Green Shoots

As climate change wreaks havoc around the world, it may feel sometimes that we are doomed as a species. But with human ingenuity and resilience, the awareness of the dangers facing us on the part of the younger people everywhere, and with the right political decisions, there are plenty of reasons for hope.

The first year of the decade is coming to an end, and seemingly, so is the world. While promises are made and targets set, but not necessarily kept or met, the world is busy burning – both figuratively and literally. With its effects wreaking havoc on our planet, climate change is by far the most significant challenge of our time.

Extreme weather events such as forest fires, hurricanes and heat waves are occurring ever more frequently. Sea levels are rising and oceans are becoming more acidic and polluted by the day. Plastic waste can be found in every corner of the world, including the stomachs of birds, mammals, fish and humans. Biodiversity is falling at a previously unmatched rate and animal and plant species are being erased due to loss of habitat, pollution, and climate change.
As biodiversity declines and human populations further encroach on natural ecosystems, the prevalence of pandemics is expected to increase, and Covid-19 serves a stark reminder of just how vital maintaining a healthy relationship with nature is.

As we venture into a hopefully more sustainable future, companies and governments are now transforming production, consumption and transportation patterns using novel technology and ideas. Feeding a growing population is a great challenge, as food production has a massive environmental footprint. It requires vast areas of land, water and energy, substantially contributing to pollution, deforestation and soil deterioration. Finnish food-tech company
Solar Foods had this in mind when they came up with a not-so-humble goal – to redefine the basics of food production. They have created a completely natural protein called Solein, the ingredients being water, air, sunshine and bacteria. The process is similar to that of beer making and utilises the fermentation that occurs in bacteria cultures. Solar Foods states that Solein is a hundred times more eco-friendly than both plant and animal protein, severely cutting down on land and water use. The protein is now being tested in a wide variety of various foods, ranging from ice-cream to artificial meat.

With continued globalisation and urban sprawl, mobility needs are increasing. Car-sharing, electric vehicles and a move towards more pedestrian-friendly city planning are gradually becoming the norm in many densely populated areas. Navigating this mayhem of movement options is not a simple feat. Software company MaaS Global, also from Finland, wants to make it easier for consumers to get where they are going without shame. The aim is to create the most sustainable alternative to individual car ownership by offering mobility options through a straightforward service, combining vehicle sharing, public transport and other kinds of green movement infrastructure. Large-scale changes in behaviour combined with new technology and alternative fuels might be the missing pieces needed to solve the transportation puzzle.

Production of goods is yet another behemoth in terms of environmental impact. Resources are,
in many cases, finite and extraction often requires intensive labour and energy use. Circular business models work to ensure that resources are used fully through innovative design where recycling is prioritised. The fashion industry is one of the major culprits as it requires lots of resources and generates enormous amounts of waste. The Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) is trying to change this by developing new processes in which textiles are created and recycled. Future fabrics might be made entirely from cellulose from the forest industry, bioplastics or reclaimed fibres from discarded garments. One project they are working on is salvaging fibres from mixed material textiles, something that has been notoriously difficult in the past. The fabrics are chemically separated, resulting in ‘new’ and pure products that easily can be reused – eliminating the need for further production of virgin materials.

Creating green and viable options for consumers is crucial and should be the priority for any company in the future. Environmental awareness is increasing globally, especially among the youth who realise the gravity of our situation. But some people are more susceptible than others, and both geography and political affiliation might decide whether you even believe in climate change in the first place, and how you choose to deal with it.

Dr Robyn Wilson is a professor of risk analysis and decision science at The Ohio State University. Her current research focuses on an individual’s response to climate change and what influences the actions they take when faced with climate hazards. She explains that environmental action – and the motivations behind it – can come in many forms and levels.
Dr Wilson states that it is vital for these motivations to be recognised when engaging with communities for climate-related action to have the most effect. Trying to persuade individuals or entire groups that typically act selfishly to give up comforts for the sake of someone else might be too drastic. Instead, focusing on the values and priorities which they hold dear (such as the economy or national pride) will be more successful. Looking to the future, Dr Wilson thinks that as harmful climate events will become more prevalent, we will see an even more significant shift towards individual action and support for political change.

The challenge will be if those individual actions are sufficient to provide the necessary level of protection, and if the politicians in power are receptive to the public will. Saving the world from its demise is a monumental task and will not be possible without extensive collaboration across national borders and financial sectors. The results of the 2020 US presidential election injected new hope in this endeavour, and hopefully the new administration will put more of an effort into enabling this collaboration. The positive ecological effects of Covid-19 lockdowns have been many. Air quality improved in several cities, animal species returned to previously abandoned habitats and carbon dioxide emissions declined. Unfortunately, improvements were mostly short lived and global CO₂ levels have now surpassed pre-Covid-19 times to an all-time high. However, it shows us that change is possible.

With a bit of luck, we will realise that Earth is not for us to govern as we wish and that we instead must seek to live in harmony with nature and move away from our currently toxic relationship with it. Humans are far from perfect, but we are resilient and inventive.
As self-made stewards of Earth, we have a responsibility to not only ourselves but also our fellow citizens – be they human or otherwise. Leading a sustainable lifestyle does not mean returning to the Stone Age in terms of comfort, but rather replacing old harmful habits with new healthy ones. We should be excited about what tomorrow has to bring, and hopefully, when the day comes, we will be impressed.

Words by Charles Westerberg

Picture caption:
Innovations in all sorts of fields, such as transportation systems, food science, mobile technologies and clothes recycling, are showing how sustainability can be achieved in the
face of climate change