The creator of a house made of bamboo that can be put together in four hours to solve the chronic shortage of affordable accommodation in the Philippines has won a £50,000 top prize to develop cities for the future. Earl Forlales, 23, a graduate in material science engineering, took inspiration from the bamboo hut his grandparents lived in outside Manilla.
Forlales was awarded first prize by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) for his house, known as Cubo, for its use of low-cost, sustainable material, and the speed at which it could be constructed.
John Hughes, the competition head judge and Rics president, said: “The world’s cities are growing all the time and there is a real need to make sure they are safe, clean and comfortable places to live for future generations.
“There were many exciting, original designs among the submissions. However, Earl’s idea stood out for its simple yet well thought through solution to the world’s growing slum problem.
“As we look at our entrants, who are our next generation of leaders, I believe that real progress will be made in tackling the world’s biggest issues.”
Forlales’s house could be manufactured in a week, constructed in four hours and costs £60 per square metre. Its use of bamboo – which releases 35% more oxygen into the environment than trees – was praised by the judges. The ability of the houses to be constructed in any bamboo-producing area was one of the key attractions.
Forlales has already identified a suitable area of land to start building his Cubo houses. He plans to begin work next year with experts from the Rics in an attempt to help relieve the huge pressures on housing in Manila, where a third of the 12 million population live in slums.
He said: “This is a huge step forward to helping the people of Manila. The state of housing in the city is at crisis point, and will undoubtedly get worse with this new influx of workers.
“Cubo started as nothing more than an idea, conceived while spending time at my grandparent’s house – it is incredible to think that it now will become a reality.
“I would like to thank Rics for the opportunity to develop the idea, and look forward to working with them to put this money to good use in Manila, and then hopefully elsewhere around the world.”
The Cities for our Future competition launched in January 2018 aiming to find practical solutions to problems that the world’s cities face. There were more than 1,200 entries, which were narrowed down to 12 finalists, who were given a mentor from the Rics to help them develop their idea over several months. The final judging took place this month.
Dr Beth Taylor, a competition judge and the chair of the UK National Commission for Unesco, said: “One of the reasons Earl’s entry stood out from the other finalists was through its use of traditional, sustainable technologies and materials, to solve an issue facing modern cities across the world.”
This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the world’s most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at email@example.com
Among retailers and manufacturers, they talk of “the Blue Planet effect”. The BBC series, screened late last year, was the moment that many of us realised the catastrophic impact our use of plastics was having on the world’s oceans. Scenes such as a hawksbill turtle snagged in a plastic sack, the albatrosses feeding their chicks plastic or the mother pilot whale grieving for her dead calf, which may have been poisoned by her contaminated milk, are impossible to unsee.
It’s a crisis that affects us all, and the facts make for dispiriting reading. If nothing changes, one study suggests that by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic swimming around, by weight, than fish. It’s already estimated that one third of fish caught in the Channel contain plastic; another piece of research found that “top European shellfish consumers” could potentially consume up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year.
Suddenly our use of plastics is firmly on the political and cultural agenda. While impassioned individuals have been pushing to reduce our use of plastics for a few years, the volume of the debate has been turned up dramatically in recent months.
There is hope, too, that the message is getting across. The 5p charge on carrier bags, introduced in 2015, has led to an 85% drop in their use across England; an astonishing 9bn bags. Here, we highlight pioneers who are tackling the issue of plastics in creative ways.
Chelsea Briganti and Leigh Ann Tucker: ‘Imagine a lemon-flavour straw and a grapefruit cup or a vanilla straw for your iced latte’
Across the US, around 500m plastic straws are used and discarded every single day. “We could fill 125 school buses,” says Leigh Ann Tucker, co-founder of Loliware. The straws are made from polypropylene, a petroleum by-product, which is technically recyclable in large formats, but this is practically impossible with something the size of a straw. “So they end up as landfill or ocean pollutants,” Chelsea Briganti, Loliware’s other half, chips in. “We’re drowning in our plastic.”
