3. 9. 2020

English Version | Hope in Green

by Sara Andrade


The blue planet may be struggling with a dark future, if nothing changes. Luckily, there are progresses, that are the silver lining of these grey times we're facing. 

Art by Jamie North

"We have just above a decade to avoid irreversible damages in out planet to to climate changes", said María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the United Nations General Assembly, on a high level meeting on January 2019. More than a year later, and in a time when disposable is back on the table, be it because of face masks, a surge in delivery take out and take away, be it for advocating the practice of using and disposing or plastic-wrapping everything for public health safety purposes, we may not even have that decade. To say that the last few years were the hottest ever, to mention the rising of water levels and ice melting, a record more and more regular of heat waves, forest fires and draughts, or referring to the alphabet of storms and hurricanes in 2019 alone (the hurricane season, in the Atlantic North alone, named 18 storms and nine hurricanes, three of which serious, in an average of storms well over the average registered between 1981 and 2010, which were only 12), is no news whatsoever for the reader that is up to the current affairs of the daily times. If we were to go there, I'd need to ask our features editor for three times the pages I have for this article. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the theme has been explored widely enough so there's no need to remind anyone that the mediterranean area is getting more and more sandy and dry, that floods in Northern Europe are increasing, that there's already an increasing heat related deaths, in some regions, and that the changes in the distribution of some diseases and disease vectors transmitted through water are already visible. Nor reminding that there's a point from which temperatures and humidity get to such a level that the human body can't stand and that there were already areas in the world that, at times, have surpassed that threshold - that's why that maintaining the temperature rise on the 1.5ºC, global warming-wise, is key and implies reducing both carbon in the atmosphere and the emissions we make nowadays. 

A difficult goal if we're not all on the same page. It's not by chance that Bill Gates, known environmental activist, besides cofounder of Microsoft, has recently shared in his personal blog, Gates Notes, that this is "the next economic and health challenge society will face. Terrible as this pandemic may be, the consequences of climate change can be far worse", adding that "though the world works to end the new coronavirus and start recovering, we should also act immediately to avoid climate disaster by creating and implementing innovations that allow us to eliminate as much as possible greenhouse gas emissions", explains one of the richest men in the world. Fortunately, or unfortunately, sustainability is no longer a fancy word, it's a reference, and climate changes are no longer a footnote. 

Because we've ran out of letters in the alphabet to list the emergency of a joint action and of solutions that will reverse the impact of the human being in the world. Fortunately, and not unfortunately, there are those who have studied, with the help of modern technology, to reverse those effects, creating, amidst a worst case scenario, some kind of faith in Humankind. Because Humankind is the cause, the consequence, the one responsible for the doom as much as the salvation of the planet.

Technology leaps and moves forward 

We're the reason for what we are now fighting against. And we're dealing with its consequences on a daily basis, knowing that the trend will be for things to get worse. But, besides the destruction happening at our own expense, it's also from the human hands and mind that technological advances are taking place, making them strong contenders in this game of planet recovery. Advances like those of the solar glass, for instance. Have you ever imagined a whole skyscraper capable of generating energy? True, we already knew about the advantages of the solar panels, but the efficiency of solar cells is bigger when opacity is also bigger, which doesn't make viable its use on building front windows. But a team from Michigan University, USA, is developing a version that's 15% efficient, with a tendency to become even more efficient (the cells with the biggest performance nowadays can be 25% efficient and more), and allow, at the same time, that 50% of the light gets in. Another breakthrough material is graphene, an ultra-thin layer of graphite discovered in 2004 by the University of Manchester, UK, with a number of uses in environmental terms. Flexible, transparent, highly conductive, it may be applied to water filters, energy consumption with minimum waste, photovoltaic applications, just to name a few. It shouldn't be able to substitute plastic altogether, but for that there are other alternatives: plant-based plastic. Bioplastic, even though facing a few obstacles in what concerns its production and life cycle, may be a solution for the future. In fact, plant-based seems to be a solution in many sectors, from textile (we'll get there shortly) to the food industry. It's no secret that the impact of the animal industry is a big part of our carbon footprint in the world (meat production is accountable for 15% of the greenhouse gas emissions and one of the mais causes of deforestation in Central and South America, since cattle demands massive amounts of drinkable water, plus mass production contaminates local water resources). That's why the "fake meat" industry is already a reality, with companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods putting out there delicious alternatives to the over-consumed alternative, becoming an answer to meat-lovers everywhere that wish to fuse that lifestyle to the vegan one, for instance. But there's a fusion that's even more powerful: nuclear fusion and the long-awaited will to being able to create similar energy power to the fusion happening in the sun, but, as we know, the problem is the heat it generates. The answer would be to suspend the reaction in a plasma so the heat doesn't touch any casing that would otherwise melt. The timeline for such a thing to be doable it's said to be about in 30 years time, but a team from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has been working with a new generation of magnets that, they believe, may make that energy available in just 15 years, which may be a huge step towards the fight against global warming. Another advance, equally huge, even though truly controversial, is the one related to Artificial Intelligence. The Microsoft program (no surprises Bill Gates is involved), AI for Earth, is one of the most remarkable efforts to direct the potential of AI in favor of the planet, giving away more than 200 grants to teams that explore the application of artificial intelligence on the areas of Biodiversity, climate, water and agriculture. One of its uses is the analysis of icy surfaces and its alterations throughout time, so you can maximize the plantation of forests, in precise dispositions, in order to allow maximum carbon capture from the atmosphere and prevent destructive weeds. Another advantage of these analysis conducted by AI is the way they can transform the agricultural processes to reduce pesticide dependency and drastically diminish water consumption. More efficiency in moto vehicles and biodegradable alternatives to materials like plastic are also in the array of options we could eventually enjoy - that is, if AI doesn't rule us all, in the meantime.

