6 Glimmers of Climate Optimism for the End of a Dark Year

It was a year of frightening reports on the future of our planet. But sustainability experts are still feeling optimistic about some of the strides we’ve made this year.


Photo: Victor Rodriguez/Unsplash

In 2018, we learned from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we have around 30 years to fully decarbonize or risk widespread global devastation from warming and sea-level rise. We also learned that current emissions patterns are nowhere near in line with that goal. Even though the Trump administration tried to bury the U.S.’s own findings on climate, the 1,656-page National Climate Assessment backed up the IPCC report, and called for a doubling down on climate protection policies to prevent damage (which is already underway) to the environment and the country’s infrastructure.

The consensus among scientists, researchers, and sustainability experts following this years’ reports is that while stopping climate change will require an undoubtedly Herculean effort, the biggest hurdle is political, not technical. In other words, if all the innovations in sustainable technology and science were harnessed and directed at reducing emissions and environmental collapse, we might stand a chance at meeting the goals laid out in the reports.

Don’t get us wrong: It will take a heroic, global effort if we’re even going to come close to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius–the point after which, according to the reports, large swaths of the planet will become uninhabitable, and issues like mass starvation will become widespread. And the lack of leadership from the United States, under climate change denier Donald Trump, is making cohesive political action difficult.

But underneath all this, activists, scientists, and business leaders are working to advance progressive climate action, and despite everything, have hung onto a sense of optimism as we move into 2019. Here are some reasons why:

1. We Have the Potential to Radically Shift the Way We Eat

Image result for burger

On the heels of the IPCC report, the World Resources Institute released research tracking global meat consumption, and found that food production, especially animal agriculture, accounts for around a quarter of all emissions. It’s the single-largest driver of climate change. This makes a pretty compelling case for wide-scale adoption of vegetarianism and veganism, but far more importantly, should clue in food distributors, like restaurants and grocery stores, that they need to change their offerings. That’s already happening. This year, the plant-based Impossible Burger started appearing everywhere from airline menus to fast-food restaurants, and is preparing to launch in grocery storesJust, another startup, is growing real meat in bioreactors, which dramatically reduces emissions and the environmental footprint of meat production. It’s possible, now, to imagine a future where factory-farm-produced meat is replaced by plant-based versions, or meat grown in labs.

2. We Can Grow More Food Without Damaging the Environment

“Over the last century, we’ve relied heavily on fertilizer to meet the food demands of a growing population,” says Karsten Temme, CEO of the startup Pivot Bio. Fertilizer is most commonly made from synthetic nitrogen, which is easy to produce and distribute, but releases a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Synthetic nitrogen alone is responsible for around 5% of global warming. Next year, Temme’s startup will begin delivering a new, natural alternative to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer to farmers. Pivot Bio’s product consists of natural, nitrogen-producing microbes that adhere to plants’ roots, supporting plant growth while eradicating the need for environment-damaging synthetic versions. Especially as populations grow and land constricts due to climate change, well-fertilized crops will be necessary to meet food demands. MORE

Solar Farms Shine a Ray of Hope on Bees and Butterflies

A trend of planting wildflowers on solar sites could maintain habitat for disappearing bees and butterflies

Solar Farms Shine a Ray of Hope on Bees and Butterflies
NREL scientist Jordan Macknick and Jake Janski, from Minnesota Native Landscapes survey a pollinator test plot planted underneath the photovoltaic array at the Chisago Solar Site, part of the Aurora Solar Project in Minnesota. Credit: Dennis Schroeder National Renewable Energy Lab Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The tidy rows of gleaming solar panels at Pine Gate Renewables facility in southwestern Oregon originally sat amid the squat grasses of a former cattle pasture. But in 2017 the company started sowing the 41-acre site with a colorful riot of native wildflowers.

The shift was not merely aesthetic; similar projects at a growing number of solar farms around the country aim to help reverse the worrying declines in bees, butterflies and other key pollinating species observed in recent years.

Up to $577 billion in annual global food production relies on pollination by insects and other animals such as hummingbirds and bats, according to the United Nations. But more than half of native bee species (pdf) in the U.S. have seen their numbers drop sharply since 2005, with almost 25 percent now at risk of extinction. Meanwhile the North American monarch butterfly population has declined 68 percent over the past two decades, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity says. Suspected factors include climate change, pesticide use and parasites—along with shrinking habitat, largely blamed on natural landscapes (such as scrublands or wetlands) being converted for agricultural use. MORE

Unlocking the potential of microbiomes in food production systems: SIMBA project

636821092798918338sustainablefood.jpgA new project funded by the EU is set to explore the potential of exploiting microorganisms in plants and animals to improve food security and promote sustainable food production.

The project, SIMBA (Sustainable Innovation of Microbiome Applications in Food System), aims to tackle the growing challenge of supplying food to a growing global population amid the climate change crisis, through innovative activities around food systems using microorganisms….

At the recent meeting in Helsinki in mid-December, SIMBA Project Coordinator and Principal Scientist Anne Pihlanto from LUKE, Natural Resources Institute Finland, said: “Recent research has indicated the huge impact microbiomes have on our lives. This makes SIMBA a very exciting project to be involved in. The project will have far-reaching impacts, not only contributing to improved food security, but the development of sustainable diets and novel fermented products are also expected to function as a cure for type 2 diabetes potentially.” MORE