Six out of 39 ways to save the planet

Nicola Dennis eases the pain of menial work with the therapy of podcasts.

In Business, Environment16 Minutes

Nicola Dennis eases the pain of menial work with the therapy of podcasts.

There is something very therapeutic about doing menial tasks while listening to podcasts. One podcast I have particularly enjoyed is “39 ways to save the planet” a BBC production with Tom Heap and the Royal Geographical Society. It’s a refreshing look on greenhouse gas mitigation that walks the unbeaten path between “climate change is a hoax” and “repentant sinners should bend the knee to play Simon Says with their diet/transport/spending/life etc”.

As the name suggests, there were 39 episodes detailing new developments in emissions-busting. None were to scream about veganism. Funny that.

I’ll not plagiarise the entire series, but I thought I would dig into a few topics I found most interesting.

Chopping down trees

This one is so whimsically counterintuitive I have repeated it to everyone who will listen. Siberia is heating up faster than most places and one strategy is to rip out the trees and increase the ruminants and other herbivores.

A hot Siberia is bad news for the planet because its permafrost contains massive stores of trapped carbon dioxide. It also contains old burial grounds infected with anthrax and prehistoric viruses. One would think it is best to keep ancient nasties and downtrodden Russians separated.

Speaking of sorry situations, let’s go back 15,000 years when humans first colonised Siberia setting off a chain of events that wiped out the mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, bison, native horses and most of the reindeer. The grasslands disappeared and trees and shrubs took over. By the way, this is the complete opposite of the Central Otago situation where hunting herbivores with fire meant forests were permanently annihilated by humans.

We humans probably owe Central Otago some beech forests. But in Siberia the forests can be trouble. They absorb twice as much solar radiation as the reflective snowy plains. And without the herbivores to trample the snow into the ground, the soil is warmer throughout winter. The answer would be to bring back the woolly mammoth and rhinoceroses, but bison, reindeer, cold-adapted cows and sheep are the next best thing.

“You shouldn’t use stereotypes when thinking about climate change and ecosystems, ” says Nikita Zimov who has introduced herbivores into a 160 square kilometre ‘Pleistocene Park’ in Siberia. Trees are not the good guys, cattle are not the bad guys. Life is more complicated. Go figure.

Dry Rice

Like ruminants, rice gets a bad rap methane-wise. Owing to its popularity, rice accounts for about 2-3% of global emissions which is on par with the aviation industry. Rice is traditionally grown in flooded fields – ideal for methane-producing bacteria. Methanogenic bacteria like a wet environment devoid of oxygen and, as ruminant farmers can attest, this can give your whole industry a bad name.

Rice plants are usually transplanted into flooded fields as seedlings and the excess water helps to keep the rice irrigated during this vulnerable period. It also helps keep the weeds down. But, water is becoming more scarce and it is a lot of labour to transplant seedlings. So, it could be a win-win for rice farmers and the environment if rice could be directly sown into unflooded soil. Rice growing in a paddy system is rubbish at establishing the deep roots and strong shoots needed to get going in drier soil.

Researchers at Rothamsted Research Institute are focusing on identifying rice plants that thrive under “deep sowing” where seeds are sown deep enough to access moisture and be protected from pests. This involves some high-tech camera work to monitor seedling development and some genomic analysis. Looking across the internet there seems to be plenty of research into minimal-flooding techniques too. So, perhaps rice farmers will have a variety of techniques to reduce emissions.

Nanoparticles to boost photosynthesis

Photosynthesis is great, isn’t it? Plants take in sunlight and carbon dioxide and make carbohydrates for the rest of us to enjoy. But what if photosynthesis was better? It turns out photosynthesis could be a lot more efficient. When plants take on too much direct sunlight, they shut their photosynthesis equipment down to prevent damage from excess light energy. But they are a bit slow to restart when their sunlight exposure returns to optimal levels. In some cases taking hours to get back to full function.

The scientists in this episode, from a start up called Glaia in the United Kingdom, claim to have a solution. A naturally occuring carbon-based nano-material in the form of “sugar-dots” that can be applied during irrigation to speed up the plants’ switch between states. In typical start-up fashion, Glaia is tight-lipped about what this nano-material is while they are undergoing product trials in British greenhouses. They claim a 20%

increase in yield from a wide range of plants.

This could be a game changer for irrigated areas. The podcasters seem to have some trouble calculating the emissions reductions with this one, at one point mentioning more carbon sequestration in rainforests which are surely not irrigated. But as farmers, we can work out that more growth without extra fertiliser would be good for the environment and the bottom line.

I went online to gauge the credibility of this research. It seems this photoprotection mechanism in plants is well understood and the 20% boost in growth is not out of the realm of possibility. In fact there is the 18th International Congress on Photosynthesis Research taking place in Dunedin in August.