Renewable is the new black 

It's already a possibility to live off renewable energy 100% of the time, even though it may not be viable to do so everywhere - yet. But countries are working towards it being a reality - who could ever forget that, in 2016, Portugal lived four days off of solely wind power, which assured electricity for the whole territory during that time? And, last year, according to data from REN (Redes Energéticas Nacionais), 51% of the energy used by the country was renewable, surpassing the non-renewable values, which was of 42.3% (the remaining 6.7% of consumption comes from imported power supplies, which may be renewable or not). Something worthy of applause? Definitely, though the role model is Iceland, which sees almost all of its power coming from renewable sources, since the country generates water and geothermal energy that's enough to produce 95% of it heating. It's the leader in this kind of resources and produces more electricity per capita than any other in the planet. Other countries with percentages to look up to: Norway, with 98% of its consumption coming from renewable energies, namely hydroelectric; Costa Rica produces about 95% of its power from water, geothermal and wind sources, and the goal is to be carbon-free by 2021; Kenya produces 70% of its energy from renewable sources and wants to be 100% "renewable" by 2030 - but the evolution is such that everything points that the finish line may be crossed before that; Sweden wants to eliminate fossil fuel from its daily life by 2050, whilst Germany was able that all its houses functioned off of renewable power on the first semester of 2018 (and wants that, by 2030, 65% of its power is renewable sources fed) and Scotland has registered already months when 98% of it's power was produced by the wind. Is it a long and winding road? True. Is it a possible one? Also true.

Material girl 

One of the industries with the biggest carbon footprint is the fashion industry. But it's also one of the most promising ones in what concerns viable alternatives. Namely, fabrics. For instance, there are biodegradable fabrics created with the help of living organisms. That is, from organisms like bacteria, algae, yeast, cells or funghi, that then deteriorate in non-toxic substances when discarded. Another advantage of this hypothesis is the fact that these organisms can "grow" into the exact size of samples, preventing waste. For example, algae-based fabrics, that generates a fibre similar to wool, may be dyed with non-chemical pigments (made of crushed insect shells), from which you can then create some sort of knit for fabric. Theanne Schiros, from the math and science department of the Fashion institute of Technology, in New York, has been working with this alternative and even founded a company, Algiknit, to start producing it for commercial purposes. In 2017, the assistant-teacher even created, with her students, a pair or mini-loafers from a liquid culture of bacteria, funghi and compostable waste, generating a sort of bioleather in sufficient size to fit a shoe mould, then sewn with fibers made of discarded pineapple tops. Meaning, and alternative that0s efficient and effective at preventing waste, besides reusing elements that, otherwise, would just become garbage. Organic alternatives to prime-matters created with an overuse of pesticides are ok, but the advances in what concerns recycling of prima matters have been as impressive as they have been successful. Fibers created from plastic bottles and fishnets recovered from the ocean or even new fibers recycled from cotton waste close the loop in what concerns waste. The dye matter, many times toxic ones, is also one that can be corrected with the help of bacteria or resorting to plant-based materials. To make the process of dye more agile, combining it with other stages of the production process, has also proven to be a solution in reducing energy and water consumption throughout the production process. But developing these kind of resources is still short and confined to a laboratory, which makes it too expensive and cannot compete within the marked with the more conventional options. The goal is to balance those costs for an offer that's competitive - or that eliminates the "bad" competition completely, ideally. Until then, and because there's still a long way to go, reduce, reuse and recycle the already existing materials before discarding them is still our best bet. Preferably, created and recycled in efficient energy and water-consumption ateliers and factories, with reduced waste. 

