Philanthropy Action

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As the UN’s climate change conference draws nearer and debate on a possible cap-and-trade scheme in the US begins again, we’ll be seeing a tidal wave of reports on climate change. Almost all of them will be bad news, whether it’s further evidence of rapid change or pessimism about the prospects for concluding a meaningful agreement. But there is plenty of good news to be found—in fact, last week’s Economist was chock-a-block with it.

Even better, this news is far more meaningful than whatever happens on the Waxman-Markey bill or the Copenhagen conference. That’s because public policy will only make a difference if there is significant innovation that allows us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And such innovations are already happening as detailed in the Economist’s Technology Quarterly:

* Researchers at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) have produced a lithium-ion battery that is roughly one-tenth the size and 30 percent cheaper than the current state of the art. Cheaper, lighter batteries are an absolute necessity in shifting vehicles away from gas. Smaller, cheaper batteries also make all sorts of local, renewable micro-production of electricity much more feasible.

* Pirelli has developed a new tire that uses sensors to measure friction between the tire and the road. That information can then be used to increase fuel efficiency. On that front, every little bit helps.

* Xeros, a company in England, has developed a system to do a load of laundry with just one cup of water and less detergent. That also means less need for drying. Overall the system cuts carbon emissions per load of laundry by 40 percent.

* A team of researchers from around the world has worked out how to extract radioactive ions from the water and pipes used by nuclear power stations. While it doesn’t do away with the radioactivity it does make handling radioactive waste much simpler and safer. Since nuclear power is the only current carbon-free source of power operating at scale, that’s very good news.

* Speaking of carbon-free sources of power, StatOilHydro of Norway has deployed the first floating offshore wind turbine. If it works well, it will be a real boon in getting wind power to scale—the breeze is stronger and more consistent offshore and you need not worry about NIMBY protesters objecting that the turbines are ugly and noisy.

* Another Norwegian company, Kebony, just opened a factory that makes softwood lumber (which grows quickly and is thus more sustainable) more durable than hardwood lumber without using toxic chemicals. That will reduce the demand for tropical hardwood logging which in turn will help keep the rainforest carbon sinks intact.

When all is said and done, innovation is the only thing that will put the brakes on climate change. The fact that the Economist chose to feature all these innovations without grouping them together in terms of carbon-impact (or even noting it at all in some cases) is a great sign that the innovation we’ll need is becoming pervasive.


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