Britain sucks, too. Here, we throw away an estimated 8.5bn straws annually, easily the most in Europe. In London alone, more straws are used than the whole of Italy. Most campaigns focus on getting rid of plastic straws or using longer-lasting or biodegradable alternatives and these have had considerable traction – now the UK government has announced a consultation on banning plastic straws.
However, Briganti and Tucker have a more playful solution. This summer in the US, and next year in the UK, they are launching the Lolistraw, a straw that you can drink from and then eat – they call it “biodegr(edible)”.
The main ingredient is seaweed, which can have different flavours or nutrients added. The material can also be fashioned into cups and lids, all of which can be munched on after you’ve finished drinking.
“Imagine a lemon straw with a blood orange lid and a grapefruit cup,” says Briganti, in a call from Beacon, New York, where Loliware has its offices in an old silk factory. “Or a flavoured vanilla straw for your iced latte. There’s an inherent idea that there needs to be a trade-off, but actually we can offer something more exciting. We want to invigorate the discussion of ‘What does sustainability mean now? And how does that benefit me?’, rather than asking people to compromise as a consumer.”
The neologisms do not end there: Loliware has also created a designation called “hypercompostable”. “We wanted to distinguish ourselves from industrial compostable materials such as PLA [polylactic acid] plastic, which is often made from GM corn, because we wanted to show people what real compostability means,” explains Briganti. “If this cup or straw ends up in a waterway, it’ll simply dissolve; if it ends up in the natural environment, it will break down in 60 days.” PLA, meanwhile, though technically biodegradable, can take a long time to decompose (anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years in a landfill) and also needs to be kept separate when it’s recycled because it can contaminate the recycling stream.
Loliware launched in March 2015, but Briganti and Tucker had been working together since they’d met a few years earlier at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Their first product was an edible cup and it immediately caused a stir. In October 2015, Loliware pitched on Shark Tank – the US version of Dragons’ Den – and there was a “shark brawl” as all of the entrepreneurs tore strips off each other to invest.
The original cup proved popular – deals were sealed with the Four Seasons hotel group, 60,000 were bought by Absolut and so on – but at nearly a unit, it was too expensive for mainstream penetration.
That has changed with a new material they call Lolizero, which is “cost-competitive” with paper and PLA. Loliware is currently in discussion with global chains in the coffee and fast-food sectors, as well as more upmarket chains, about using its cups, lids and straws. “Just to give you an idea,” says Tucker. “One big account, replacing 10% of their straws, is so significant it’s in the hundreds of millions.”
Briganti and Tucker are confident their products will make a big dent in the single-use drinks market – and they’re especially proud to have made an impact as a pair of female innovators.
“Women solving the challenges for Mother Earth, if you will,” Briganti says with a laugh. “We have a direct connection with her.”
Vin and Omi: ‘People ask “Is this silk?” No, it’s 11 small Evian bottles’
The eco fashion designers Vin and Omi are tricky men to pin down. They don’t like to use their real names. They are vague about their ages and where they live, though it’s usually either London or New York. It’s not impossible to find photos of them, but they often wear masks or, as was the case at end of one catwalk show, cardboard boxes with holes hastily punched for their eyes. “The Daily Mail called us the Banksys of fashion,” says Omi with a giggle, the slighter of the pair and originally from Singapore, when we meet at the Andaz hotel in east London.
Perhaps inevitably, the pair dislike the tag “fashion designers” too, though they concede this objection is getting harder to sustain now they have shown their clothes a dozen times at London fashion week. They also have enough celebrity admirers to fill Grazia many times over: Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus have all worn Vin + Omi. Walking in their shows they’ve had rappers, Jane Horrocks, the boxer Nicola Adams and “someone from Made in Chelsea”.
But what’s certainly true is that Vin and Omi do not really fit in the fashion world. In an industry famed for waste, excess and ethically dubious practices, they try to do things the right way. They started in 2004, working with latex – “really organic and sustainable!” says Omi – and a doomed attempt to make it breathable. This led them on to plastics and a quest to make beautiful, tactile garments from recycled materials.
“We’re on the cover of Recycling & Waste World soon,” mock-boasts Vin, who has a background as a sculptor and in public art projects.