Carbon capture 

Diamonds may even be pure carbon transformed in a crystal-clear structure with the help of high temperatures (to very simply put it), but carbon that comes and stays in the atmosphere is far from being a girl's best friend. Luckily, modern day technology can capture it from the atmosphere my mimicking the natural biochemical processes that do it, for that extra help in what mother nature does best: regenerate itself. This class of technologies are called CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) and allow the split between carbon dioxide from the gases produced during electric production and industrial processes. One of the methods of this kind currently being studied, for instance, fertilizes phytoplankton in the ocean to increase the advantage of the photosynthesis over carbon - photosynthetic organisms absorb carbon dioxide, but some scientists believe that the oceans are the best at correcting the unbalance in the carbon cycle caused by human activity. According to the ONG The Environmental Literacy Council, this option of carbon capture means the carbon absorbed by phytoplankton then follows the maritime food digestion process, transforming it into organic matter lodged at the bottom of the ocean and then buried under the ocean floor. The process, occurring throughout millions of years, is also the source of some of our current petrol reserves, scientists believe. Another method is helping out with rock erosion, the ones that absorb carbon best, so that their surface is larger and therefore, more effective in carbon capture. The natural process of erosion begins with rain, usually slightly acidic, since it absorbed CO2 along the way, that reacts with the rock and "cuts" it, creating sediments that become bicarbonate and that eventually end up in the ocean in a similar fate to the carbon captured by phytoplankton. Nature is beautiful, isn't it? We just need to give it a helping hand and learn from it. 

Mother Nature knows best

A mother is a mother and you have to respect it - and Mother Nature is the mother of them all. Times demand creative measures and they don't come in petri dishes. The natural world is master in innovating and its vision lies not in the fact that it's revolutionary, but evolutionary. Survival of the ones that adapt the most is the longest research project to date - billions and billions of years showing that the most adaptable organisms are the ones that thrive the most and, taking a cue from that uncanny renewal ability, science has tried to recreate these adapting and regenerating processes through a trend called biomimetics, an area of science that studies biological structures, as well as its functions, learning with them and applying those strategies and solutions to different science domains. Besides the countless applications in different sectores - bathing suits that mimic shark skin avoided water resistance so much that they were banned from the Olympics -, its application in carbon capture is particularly precious. A concrete company called Calera believes the way corals absorb carbon dioxide in their skeletons may teach us how to capture it from the atmosphere and creating cement from it, imagining a future of sustainable cities, built on a construction that recycles air pollution. Why is biomimetics so relevant? Because nature is an example to the "way we can make materials that are harmless and don't consume massive amounts of power... The way we can build communities and cities in a fashion that actually compensates the local ecosystem instead of just draining", advocated specialist Dayna Baumeister, in a Future Thinkers' podcast. Biomimetics can help transform completely production systems and infrastructures, transforming them in a sort of circular ecosystems, helping companies maintaining productivity and increasing employee work conditions and reducing environmental impact at the same time.

The greatest advantage of these advances is the ability to, within the acceptable and possible, maintain progress and conditions human beings have become used to in the 21st century, yet reducing waste and carbon footprint, being even able to reverse the effects of Man on Planet Earth, by making the adoption of such measures more viable and sustainable. Why does this matter? It matters because those more resistant to change can, therefore, join this kind of measures without sacrificing the lifestyle they've accustomed to. Advances being made in the regeneration and in reverting human impact on the world deserve applause and are impressive,, but only useful if the mindset in following them and adopting them is global. "Contrary to the new coronavirus, for which we should have a vaccine in the next year or so, there is no two-year solution to reverse climate change. It will take decades to develop and implement all the necessary cleanup", warned Bill Gates on his blog. But together we can get there faster - preferably, within the decade we've been sentenced to. More than making the jaw-dropping discoveries, solution is mainly in the mind. It's in the change of mentalities that lies the solution. And also (in) hope.

Translated from Vogue Portugal's Hope issue, out September 2020. All credits in the original articles.
Texto em português na edição em print