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The best way to tackle the worsening climate crisis is to slash emissions of greenhouse gases, which are largely released by burning fossil fuels. At the same time, allowing the natural world to recover from spiralling levels of degradation caused by human activity will draw down and store carbon, while also boosting biodiversity, helping to protect the planet.
Getting on with this two-pronged approach ought to be our species’ number one priority. But while governments and businesses debate how they go about doing this, there have also been many useful developments in science, technology and in government policy that can support this process, or offer parallel assistance to protecting the environment.
With the impacts of the climate crisis looming large over 2021, The Independent takes a look back at some of the most significant climate developments from this year.
Click on the title of each one to read the full article.
The farming of insects for food has been billed as the next sustainable food revolution in western countries many times over in the past few years. One reason for this is, compared with traditional livestock such as beef and lamb, insects require far fewer resources and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Ideas for reflecting away more of the sun’s rays range from painting buildings bright white to sending giant mirrors into space. If they were ever deployed at scale, each of these proposed technologies would come with novel scientific, political and ethical challenges.
Beyond tree-planting, carbon capture technology has not arrived at scale yet, but enormous strides are rapidly being made in the field. It is now possible to put fossil fuels right back where they came from and were safely stored for millions of years, in the interior of the Earth, not flowing and floating around the exterior. In April, The Independent’s Andy Martin investigated the potential for carbon capture and storage technology to offer a real solution to the climate crisis.
An electric-powered flying taxi, which was demonstrated at a Paris air show earlier this year, will be ready for passengers by the 2024 Olympics in the French capital, its creators said at the time. The VoloCity air taxi looks like a tiny helicopter with two seats and is topped by 18 rotors fixed to a large circle.
The German start-up is working with the French Civil Aviation Authority to bring electric air taxis to the Île-de-France region.
Tree planting could play a “crucial role” in helping European countries adapt to worsening droughts driven by the climate crisis, a study released over the summer found.
The new research suggested that as well as soaking up CO2, planting new forest across agricultural land in Europe would also boost local rainfall levels.
US company Pavement Technology from Cleevland, Ohio, has invented a titanium-based spray which they say acts as a "sunblock" for asphalt roads. The technology acts to scatter radiation from the sun, and also gives roads greater longevity, its creators said.
The UK’s heavily degraded peatlands account for around 5 per cent of our total greenhouse gas emissions, but they should be an essential carbon store, not a source. Now, major efforts are underway to bring back this critical resource. A 327-hectare site in Yorkshire is at the forefront of the efforts to restore them to their former boggy glory.
This summer the UK government said it will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel trucks by 2040 as part of plans to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
A ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 was announced in November 2020 under Boris Johnson’s 10-point climate plan.
Free public transport and schemes to help people green their homes were among actions recommended by a major new report which asked citizens how the UK should get to grips with the climate crisis.
Generating “entirely renewable clean energy”, from which water would be the only waste product, is feasible – and scientists are “homing in” on the exact means of achieving it, according to research published in July.
A team from Trinity College Dublin is “fine-tuning” a means of using renewable electricity to split water molecules into their constituent atoms, to release energy-rich hydrogen, which they say could be stored and used in fuel cells.
The process is already possible, and can be done using wind or solar power to generate the electricity required to split the water molecules.
Humanity still has the ability to change course and avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis, scientists said after the UN’s latest grim global climate assessment.
In this article The Independent looked at 14 ways individuals can take action.
Food production makes up a third of global greenhouse gas emissions with livestock for beef, lamb, pork and dairy accounting for 14.5 per cent of that. Transforming how we grow food, and what we eat, is a crucial pillar in tackling the climate crisis.
Solutions include: Vertical farms inside supermarkets, using derelict urban sites to grow food close to population centres, and using novel materials such as seaweed for packaging liquids.
The UK government is to spend just over £100m to “kickstart a world-leading hydrogen economy”, which it hopes will help the fuel become a major energy source and play a significant role in decarbonising heavy industry.
Hydrogen has long been tipped as a clean green fuel that might be used to replace fossil fuels in combustion-based sectors that are more difficult to electrify, such as aviation, shipping, steel and chemical production and other heavy industry.
The world’s first and largest factory to capture and convert carbon dioxide from the air into stone began operations in Iceland in September.
The Orca plant set up by Swiss startup Climeworks AG aims to reduce the effects of the greenhouse gas on the planet and its launch represented a milestone in the direct air capture industry.
Local authorities should not unnecessarily put street lights into rural areas where people could use torches, Lord Deben, the chairman of the Climate Change Committee, said in September.
Light pollution in rural areas has been named as a key reason for the sharp decline in insects across Europe in recent decades, with fears the “insect apocalypse” could result in a catastrophic collapse of ecosystems across the natural world.
British agriculture could receive a boost worth millions of pounds a year if thousands of honeybee hives were located in solar parks across the country, scientists said in October.
Rising demand for solar power as the UK targets growth in clean energy ahead of its legally-binding 2050 net zero plan, has seen the expansion of large grassy parks covered with solar panels, many of which are situated close to areas of intensive agriculture.
Speaking in October, the most senior scientific advisor to the UK government, Sir Patrick Vallance, said harnessing the benefits of the natural world is a “critical” part of hitting net zero by 2050, and must sit alongside innovation in science and technology to tackle the climate crisis.
Sir Patrick warned against relying on “magic new technology” to solve environmental problems.
“This has to be viewed as an ‘all-systems approach’,” he told The Independent on the role the natural world can play in tackling the climate crisis.
Government scientific advisers from all over the world united in October to call for people to change their personal behaviour in order to help tackle the climate crisis. “There will be a move away from the extent of meat-eating we’ve seen in the past, and I think we all need to think about our flying habits,” they said.
Iceland derived 65 per cent of its primary energy from geothermal sources in 2016. Around 85 per cent of all Icelandic homes are heated by geothermal energy. The country’s electricity comes almost exclusively from low-carbon hydropower and geothermal sources.
The UK is not actively volcanic and does not have geothermal reserves on the same scale as Iceland. But there are hotspots across the country with potential for developing geothermal energy. This includes Cornwall, where the country’s first geothermal power plant was commissioned earlier this year.
On the site of the Hellisheidi Power Station, the world’s third-largest geothermal plant located in southwestern Iceland, a world-first experiment has started capturing CO2 straight from air and turning it to stone.
It is a collaboration between Swiss start-up Climeworks, which has created technology to suck CO2 from the atmosphere, and Iceland’s Carbfix, a company that has developed a technique to turn CO2 to stone in less than two years.
A swathe of England’s biggest land owners and managers signed a joint pact in November, committing them to large-scale habitat restorations and a major tree-planting programme across a portfolio of 10.5 million acres, to help boost biodiversity and tackle the climate crisis.
The organisations, including the National Trust, RSPB and the Duchy of Cornwall have said they will work together to protect and regenerate environments such as peat bogs, woodland and rivers, to help draw down carbon and provide functioning ecosystems in order to help the UK’s legally binding goal of reaching net zero by 2050.
This month, the government announced the creation of a new concept aircraft which it says will run on liquid hydrogen and could “one day fly to the other side of the world with zero carbon emissions and just one refuelling stop”.
The £15m project has put forward a design for a mid-size passenger plane that will be able to accommodate 279 passengers and fly halfway around the globe without needing to refuel, or anywhere in the world with one refuelling stop, the government said.
Australia has been ranked one of the planet’s worst climate performers in multiple league tables, but now some old coal power stations may be converted to run on hydrogen.
The Liddell and Bayswater power stations in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley currently account for over 40 per cent of the state’s carbon dioxide emissions.