“It’s brilliant,” adds Omi; away from work, the pair have been married for 17 years. “Instead of Vogue, we get Waste World.”
And yet perhaps the day when they appear in both those market‑leading publications isn’t too far away. Scattered around the hotel room are a selection of clothes, made from 12 fabrics unique to Vin + Omi. They are vibrant and outlandish, some are plain bizarre, but what’s really surprising is how enjoyable they are to hold. Most are made from recycled and often salvaged plastics, but there’s also a no-kill fleece and a “leather-esque” vest made from chestnut skins.
“When the first T-shirt made from plastic came back we were amazed – it was softer than a normal cotton T-shirt by far,” says Vin. “That had to come from Canada, which was a shame, but people would ask, ‘Is this silk?’ And we’d say, ‘No, it’s 11 small plastic Evian bottles.’”
Perhaps their biggest champion is Debbie Harry. Last year, they created the wardrobe for Blondie’s world tour: 12 pieces all made from recycled or salvaged plastic included blouses, capes and an especially eye-catching smock inscribed with “Stop Fucking the Planet” in block capitals. “Debbie said, ‘Just design me anything,’” recalls Vin. “And we said, ‘Are you sure? Right, it’s going to be Stop Fucking the Planet and you’re wearing it.’ And she did.”
Vin and Omi certainly enjoy a mischievous stunt. They are currently collecting Coca-Cola bottles. The beverage giant sells more than 110bn single-use plastic bottles every year according to Greenpeace, and has promised to collect and recycle the equivalent of all its packaging by 2030, but has been lambasted by the environmental group for not setting a target on reducing the amount of plastic it production. When they have enough bottles, Vin and Omi will create a lavish garment and hand-deliver it to Coca-Cola’s CEO. Omi smiles, “The note will say, ‘Look, we can help bring your quota down. You can use this for your marketing.’”
Until now, Vin and Omi have concentrated on one-off, high-fashion pieces, but in the next year or so, they would like to open a shop in London selling more affordable designs. They also hope that more established labels will start to follow their path. “Eventually, plastic will be banned,” predicts Vin, “but in the interim period, if all designers did what we were doing on a larger scale, there would be no plastic in the ocean. They would pay to have salvage operations, because they’d get free raw material. It’s a lot of planning, but it’s worth it.”
Rodrigo García González and Pierre-Yves Paslier: ‘Corporations think they can keep on with the current system but people are desperate to try something else’
When people hear the concept for Ooho!, they often assume it’s a joke. Much like the notion of food pills, the idea of water delivered in a transparent membrane you swallow whole seems too futuristic for 2018. “When we started crowdfunding, people called us fake news,” says Pierre-Yves Paslier, the 30-year-old French co-founder of Skipping Rocks Lab, the east London-based startup that makes Ooho!. “They couldn’t believe it was a real thing.”
“We had to organise events for investors,” adds 33-year-old co-founder, Rodrigo García González, a Spaniard, “so they could touch it, taste it and see it was real.”
I can confirm that Ooho! very much exists, but there is definitely something bizarre about popping the little pouches in your mouth. First, you explode it in your cheek and get a pleasant rush of filtered water. Then you decide what to do with the membrane, which is made from seaweed – you can spit it out – it is biodegradable in four to six weeks – or you can chew it. “It has a bit of texture, it doesn’t really have a specific taste,” explains Paslier. “It’s a texture found a lot in south-east Asian food, but we are not very familiar with it in the west.”
García González and Paslier met while studying for a masters in innovation design engineering, offered jointly by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. The idea for Ooho!, says García González, was borrowed from the natural world: “In nature, to contain liquids, such as fruits or eggs, they normally use membranes. It’s the most efficient way to contain any type of liquid, because you need the minimum amount of material.” This led them on to spherification, a process invented in the 1950s that was then used to make fake caviar and had a revival in 2003 at Ferran Adrià’s modernist restaurant, elBulli. Since their discovery, Skipping Rocks Lab has been working out how to refine and package its offering.
