40C summer days, whole streets going up in flames, reservoirs running dry, train networks failing, schools and businesses closing and the threat to life being declared emergencies. The climate is changing rapidly, and the long-term consequences will be devastating. The few days of extreme heat this month are a portent of the summers to come this century.
For 150 years, we have fought nature, to manage it, overcome it, conquer it for its resources and, then as the consequences become clear, ignore it. We’ve destroyed habitats, choked our atmosphere, polluted rivers, filled our seas with junk, degraded the soil our food is grown in and destabilised the natural balance of things that keep us alive.
The recent weather has focused minds on whether we will achieve a net-zero global economy at the current pace of change. We are pushing nature and ecosystems to the very limits and we’re the ones suffering the consequences.
Great store is put in technological solutions to solve the problems we have created. Certainly, we will need green power generation, low carbon food production, globally sustainable travel options, and ways of cleaning the CO2 from our atmosphere. We should also set our sights on nature-based solutions to play a significant role – and innovation approaches that sit at the nexus of technology and nature should be a priority.
Restoring lost ecosystems
Technologies like Dendra Systems’ tree planting drones. In Australia, it has used unmanned aerial vehicles to disperse millions of seeds to grow a “koala corridor” in collaboration with the World Wide Find for Nature and the Australian Government. Its ambition is to restore over 20,000 hectares of koala habitat in Australia over four years. In a matter of hours, Dendra is able to spread the seeds of 40 different plant varieties over degraded land, including native grasses, and eucalyptus. It estimates this approach will result in 15,000 new trees.
Recent winners of the Ofwat Innovation Fund, include Seagrass Seeds of Recovery – a project to restore seagrass meadows off the coast of Essex and Suffolk. A consortium led by Affinity Water, with partners including Oxford University and the Environment Agency is rebuilding lost marine ecosystems that will also become a store of carbon and nitrogen – becoming a blueprint for “blue carbon” offsetting.
Benefits beyond climate
It’s not only the climate helped by nature-based solutions, there are wider benefits too. A recent report cited the value that urban wetlands could deliver in improving the health and wellbeing of deprived communities in the UK.
The report by the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust demonstrated that increasing urban wetlands would cool cities, reduce flooding and capture air pollution. It also evidenced that it would improve the physical and mental health of local people, saving the NHS significant sums. London’s green spaces are thought to save the health service £950m a year.
In Kenya, material innovators Chemolex, is tackling two environmental challenges – invasive plants in Lake Victoria and plastic pollution. The Afri-Plastics Challenge recently awarded it £75,000 to develop a process to turn water hyacinths into a biodegradable bioplastic that can replace petroleum-based plastic packaging. As well as improving the lake’s ecological balance, the new material aims to cut volumes of waste plastic entering the marine ecosystem. If it wins the challenge next year, it could secure another £750,000 to scale the technology further.
Nature-Based Solutions at scale
The world needs to halve its CO2e emissions by 2030 if it has a hope of achieving net-zero in 2050 and keeping temperatures within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels. That is not the end-point, it will take at least another century of sustained innovation and technological advancement to undo the damage done since the industrial revolution. Nature is our ally, not our enemy and we can find a balance between technology innovation and the innate low-tech action of ecosystem restoration and protection.
Hi-tech engineering solutions may capture headlines more than sea-grass meadows do, but restored forests, wetlands and marine ecosystems could prove more effective in capturing carbon.
Carbon capture could be worth more than £100 billion to the UK economy by 2050. To address the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, we need bold breakthroughs. Scaling tech, engineering and data innovation that make sure a variety of nature-based approaches more viable and easy to deliver is an opportunity we cannot afford to overlook. They work for the climate, our wider environment, our health and the economy.