The future is here: 3 ways technology can improve sustainability

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It’s a new year, the human population is about to reach 7.5 billion and we’re consuming more energy than ever before. But it’s not just our technology and tools that needs power. Our bodies use it too, and that means food.

To nourish our ever-growing population, we need to produce more things to eat. Generating energy and using more land for crops increases atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. So does livestock farming, with animals releasing methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. But there are strategies available to counter or offset the negative aspects of our food production system:

Nuclear power

To fight climate change and fill the power grid, we need nuclear energy and we must transition away from fossil fuels. The latter won’t be instantaneous, because we’re not even close to a system of all-electric or hydrogen vehicles. But we need to move away from coal, a dirty fossil fuel that produces the greatest quantity of carbon dioxide.

Nuclear power wins the prize for having the worst publicity of any energy source. This is largely because of three incidents: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011. But an analysis published by Forbes in June 2012 offers insight into which of our power sources is actually the most dangerous.

The following chart shows the mortality rate (per trillion kilowatt hours produced) for a variety of power sources.

  • Coal (generates 50 percent of global electricity): 100,000
  • Oil (generates 8 percent of global electricity, 36 percent of energy): 36,000
  • Biofuel/Biomass (generates 21 percent of global energy): 24,000
  • Natural Gas (generates 20 percent of global electricity): 4,000
  • Hydro (generates 15 percent of global electricity): 1,400
  • Solar (generates less than 1 percent of global electricity): 440
  • Wind (generates less than 1 percent of global electricity): 150
  • Nuclear (generates 17 percent of global electricity): 90

Coal comes out the worst, as we might expect, followed by oil. But surprise, surprise, nuclear has actually killed fewer people than any other source – even taking into account the Fukushima disaster. Even the environmentally-friendly hydroelectric, wind and solar sources have claimed more lives than nuclear. This is not an argument against these power sources, but it does help put nuclear in perspective.

Currently, the US runs more nuclear power plants than any other country, although France gets a higher proportion of its energy from nuclear reactors. US reactors are mostly generation II nuclear plants, which are no longer being built, as we transition to generation IV, featuring reduced quantities of radioactive waste and multiple levels of safety features. The Fukushima facility was a generation II and was not built in a logical location.

Those concerned about climate change — which should be all of us — should note developments in Japan. Nuclear energy was shut down there after the 2011 accident. Japanese reactors in other parts of the country are only now restarting, so in the interim how has Japan filled its energy gap? Sadly, for the most part the answer is by increasing coal fire plant construction. When you reduce the contribution from nuclear, this is how it’s replaced.

To be sure, there is an increase worldwide and in the US in renewable energy generation from solar and wind, but use of fossil fuels is nevertheless increasing. Offsetting this trend will require not just maintenance of the current level of nuclear energy production, but an expansion of it. Civil nuclear power has one other benefit in the United States, namely that it provides a destination for the nuclear fuel of nuclear weapons as they are dismantled. At the Peak of the Cold War in the late 20th century, the US and USSR together had something like 70,000 nuclear weapons. At this point, we’ve reduced the numbers to rough 7,000 warheads each for the US and Russia, with about 1,300 and 1,700 of those actually deployed for the US and Russia, respectively. Dismantling is proceeding according to treaty and when the Russians take apart their weapons they give us the nuclear material and we use it to make electricity. Roughly 10 percent of our energy comes from dismantled Russian weapons and we can keep doing this rather than having to mine uranium from underground. It is a literal example of beating swords into plowshares. Why would anyone want to end this?

The trick now is to make nuclear economically viable, also improving both safety and waste disposal issues, but innovators such as Bill Gates are pushing for progress in this area. Given that anthropogenic climate change is real and happening fast, it seems reasonable that environmentalists should be mobilizing in favor of civil nuclear energy as a major component of our power grid.

Synthetic meat: Satisfying the craving for beef, without actually raising cattle

Livestock, especially cattle, contribute a double whammy to the environment. On one hand, they require enormous areas of land. They also release large quantities of methane in their flatus, due to methanogenic microorganisms that inhabit their gastrointestinal tracts. In terms of its greenhouse effect, methane is anywhere from 20 to 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Cattle flatulence is an example of a natural process that harms the environment, because of the massive quantities of cattle we maintain to satisfy the world’s demand for beef.

However, we soon may be able to reduce cattle methane substantially. Instead of maintaining large cattle populations, we could simply grow the meat in a lab using harvested muscle stem cells to grow muscle proteins. Using this approach, scientists currently have the ability to make very expensive hamburger meat. Expected developments in this arena, however, will incorporate connective tissue stem cells to allow the addition of steaks to the menu. We might also control not just the percentage of fat in the beef, but also the types of fatty acids. This could lead to steaks and burgers that are as healthy as salmon – and healthier still for the environment. But clearly, this is a technology that will need public support before it becomes a realistic food option.

No-till agriculture

One of the ways that agriculture contributes to global warming is through the practice of tilling fields. Humans have been doing it for thousands of years – breaking up and turning over a layer of soil, before planting crops. Tilling many centimeters into the soil kills weeds by breaking their roots with force, and so farmers (particularly organic farmers) like it as a way to avoid, or at least minimize, the use of herbicides.

One of the problems with this is that tilling contributes to climate change, because of its high greenhouse gas footprint – in part, because of the carbon dioxide output from the tractors and other pieces of farm machinery used. But also, the mechanical breaking and turning of dirt releases more carbon dioxide along with a more potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.

So, true environmentalists should advocate practices that encourage no-till farming. This includes encouraging reasonable use of herbicides. It also means encouraging practices aimed at producing more food from less land area, which means supporting GM crops.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he is saying on Twitter.