Giant grandfather clocks

Energy storage is a recurring feature on the series. Fossil fuels are not just a readily available energy source, they are also portable and reasonably easy to store. Renewable energy generation like wind and solar is intermittent depending on the weather. So energy storage is a key factor in aligning energy supply with demand.

Batteries, at least the kind we usually think of such as the lithium ion ones in our phones etc, will have their place. These are very efficient but degrade quickly and can take a while to recharge. Hydrogen is another option, excess electricity can be used to split hydrogen out of water for use as a quick-refuel, portable energy source.

When it comes to powering things on the village level, pumped hydro storage (pumping water to a height to run through an energy-generating turbine later on) is commonly discussed. The NZ government is investigating installing one at Lake Onslow in Otago to buffer against dry spells that disrupt existing hydro-electricity plants.

That makes a lot of sense if you happen to have a spare lake hanging around. But since hydro-electricity is essentially dropping heavy stuff (lots of water) from a height to spin a dynamo…why not drop other heavy things?

Why not drop a 12,000-tonne weight down a disused mineshaft and then recharge the system by winching it back up again when there is excess electricity. The podcasters interviewed a company called Gravitricity demonstrating the concept by dropping a 25t weight from a 15m tower.

It’s a similar concept to a grandfather clock in that you wind up the weight and let it fall slowly to power the clock, the company explains, gently managing everyone’s hopes of seeing a cartoon-like anvil plummeting to earth.

This small prototype is enough to power an entire village for 10 seconds if dropped at maximum speed. If less power is required then the weight is dropped more slowly. In this regard, it is a very responsive system that should have a 25-50 year lifespan without storage degradation.

It’s also a great use for old mineshafts, of which there are 70,000 in the UK. Closer to home, there are at least 20 abandoned coal mine shafts in South Dunedin alone.

A simple single weight gravitricity system might store 15-30 minutes of power (on the village scale) to manage the normal ups and downs in daily energy demand/supply. Whereas larger, multiweight systems could back up a village for three-six hours. I could also imagine a smaller system to back up off-grid properties without the fire-risk/degradation of a battery bank, but I might be woefully ignorant of the physics involved.

Hunting the polluters

This involves a system that monitors greenhouse gas emissions using satellite data. I really like the idea of empirically measuring emissions because it should cut through the tit-for-tat accountancy with greenhouse gas modelling.

Do I care how many of your employees cycle to work? Or how many customers opted into your plant-a-tree campaign? No, just tell me if the cloud of shame hanging over your premises is getting smaller. The developers interviewed claimed the system could even track emissions from moving targets such as ships and aircraft.

Of course I rushed to the Climate TRACE (Tracking real-time atmospheric carbon emissions) map to bag my own polluter. And that’s when some of the shine wore off. This one, although still exciting, is a little slow to get going. TRACE may be an aspirational goal. The latest data in the system seems to be from the start of 2020, and the map said Auckland airport was emitting 1.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in the first quarter of 2020. I’m sure Auckland airport has some work to do, but that seems a bit on the high side. I tried to contact them via their website to see if they meant 1.4 THOUSAND tonnes and got an error message. Teething problems aside, I have high hopes for remote monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions. It beats bitching and moaning about computer models until the apocalypse.

The other interesting aspect in monitoring and accountability on the podcast involved environmental lawsuits. ClientEarth is a litigious charity that takes governments to court for not upholding existing laws pertaining to things like air quality and public/shareholder interests. Most recently they have sued the UK government claiming the failure to meet their legal carbon budgets contravenes the Human Rights Act. Hey politicians, welcome to following your own rules, does it taste as good as we described?

Plenty more where that came from

That is about as much as I can tell you without getting on the wrong side of the “39 ways to save the planet” crew. If you don’t want to listen to their podcast, I see they have also released a book of the same name. It includes a foreword from Arnold Schwarzenegger, a definite curve-bender on the brains vs brawns stereotype.

Arnie was in the podcast at one point, explaining how the Californian Republicans and Democrats collaborated to bring in new environmental laws despite federal opposition.

“Environmentalists mean well… but they have a problem when it comes to communicating” the Terminator said. His philosophy is that nobody likes pollution, regardless of whether they think climate change is real or not, so put the wider ideology and finger-pointing aside and work together to stop releasing unwanted things into the air. There are a lot more than 39 ways to do that.

Many things weren’t discussed. Public transport wasn’t mentioned. Probably because few developed countries have public transport quite as bad as ours. The collateral benefits of not having to own a car extend far beyond emissions, but for whatever reason it remains unsolved. I am confident it’s on someone’s to-do list.

On the agricultural front, I have lost track of the number of breeding programmes in play to identify the high-efficiency and low-methane-producing livestock of the future.

There are absolutely oodles of low-hanging fruit waiting to be plucked off the emissions tree and wherever you look, there are people making it their business to grab them.

  • Nicola Dennis is a scientist and data wrangler.