There is obviously a market to disrupt here. It’s estimated that 1m plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world. García González and Paslier cheerfully accept that it would be better if everyone carried reusable bottles and there were plenty of water fountains. However, until that’s the case, they believe Ooho! can fill a gap at music festivals, running events, offices and takeaway lunch spots. Ultimately, sachets will be delivered by an on-site dispenser like a coffee machine. These should start rolling out later in the year.
Skipping Rocks Lab believes its technology could be adapted to face other challenges such as disposable cutlery or coffee cups. And its experience of crowdfunding suggests that there is public demand. Recently, it set out to raise £400,000 via Crowdcube; in the event, 900 investors pledged almost £850,000. “People are ready for an alternative,” says Paslier. “The corporations think they can keep on with the current system but people are desperate to switch to something else.”
It might seem surprising that a European-led company would choose Brexit Britain as a base, but García González and Paslier insist they are happy here. They have received strong support from Imperial College and Innovate UK and have a close relationship with other startups such as Aeropowder, which creates new materials from waste feathers. “It’s still really great to be here,” says Paslier. “The clean-tech sector is booming.”
Siân Sutherland:‘What we’re asking for is difficult, but we have to turn off the plastic tap’
“I’m probably your least likely eco-warrior,” says Siân Sutherland, a 56-year-old British entrepreneur and co-founder of the campaign group A Plastic Planet. I have an idea what she means – she has glitter on her jacket and bag and her blond hair is flecked with blue – but I ask her to clarify. “There’s a bit of a mould isn’t there, where you think, ‘She’s a right old activist.’ You know, knitted armpits, sandals. But there’s a whole new wave now – it doesn’t have to define your look.”
For most of her life, Sutherland had given little thought to the environment. In her 20s, she opened and ran a Michelin-starred restaurant in Soho; she has also set up a design and branding agency and founded a skincare brand for pregnant women. “I did that for 10 years in the UK and the US, so you can imagine that my personal plastic footprint is huge,” she says. “It’s a very competitive space and I didn’t really think about what happens to those white plastic bottles afterwards.”
A Plastic Planet was born when she was asked by an old friend, Frederikke Magnussen, to help with the launch of a documentary, A Plastic Ocean. This was 2016 and, says Sutherland, you had to “strong-arm” anyone to take any interest in the subject. But she and Magnussen quickly realised that this was a problem that went far beyond the oceans and started their campaign.
“You go to your supermarket and it’s a sea of plastic and you have no choice,” says Sutherland. “It’s almost like this human right has been taken from us. So this is really about two unreasonable women saying, ‘Why can it be that we’re now made to feel bad about our shopping habits and we have no choice?’”
Right now, A Plastic Planet has a very straightforward goal: a plastic-free aisle in every supermarket. It focuses on this area because this is where Sutherland and Magnussen believe they can make the greatest difference. In Europe in 2016, 40% of all plastic was used for packaging, and nearly half of that wrapped food and drink. Earlier this year, a Guardian investigation estimated that British supermarkets were responsible for more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year; that’s enough to bury Greater London 2.5cm deep.
“It’s indefensible for us to use something that is so indestructible as plastic, which we now know is going to exist on the planet for centuries, to just wrap our perishable food and drink in,” Sutherland seethes. “It makes no sense. We just got it wrong.”
A Plastic Planet’s campaign has already made global headlines. The world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle opened in February in Amsterdam. Ekoplaza, a Dutch chain, had around 700 products at its pilot launch and everything was packaged, just in glass, metal, cardboard or a compostable, plant-based biofilm.
“We really had no idea it would be the media storm that it was,” says Sutherland. “Personally I did 55 interviews in 24 hours. But the story is not: the people of Amsterdam can buy plastic-free; this is a message to the world that we don’t need to wait five years. We don’t need to wait 25 years definitely. I’ll be dead. Half the planet will be dead. We can do it now.”
In the UK, Sutherland has not yet spoken to Theresa May or Michael Gove, the environment secretary, though she offers them both an open invitation. But she has had discussions with the firm Iceland, which has committed to eliminate plastic packaging for all its own-brand products by 2023, and also the Co-op, Asda, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer: “I love the fact that this is not an affordability issue and it can’t be.” A Plastic Planet also receives inquiries from around the world – recently Portugal, Korea and China. “China will save the world in my opinion,” she says.
