Climate and Environment
Climate talks march past deadline
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

COP26 is bringing many calls for action. Some are already taking action.

A host of climate-change innovations is bringing to life what global figures are preaching in Glasgow

Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley speaks during the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 on November 1, 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. She has called for innovation. Entrepreneurs are answering. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

During a protest outside the COP26 climate-change summit this week, Greta Thunberg offered a strident refrain. “Change is not going to come from inside there,” the activist said outside the Glasgow meetings, decrying the “politicians and people in power pretending to take our futures seriously.”

“We say ‘No more blah, blah, blah,” she pronounced.

An observer could be forgiven for thinking Thunberg had a point. There has been (ironically) some hot air at the summit, despite a range of concrete actions, like the agreement by some 40 countries to stop funding new coal-fired projects or a separate pledge by nations to reduce methane emissions by 2030.

It turns out many of the aspirations voiced at the conference are actually already being enacted on the ground — by innovators and entrepreneurs. These are often small companies, academic researchers or even just individuals, all putting together nifty inventions and crafty business plans that aim for less waste, more efficiency and all manner of climate-change mitigation.

Here, then, are five calls from leaders — and the personalities far away from the halls of power who are quietly moving on them.

“We have the ability to invest in ourselves and build an equitable clean energy future.” — U.S. President Joe Biden.

When it comes to the energy realm, the Massachusetts company Form Media is at the moment giving everyone else a run for their money. The firm is looking at rust on a power grid and using it to store… renewable energy?

Essentially: The company is taking the oxidization process, normally only good for ruining your Saturday garage clean-up, and deploying it to store energy on power grids. It can do so, according to the company, at just 10 percent the cost of a lithium-ion battery, a go-to method for such storage.

Such a grid overhaul would be major. Pretty much anything consumers do that’s electric in the new world — like cars — would become a lot cleaner, running from an environmental perspective in part on what are ultimately long-lasting batteries.

And speaking of clean locomotion, few energy solutions are as ingeniously simple as that of Vinisha Umashankar, a 14-year-old from southern India. Her country features “ironing carts,” in which itinerant vendors bring ironing services to people who don’t own irons. The carts are light and don’t require huge amounts of power. The problem: There are about 10 million of them. And nearly all of them burn charcoal.

So she had the idea of tricking out these carts with solar panels. That allows them to iron across a country that produces 7 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. (The idea is competing for the Earthshot, the new British prize that’s seen as a kind of Oscars for environmental entrepreneurship.)

Umashankar told The Post last month she saw the idea as transferable to other mobile businesses. “Soon, there may be solar veg-carts or ice-cream carts, you never know.”

“I have drawn great comfort and inspiration from the relentless enthusiasm of people of all ages — especially the young — in calling for everyone to play their part.” — Queen Elizabeth

Fitbit tracks steps, Noom tracks calories, SleepSpace tracks napfulness. But what can ordinary consumers do to take stock of our environmental impact?

MIT professor Jessica Trancik has come up with a carbon counter that measures with surprising (and disturbing) detail the carbon footprint of a car we own or soon might.

Two Polish researchers, Łucja Zaborowska and Julia Żuławińska, have devised a similar calculator for trees — plug it in and it will tell you how much oxygen it’s providing, a useful tool not just for professional planners but citizens looking to make decisions about where to live. “The ideal end-user(s) for this could be a single-family house owner or just people who want to make an impact on their communities and their health,” Żuławińska said in an email.

And there’s food impact: the BBC and London search-engine company Verve have teamed up for a slick tool that allows us to assess the impact of our diet on greenhouse-gas emissions.

“One of the really important aspects of addressing climate change is bringing everyone into the discussion,” Trancik told The Post in an interview.

She imagines all of these tools getting more sophisticated as people who can afford to do so factor in their carbon footprint of everything from commuting routes to choice of living space — a future, in other words, in which environmental impact is as much a point of comparison as price and quality.

“There’s a lot of focus on climate refugees,” she says. “I think another wave will be climate emigres, and these tools can be very helpful.”

“The entire physical economy is totally implicated. Every material we make, every factory that exists in the world is involved in this.” — Bill Gates, to The Post.

Gates was describing the emissions that happen in a world of massive industrial production and the gases and waste that come from it.

Innovators have been finding some pretty novel ways to salvage them.

A United Kingdom firm, bio-bean, has been processing tens of thousands of pounds of waste from coffee grounds each year, including from the likes of Stansted Airport, and turning it into bio-fuel.

Startups have also been trying to eliminate waste at a common source of the problem: grocery stores. As much as 30 percent of all food at U.S. supermarkets winds up in the trash, and food waste accounts for 8 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions.

By using a more efficient, algorithm-driven ordering system, companies like the Seattle startup Shelf Engine say they can ensure stores never stock more than they can sell.

