Positive environmental news – 2022

It’s easy to become unmotivated to do our individual parts to help the climate crisis when all we hear is bad news. Why bother washing and recycling our tin cans when celebrities are taking private jets for short journeys? Why switch to paper straws when commercial fishing companies are dumping 640,000+ tonnes of plastic into the sea every year? Well, it turns out, there are many reasons why.

When people put pressure on governments to act, results happen. They may not always happen immediately. Some nations will drag their heels. Some will prioritise the economy over the environment. But there are almost eight billion of us on earth. Small changes and pressure from all of us can make a huge difference. Here are some positive bits of environmental news and innovations that have happened this year.

The UN declares that a healthy environment is a human right.

On 28th July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly declared that everyone on the planet has a right to a healthy environment. 161 of the UN Member States voted in favour of the change and there were only eight abstentions*.

Inger Andersen, the UN Environment Programme’s Executive Director, said:

“The United Nations General Assembly has truly made history. This resolution triggers environmental action. It provides safeguards. It helps people to have the right to stand up. To insist on having access. To breathe clean air. Access to safe and clean water. To healthy food. Healthy ecosystems. Non-toxic environments in which to live, to work, to study, and to play. No one can take nature or clean air or clean water or stable climate away from us. Not without a fight.”

UN regulations are not legally binding on member states, but the majority of UN member states already recognise the right to a healthy environment through a national constitution, international treaty or national legislation. For the 37 member states that did not recognise this right before now (including the UK), this will mean more pressure on governments to provide a healthy and clean environment for their citizens. This is a significant step in the right direction for recognising climate change as a current human issue rather than a future problem to tackle.

*Abstaining states: Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Russian Federation and Syria.

US Senate passes the Inflation Reduction Act – a landmark climate and spending bill.

At the time of writing (August 2022), the United States is the world’s second worst polluting country, responsible for around 14% of global emissions. But, on 7th August 2022, Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act was cleared by the Senate.

Amongst many measures to fight inflation is a pledge to invest $369 billion (c. £302 billion) into energy security and climate change. This will include financial incentives for electric vehicles and clean energy in the form of tax breaks. There will also be a fee penalising fossil fuel companies for excess methane emissions, billions of dollars for environmental justice initiatives in disadvantaged communities, and much more.

Moments before Vice President Harris cast her tie-breaking vote to send the bill to the House, Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said:

“Today, after more than a year of hard work, the Senate is making history. I am confident the Inflation Reduction Act will endure as one of the defining legislative feats of the 21st century. To the tens of millions of young Americans, who spent years marching, rallying, demanding that Congress act on climate change, this bill is for you.”

The Act isn’t perfect. Biden has admitted that it was a compromise. Though, while watered down to gain the vote of previously opposed Senator Joe Manchin, founder of a multi-million-dollar coal brokerage business, whose decision not to sign off on the bill prevented it from passing in 2021, the bill sees the US take a big step in the right direction for climate change.

The world is innovating.

At the UN’s COP26 conference in November 2021, a whole day was dedicated to science and innovation. Countries across the world formed a new Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, intending to invest billions into renewables and emission reduction innovations over the next decade. The great news is that innovations are already happening.

Synthetic kerosene

The global aviation industry is responsible for around 4% of all carbon emissions. This is because traditional jet fuel releases a large amount of carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere. However, a huge amount of research is now going into sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs).

SAFs can be made from used cooking oil, municipal waste and woody biomass. There is even the potential to use bacteria as sustainable aviation fuel. This is great news because using SAFs can reduce emissions by up to 80%.

In June 2022, four companies in Germany said they would produce 10,000 tonnes of e-kerosene (a SAF) each year in a brand new production facility scheduled to run from 2026. Other scientists have even been able to make carbon-neutral e-kerosene. The only real issue with SAFs is that they are much more expensive to produce. But, as innovation continues into sustainable aviation fuels, we can hope for more readily-available SAFs and more alternatives to traditional jet fuel.

Sand batteries

A team of young and talented engineers at the Finnish company Polar Night Energy spend their days designing and building heat storage for renewable energy. One of their recent innovations is a sand battery. But what is a sand battery?