Sutherland does not lecture individuals – “I’m no plastic saint” – but she thinks the main thing we can do is support any supermarket with a plastics-reduction scheme.
“The quicker they do this, we the public have to make it a success,” she says. “Because I know what we’re asking for is difficult; it is inconvenient, it might have a cost implication. But it’s essential. We can’t hide behind words like ‘recycling’ any more. They are not the solution. We have to turn off the plastic tap.”
Bex Band and Erin Bastian: ‘Every change that’s happened in the history of mankind has come from individuals taking a stance’
For the inaugural Paddle Pickup last year a group of women kayaked from Bristol to London. They covered 300km in 15 days, negotiated 151 canal locks and collected 3,240 pieces of plastic pollution. “We pulled out all sorts of weird stuff,” says 29-year-old adventurer Bex Band, who came up with the idea along with Erin Bastian, also 29. “We found a Santa Claus, chairs, bikes, a rubber duck, Viagra. A bag of class A drugs … ”
What did she do with those? “I disposed of the contents and took the plastic away,” Band laughs. “And I thought: ‘Maybe that’s not the right thing to do. Maybe the fish wouldn’t appreciate that.’”
Band first made contact with Bastian, a sea kayak guide and founder of Evoke Adventure, after seeing her website: “We’re both in the adventure scene and it’s quite a small scene,” says Band. The idea for Paddle Pickup came up in that first conversation and two months later they were on the water. The trip was great fun, but their main takeaway was the realisation of just how dirty Britain’s waterways have become. “I had a day in Reading where it was so bad we weren’t even scraping the surface,” says Bastian. “And you can’t help thinking, ‘What difference are we actually making? It’s not even 1% of the plastic that’s there.’”
“It’s a constant battle, where I’m trying to fight this hopelessness,” adds Band. “But if we don’t have hope, we have nothing. People say ‘What’s the point?’ But every change that’s ever happened in the history of mankind has come from individuals taking a stance.”
So, undeterred, Paddle Pickup returns at the end of May and this time they are kayaking from one end of Wales to the other, via the river Severn, again collecting plastic as they go. This trip is 240km, and it’s divided into three, five-day sections. A few places are still available; no previous kayaking experience required.
Why just women? “A lot of women struggle to get involved in adventure because it’s such a competitive and masculine environment and they’re lacking in confidence,” says Band, whose company Love Her Wild specialises in all-female expeditions. “So by making it all women, it breaks down that barrier.”
If last time is anything to go by, the trip will be hard but rewarding. And it might just be the start of something: one woman from the 2017 Paddle Pickup is now cycling around New Zealand, speaking in schools about plastic pollution; another is rowing across the Pacific Ocean. “It’s a ripple effect,” says Bastian. “You go on one adventure and then you’re like: ‘Now I can think bigger.’”
Band and Bastian hope they can inspire informal Paddle Pickups all over the country – and that, as word spreads, change will follow. Band says: “My favourite message from the last trip was one guy who said that he’d read about us in the local paper. He went to buy his lunch that morning as usual and he didn’t buy a water bottle, he used a reusable one. And he said he wasn’t going to buy a [disposable] water bottle again. That’s amazing: we can take away the plastic, but that doesn’t solve the long-term problem. We need people to change their habits.”
‘Everybody gets paralysed by bad news because they feel helpless,” says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the landmark Paris climate change agreement. “It is so in our personal lives, in our national lives and in our planetary life.”
But it is becoming increasingly clear that it does not need to be all bad news: a series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-dollar investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just now hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.
“If we were seeing linear progress, I would say good, but we’re not going to make it in time,” says Figueres, now the convener of the Mission 2020 initiative, which warns that the world has only three years to get carbon emissions on a downward curve and on the way to beating global warming. “But the fact is we are seeing progress that is growing exponentially, and that is what gives me the most reason for hope.”