But for sheer novelty in this post-waste world, few companies currently may top Extract Energy. The Ontario startup uses an alloyed blend of nickel and titanium to convert heat waste — you know, the stuff that radiates from every appliance and power plant — into clean energy. It does this in a unique way: by allowing the metal to bend and return to its form.

The founder, Ibraheem Khan, got the idea when tinkering with metals and realized this bendability could function almost like a machine, storing and then expending the energy thanks to its unique properties. He first tried it out with braces — his wife is a dentist — before transitioning to bigger applications.

The idea is a kind of net-zero twofer: it makes something useful from the heat-waste emissions and also creates much cleaner energy in the bargain.

In an email to The Post, Khan said that if his company scales up fast enough he ultimately believes it could offset greenhouse-gas emissions by 5 billion tons.

That’s an extremely high number. But even if he doesn’t approach that total, Khan still stresses these are the kinds of innovations that the world needs to embrace.

“Some of the resolutions coming from COP26 require very aggressive transitions in order to meet climate goals,” he said. Instead, repurposing existing forms of waste makes more sense. “What we find more exciting is the potential to tap into geothermal sources of heat and essentially create carbon free energy."

Of course, none of this is as innovative as running your Aston Martin on wine and cheese, as Prince Charles recently said he did. Maybe one day.

“Are we really going to leave Scotland without the resolve and the ambition that is sorely needed to save lives and to save our planet?” — Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley

When it comes to ambition, robot insects are pretty high on the scale.

We all know the problem if bees fade — without the beautiful rascals, whole chunks of the food chain collapse. Oranges, coffee, avocados and dozens of other crops all but go away. And bee health and species diversity are in dangerous decline.

The innovative plan has been to replace them with AI’s — little buzzing devices that lend themselves to all the puns you can drone on about. Over the past decade the idea’s been looked at by everyone from Washington State University to Walmart.

The Japanese have tried it; so have the Dutch. Most recently it’s been Israeli startups giving it a shot, with images sure to leave the Honey Nut Cheerio mascot shaken.

These devices all operate on a similar principle: that what the pollination bees do naturally and humans do slowly can be done efficiently by pre-programmed micro-flying machines.

The question is whether they actually work: can they replace the population, and the pollination?

For that we turned to Marla Spivak, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota and a world-renowned expert on bees. Her answer? Not so fast.

It’s a problem of scale, she says. “Robot pollinators might be useful in greenhouse or high-tunnel situations, with a limited number of flowers in a confined area,” Spivak wrote in an email. “But on a large, outdoor scale; e.g., 1 million acres of almond flowers? No. “ Well, innovation can’t solve every problem.

“We, particularly countries with large green areas and re-greening potential as well as countries with vast seas that have the potential to contribute to carbon sequestration — we need support and contributions from developed countries.” — Joko Widodo, president of Indonesia

Widodo was making a plea that has been familiar from developing countries: more resources are needed. This is especially true after developed nations fell $20 billion short of a $100 billion commitment last year.

But it’s the two words in the middle of that passage — “carbon sequestration” — that are so key. Carbon sequestration, or storage, along with the other half of the equation, carbon capture, is one of the most innovative approaches to climate change. It’s also one of the most controversial.

Basically, the idea is to snatch carbon from the air, then stash it away. A plant in Iceland, run by the Swiss company Climeworks and backed by Microsoft, is capturing carbon and turning it into rock.

Meanwhile, Exxon said this week it wants to engage in carbon capture along the 53 mile-long Houston Ship Channel, along which millions of barrels of crude oil are processed, and is asking investors for $100 billion for the project. The idea is to build a system that will capture and then transport by pipes all the carbon that’s produced by the industrial facilities along the channel so it can be buried under the Gulf of Mexico.

The International Energy Agency had said it’s “virtually impossible” to reach climate targets without using this tech; simply cutting getting to zero emissions by 2050 won’t undo the damage already out there. But critics say carbon capture is a slippery slope, and could encourage the exact dangerous emissions that got us here in the first place.

And it may not even be a workable solution, they say. “The costs involved are prohibitive… There is also significant deployment time to consider,” said a report this year from researchers at the United Kingdom’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

But carbon capture has the backing of some high-ranking U.S. government officials.

“I don’t think we can discount the capacity of any technology that exists now or will exist in the very near future that will help us reach our milepost by 2030 or 2040 on the way to a net-zero economy,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview with The Post Friday when asked about the backlash.

Vilsack said he has been closely following a host of agricultural innovations, from more efficient forms of fertilizer to a Stanford-affiliated project that literally aims to capture lightning in a bottle, and is also excited by the possibilities of a new U.S. and United Arab Emirates-led “Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate," which has the backing of some 30 countries and to which President Biden announced an investment of $4 billion.

“We have to do all of it. And we have to do all of it fast,” Vilsack said.

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

Have a question about climate change or climate solutions? Share it with us. You can also sign up for our newsletter on climate change, energy and environment.