In a world of human scientific advancement, how can natural approaches hold some key answers to solving anthropogenic climate change?
If I had spoken to my great grandmother about carbon capture, she would have frowned in bemusement, visions of large nets trying to capture small black creatures polluting the atmosphere.
However, when Governments across the globe use mechanical carbon capture machines as part of their drive to Net Zero to help mop up anthropogenic climate change; we now, young & old, nod along in agreement & understanding.
However, if I stepped back in time & asked our cave dwelling ancestor’s, gagging through the sulfurous acrid air the same question (metaphorically speaking obviously) the answer would most likely have involved some reference to naturally occurring carbon sinks & peat bogs soaking up the carbon in the atmosphere.
Therefore, what has changed over the past hundreds of thousands of years & why with all of our human scientific advancements are we now looking to nature for answers?
As is evident & now used as a time date reference, the Pre-Industrialised world had cleaner air & pollution only started to clog up the atmosphere as fossil fuels were hewn from the ground & powered the Industrial Revolution. Little did our engineering & pioneering ancestors know the damage their ingenuity would cause.
Plastic production/waste & carbon pollution has been contributory to driving global temperatures up & with the world on a trajectory for a global increase to 2°C; humans are now in a race to keep global temperatures to 1.5°C to avoid catastrophic outcomes for planet Earth & it’s inhabitants.
Therefore, what research is being undertaken & what strategies are being put in place to find more natural ways to defend the human race from the advances of anthropogenic climate change & biodiversity collapse?
Our oceans are filled with plastic debris, with some 8 millions tons of plastic finding it’s way into our seas & rivers each year. A recent study has discovered that 44% of plastic found in the sea, is currently linked to takeout food.
Despite many takeaway food outlets having the opportunity to purchase sustainable wood cutlery/plates & recycled, sustainably sourced & biodegradable packaging; these figures are alarming.
One of the most disturbing issues about the plastics which are clogging up the ocean, is the fact that their base element, plastic, is traditionally sourced from petroleum.
This means when these plastics deteriorate & break down, not only do they become another pollutant in the form of micro plastics; but they are also releasing petroleum based toxins back into the oceans & our waterways.
Bioplastics are a biodegradable alternative to petroleum based plastics & are naturally derived from the byproducts of corn stubble, grasses & mesquite agricultural production.
The new technology involves a “plug-in” preconditioning process, a simple adjustment for biofuel refineries, said Joshua Yuan, Ph.D., AgriLife Research scientist, Professor & chair of Synthetic Biology a& Renewable Products in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture & Life Sciences Department of Plant Pathology. These “plug-in” technologies allow for optimization of sustainable, cost-effective lignin — the key component of bioplastics used in food packaging & other everyday items. (1)
With the world producing some 381 million tonnes of plastic waste yearly & this is looking to double by 2034; 50% of this is single-use plastic & only 9% has ever been recycled.
These figures are alarming & if the bioplastics model can be adapted as one of the many solutions to reduce the gargantuan amounts of plastic waste polluting planet Earth, then this more natural approach to plastic manufacture can only be a good thing.
Carbon capture using vast fans & turbines, miles of tunnels & deep underground storage facilities seem to be hailed as one of the greatest ways for humans to combat rising carbon emissions & global temperatures.
However, according to a Carbon brief article in July, although these machines could cut the cost of meeting global climate goals, they would need as much as a quarter of global energy supplies by 2100.
One example of naturally occurring carbon sinks which can naturally sequester carbon, are peatlands. Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store; the area covered by near natural peatland worldwide (>3 million km2) sequesters 0.37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year – storing more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined. (2)
However, with peatlands constantly under threat from humans using them for fertiliser & fuel & where developers are draining land, letting the peatlands dry our & in doing so destroying their ability to store carbon; what other options are being naturally developed to help combat carbon emissions?
One field of study is the use of different plants & microorganisms to act as absorption & replenishment. Professor Joanne Chory, one of the world’s leading botanists, has been studying ways in which plants can & do process Co2 & in her words “they fix it, then it goes back up into the atmosphere.” (3)
Professor Chory is now working to create plants capable of storing even more carbon dioxide in their roots. Her ‘Ideal Plant project’ uses gene editing – via traditional horticulture & Crispr – to do so. On a large scale, this could suck enough carbon out of the atmosphere to slow down climate change.
This concept splices the genes of regular crops & everyday plants like beans, corn & cotton, with a new compound that makes them absorb more carbon. Their roots then transfer it to the soil to keep it there. (3)
Developing these Ideal Plants is step one in the Harnessing Plants Initiative, which amplifies root systems and production of suberin – which is essentially cork, or the rind on your cantaloupe, the magic key to plants holding more of that carbon – before transferring these genetic traits to row and cover crops. (3)
Professor Chory says these new plants will have deeper, stronger root systems which will also stop erosion, another byproduct of warming temperatures. (3)
When normal plants die, they release large amounts of CO2 back into the air; when Ideal Plants die, significantly less CO2 will be re-released due to more carbon being stored in deeper roots & soil for longer periods, & suberin’s natural ability as a carbon polymer to resist short-term decomposition. (3)
Therefore, although scientific endeavour is striving for technology to be the answer to the climate crisis, natural approaches must become part of the solution alongside human scientific advances.
Written & cited by Katy-Jane Mason for & on behalf of Dolphin N2.