News of the battery spread across the world in July 2022 after some great coverage from the BBC. The large sand battery – which looks similar to a grain silo – uses sand to store heat energy, acting as a reservoir for excess wind and solar energy. Finland experiences large dips in daylight in the winter, meaning solar power isn’t readily available in these months. Being able to store the summer’s solar energy as heat would mean a low-cost and low-impact solution to the country’s reliance on fossil fuels in the winter.

The great news is, so far, the sand battery is working well. The first commercial battery is thriving in Kankaanpää, a town in West Finland. There, it is connected to a district heating network where it’s successfully heating both residential and commercial properties including homes and a local swimming pool.

The technology is soon to be scaled up, and more research groups are now also looking into sand as a viable battery for green power. The future for the sand battery is looking promising.

Carbon capture cars

A student team based at the Eindhoven University of Technology have been very busy designing cars. But not just any cars. They have designed and built a car from waste, with the exterior made mostly from ocean plastic. They have built the world’s first fully circular car, sustainable in production, use and end-of-life recycling. Most exciting of all, in July 2022, they revealed their newest concept car, a car that removes carbon from the air while driving. This car, named Zem, captures carbon with a special filter designed by the students. These cars are just some of many that the team of students have come up with. While just prototypes at this stage, these cars showcase just what investment into sustainable solutions can achieve. We certainly hope to see Zems across the world in the future!

The Ocean Cleanup

The Ocean Cleanup was founded in 2013 by Dutch inventor, Boyan Slat. The charity now employs a team of 120 engineers, scientists, researchers and others who work to innovate technology that removes plastic from our world’s oceans and rivers.

Although the charity was founded almost a decade ago, results were not immediate. It’s been a long and carefully engineered journey for the charity, but on 25th July 2022, they announced that they had successfully removed 100,000 kilos of rubbish from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. They are now scaling up their operations to build an interceptor three times the size of their current flagship model.

The charity has also gained support all over the globe. Following on from the creator-lead #TeamTrees fundraiser, YouTube philanthropist Mr Beast (aka Jimmy Donaldson) and ex-NASA engineer turned YouTuber, Mark Rober, also launched #TeamSeas to support The Ocean Cleanup and Ocean Conservancy. The #TeamSeas project alone has funded the removal of c.33 million lbs of rubbish from the ocean. This proves both how powerful creator influence can be, and how much people all over the world truly do care about our oceans.

Biodegradable fishing nets

Fishing gear accounts for 27% of marine litter. Most of this is made of plastic, which causes havoc for ecosystems both in the water and on land. But hope is on the horizon. Happening right now, the INdIGO project is developing biodegradable fishing nets that, if successful, could make a massive impact on future ocean plastic. The project surveyed 200 French and English fishers, and a massive 94% said they would be willing to try biodegradable fishing gear, but the biodegradable nets must be as efficient, resistant and solid as traditional nets. INdIGO are not the only ones working on new fishing equipment too. Cypriot company SEALIVE is developing bio-based fishing nets made from materials such as micro-algae. Many more across the world are doing the same. With these innovations happening globally, the future of fishing could well be met with much-needed environmental reform.

These are just a handful of the many environmental innovations that are happening across the world right now. As more money is poured into science and innovation, we stand a better chance in the fight against global warming.

Nature is also joining the fight against climate change!

We could write for days about the wonderful ways nature has adapted to changing weather patterns, or about how much bees do for us without even realising it. But instead, we are going to focus on one of nature’s underappreciated heroes. One little creature has been very busy protecting environments from the impacts of the UK’s warm and dry weather… the beaver!

Beavers were previously hunted to extinction in the UK. However, they are now regarded as a “keystone species” and are carefully being reintroduced across the nation. In July and August 2022, we had some of the hottest weather on record in the UK. But, in areas where beavers have been reintroduced, wetland habitats are doing very well despite low river levels. Wetlands are vital for ecosystems and biodiversity, so the humble beavers are doing something quite remarkable. Beavers are so great in fact, that on October 1st 2022, new legislation will give beavers legal protection in England. It will then be an offence to deliberately capture, disturb, injure, kill, or damage the breeding sites or resting places of beavers (without a licence). As beaver populations increase, we could see more of these fascinating results.

As humans, we must help nature in any way we can. The Royal Horticultural Society has some great advice on how we can assist nature, even on a small scale. You don’t have to have acres of land to create a habitat where nature can thrive. Even a plant pot with some bee-friendly flowers and a bird feeder can make a difference.

Image of beaver

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