as from the chemical process in a kiln that transforms limestone into clinker, which is then ground and combined with other materials to make cement.

 However, American start-up Solidia is employing a chemical process that has cut 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide usually released in making cement.

 The recipe uses more clay, less limestone and less heat than typical processes. CarbonCure in Canada stores carbon dioxide captured from other industrial processes in concrete through mineralization rather than releasing it into the atmosphere as a by-product.

 Montreal-based CarbiCrete ditches the cement in concrete altogether, replacing it with a by-product of steelmaking called steel slag.

 Norcem, a major producer of cement in Norway, is aiming to turn one of its factories into the world's first zero-emissions cement-making plant. The facility already uses alternative fuels from wastes and intends to add carbon capture and storage technologies to remove emissions entirely by 2030.

 Additionally, researchers have been incorporating bacteria into concrete formulations to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and to improve its properties.

 Start-ups pursuing ‘living’ building materials include BioMason in the US, which ‘grows’ cementlike bricks using bacteria and particles called aggregate.

 Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder are using photosynthetic microbes called cyanobacteria to build a lower-carbon concrete. They inoculated a sand-hydrogel scaffold with bacteria to create bricks with an ability to self-seal cracks.

  3. Electric cars

 While the global electric vehicle fleet has grown rapidly — passing 5 million cars in 2018, data from the International Energy Agency shows this progress has been dwarfed by a rise in larger and less efficient SUVs that run on fossil fuels. Four in 10 new cars sold globally in 2018 were SUVs.

 A new research by the University of Exeter, Netherlands and Cambridge University shows that in 95 per cent of the world, driving an electric car like Tesla Model 3 is better for the climate than a petrol car.

 The researchers say average ‘lifetime’ emissions from electric cars are up to 70 per cent lower than petrol cars in countries like Sweden and France, where most electricity comes from renewables and nuclear, and around 30 per cent lower in the UK.

 The study projects that in 2050 every second car on the streets of the world could be electric. This would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by up to 1.5 gigatonnes per year, which is equivalent to the total current carbon dioxide emissions of Russia.

 A study published last week by Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) shows that electric battery-powered freight trucks can be economically competitive with diesel trucks, if fast charging networks are created.

 “Electric trucks need the same sort of fast charging that is becoming widely available for personal electric cars. If this infrastructure is put in place, it will reduce the emissions from heavy transportation trucks, which generate roughly 7 per cent of global carbon,” Björn Nykvist senior researcher at SEI told the Nation.

 4. 5G network

 5G technology is expected to be more directional and efficient than current technologies, resulting in less energy and power being wasted.

 Preliminary findings by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) suggest that large-scale 5G adoption may help cities save up to 70 per cent in overall energy usage for networks in areas of public health, safety, transit, and utilities management.

 For example, 5G can enable the adoption of more driverless cars, seamlessly operate public cameras, and provide high connectivity speeds to magnetometers that track traffic flows and volumes in real-time.

 Water availability, air quality, and energy efficiency in a city can all be improved by a network of 5G-enabled sensors and corresponding computers analysing data in real time.

 Positive outcomes and cost savings can be realized for overall public health and environmental conservation by reducing waste using 5G technologies, which is now available even in Kenya.

 As the coronavirus pandemic has shown, with 5G, many office jobs can be successfully fulfilled from home - potentially offering a route to reduce emissions from transport and office buildings.

 Driving to and from work is the largest source of carbon emissions in the developed world.

 5. Artificial Intelligence (AI)

 AI and machine-learning algorithms will increasingly help to mitigate and manage climate change related risk in the future, including catastrophic weather events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and thunderstorms, by improving the accuracy of global climate models and climate forecasts, according to ITU.

 Clouds are the single biggest source of uncertainty in global climate models. New studies suggest that AI and artificial neural networks can successfully resolve more complicated and smaller-scale atmospheric processes like the ones involved in convective cloud formation and, thus, reduce the uncertainties inherent to current climate models.

 AI is also being used to calculate carbon footprints, determine peak load periods, monitor emissions, predict the weather and seasons, model risk assessments and also control fake news related to climate change, according to the UN Environment.

 For instance, Google has funded the installation of air sensors on top of buildings and the backs of boda bodas in Kampala, Uganda, to collect pollution data from all over the city. Cloud-based AI software is to analyze air particle data in real-time and predict local pollution. These forecasts offer Kampala’s communities a way to reduce their risk of pollution and are being used by government agencies to improve air quality on the ground.

 6. Artificial meat

 Cows and other ruminant animals emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they digest grasses and plants. A 2013 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that total annual emissions from animal agriculture were about 14.5 percent of all human emissions, of which beef contributed 41 percent. 

 A 2019 report by UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says high consumption of meat and dairy produce is fuelling global warming, and that if land is used more effectively, it can store more of the carbon emitted by humans.

 To control this, Israeli-based company Future Meat Technologies has built a production plant for its cultured meat products, joining several dozen other start-ups  across the world that sell commercial artificial meat products.

 MosaMeat in the Netherlands says that cultured meat generates up to 96 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions, and the company predicts that once cultured meat becomes a mass-market food, there will be no need for industrial farms.

 In the US, San Francisco-based Memphis Meats says its businesses use significantly less land, water, energy and foot inputs.

 Future Meat Technologies says its cultured products will take up 99 per cent less land, 96 per cent less freshwater and emit 80 per cent less greenhouse gases than traditional meat production.

 US companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger have gained popularity for producing synthetic meat products made from pea protein or genetically modified soy for consumers who want the taste to imitate a real burger.

 Scientists have discovered that a red seaweed which grows in the tropics can reduce methane emissions by 80 per cent in cows when it is added as a supplement to cattle feed, but sufficient seaweed is not yet available.

 7. Nuclear-fusion

 Nuclear power is a way of producing electricity free of carbon emissions, but the world is yet to harness it in a way that is truly safe and cost-effective.

 Canadian company General Fusion aims to be the first in the world to create a commercially viable nuclear-fusion-energy power plant.

 Fusion produces zero greenhouse gas emissions, emitting only helium as exhaust. It also requires less land than other renewable technologies.

 “Fusion energy is inherently safe, with zero possibility of a meltdown scenario and no long-lived waste, and there is enough fusion fuel to power the planet for hundreds of millions of years,” says the company.