No one is saying the battle to avert catastrophic climate change – floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations – has been won. But these megatrends show the battle has not yet been lost, and that the tide is turning in the right direction. “The important thing is to reach a healthy balance where we recognise that we are seriously challenged, because we really have only three years left to reach the tipping point,” says Figueres. “But at the same time, the fact is we are already seeing many, many positive trends.”
Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, agrees. “The good news is we are way better than we thought we could be. We are not going to get through this without damage. But we can avoid the worst. I am optimistic, but there is a long way to go.”
Also cautiously hopeful is climate economist Nicholas Stern at the London School of Economics. “These trends are the start of something that might be enough – the two key words are ‘start’ and ‘might’.” He says the global climate negotiations, continuing this week in Germany and aiming to implement the Paris deal, are crucial: “The acceleration embodied in the Paris agreement is going to be critical.”
1. Methane: getting to the meat
Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the main greenhouse gas, but methane and nitrous oxide are more potent and, unlike CO2, still rising. The major source is livestock farming, in particular belching cattle and their manure.
The world’s appetite for meat and dairy foods is rising as people’s incomes rise, but the simple arithmetic is that unless this is radically curbed, there is no way to beat global warming. The task looks daunting – people hate being told what to eat. However, just in the last year, a potential solution has burst on to the market: plant-based meat, which has a tiny environmental footprint.
What sounds like an oxymoron – food that looks and tastes just as good as meat or dairy products but is made from plants – has attracted heavy investment. The buzz is particularly loud in the US, where Bill Gates has backed two plant-based burger companies and Eric Schmidt, formerly CEO of Google, believes plant-based foods can make a “meaningful dent” in tackling climate change.
New plant-based products, from chicken to fish to cheese, are coming out every month. “We are in the nascent stage,” says Alison Rabschnuk at the US nonprofit group the Good Food Institute. “But there’s a lot of money moving into this area.”
Plant-based meat and dairy produce is not only environmentally friendly, but also healthier and avoids animal welfare concerns, but these benefits will not make them mass-market, she says: “We don’t believe that is what is going to make people eat plant-based food. We believe the products themselves need to be competitive on taste, price and convenience – the three attributes people use when choosing what to eat.”
Plant-based milks – soya, almond, oat and more – have led the way and are now about 10% of the market and a billion-dollar business in the US. But in the past year, sales of other meat and dairy substitutes have climbed 8%, with some specific lines, such as yoghurt, shooting up 55%. “I think the writing’s on the wall,” says Rabschnuk. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson agrees. “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be [lab] or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”
2. Renewable energy: time to shine
The most advanced of the megatrends is the renewable energy revolution. Production costs for solar panels and wind turbines have plunged, by 90% in the past decade for solar, for example, and are continuing to fall. As a result, in many parts of the world they are already the cheapest electricity available and installation is soaring: two-thirds of all new power in 2016 was renewable.
This extraordinary growth has confounded expectations: the respected International Energy Agency’s annual projections have anticipated linear growth for solar power every year for the past decade. In reality, growth has been exponential. China is leading the surge but the impact is being felt around the world: in Germany last week there was so much wind power that customers got free electricity.
In the US, enthusiasm for green energy has not been dented by President Donald Trump committing to repeal key climate legislation: bn has been invested since he signed an executive order in March. “I am no longer concerned about electric power,” says Figueres.
3. King coal: dead or dying
The flipside of the renewables boom is the death spiral of coal, the filthiest of fossil fuels. Production now appears to have peaked in 2013. The speed of its demise has stunned analysts. In 2013, the IEA expected coal-burning to grow by 40% by 2040 – today it anticipates just 1%.
“Last year, I said if Asia builds what it says it is going to build, we can kiss goodbye to 2C” – the internationally agreed limit for dangerous climate change – says Liebreich. “Now we are showing coal [plans] coming down.” But he warns there is more to do.
Solar and wind are cheaper than new coal, he says, but a second tipping point is needed. That will occur when renewables are cheaper to build than running existing coal plants, meaning that the latter shut down. If renewable costs continue to fall as expected, this would happen between 2030 and 2040. At that point, says Liebrich, “Why keep digging coal out of the ground when you could just put up solar?”
4. Electric cars: in the fast lane
Slashing oil use – a third of all global energy – is a huge challenge but a surging market for battery-powered cars is starting to bite, driven in significant part by fast-growing concerns about urban air pollution.
China, again, is leading the way. It is selling as many electric cars every month as Europe and the US combined, with many from home-grown companies such as BYD. US-based Tesla is rolling out its more affordable Model 3 and in recent months virtually all major carmakers have committed to an electric future, with Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover announcing that they will end production of pure fossil-fuelled cars within three years.
“We have a domino effect now,” says Figueres. These cars are “now being made for the mass market and that is really what is going to make the transformation”.
“I don’t think it is going to slow down,” says Viktor Irle, an analyst at EV-volumes.com. Drivers can see the direction of travel, he says, with a stream of choked cities and countries from Paris to India announcing future bans on fossil-fuelled cars.
It is true that global sales of electric cars have now achieved liftoff, quadrupling in the past three years, but they still make up only 1.25% of all new car sales. However, if current growth rates continue, as Irle expects, 80% of new cars will be electric by 2030.
Batteries are key to electric cars and, by storing energy for when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, they are also vital when it comes to enabling renewable energy to reach its full potential. Here too, a megatrend is crushing prices for lithium-ion batteries, which are down 75% over the past six years. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects further falls of 50-66% by 2030 and a massive increase in battery storage, linked to increasingly smart and efficient digital power grids. In the UK alone, government advisers say a smart grid could save bill-payers £8bn a year by 2030, as well as slashing carbon emissions.
Fears that lithium-ion, the technology that dominates today, cannot be scaled up sufficiently are overblown, argues Liebreich, as the metal is not rare. “I think lithium-ion is a banker in that you can be sure it will get cheaper and you can be sure there is enough.” He is also frustrated by frequent claims that a grid based on renewables and storage cannot be cheap and reliable: “That stupidity and absolute certainty is in inverse proportion to any knowledge of how you run an electrical system.”
It is true, however, that batteries will not be the solution for energy storage over weeks or months. For that, long-distance electricity interconnectors are being built and the storage of the energy as gas is also being explored.
6. Efficiency: negawatts over megawatts
Just as important as the greening of energy is reducing demand by boosting energy efficiency. It’s a no-brainer in climate policy, but it can be very tricky to make happen, as it requires action from millions of people.
Nonetheless, good progress is being made in places such as the EU, where efficiency in homes, transport and industry has improved by about 20% since 2000. Improving the efficiency of gadgets and appliances through better standards is surprisingly important: a new UN Environment Programme report shows it makes the biggest impact of any single action bar rolling out wind and solar power.
But again, continued progress is vital. “We need to drive energy efficiency very, very hard, even for European countries,” says Prof Kevin Anderson at the University of Manchester. “We could power down European energy use by about 40% in something like 10-15 years, just by making the most efficient appliances available the new minimum.”
In countries with cool winters, better insulation is also needed, particularly as a fossil fuel – natural gas – currently provides a lot of heating. “What is a crime is every time a building is renovated but not renovated to really high standards,” says Liebreich, who thinks labelling such homes as “zero-energy-bill” homes, not “zero-carbon” homes, would help overcome opposition.
The destruction of forests around the world for ranching and farming, as well as for timber, causes about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the biggest megatrend not yet pointing in the right direction: annual tree losses have roughly doubled since 2000.
This is particularly worrying as stopping deforestation and planting new trees is, in theory at least, among the cheapest and fastest ways of cutting carbon emissions. But it is not getting the support it needs, says Michael Wolosin at Forest Climate Analytics. “Climate policy is massively underfunding forests – they receive only about 2% of global climate finance.” Furthermore, the .3bn committed to forests by rich nations and multilateral institutions since 2010 is tiny compared with the funding for the sectors that drive deforestation. “Brazil and Indonesia’s governments alone invested 6bn in the same timeframe, in just the four key driver commodities: palm oil, soy, beef and timber,” says Franziska Haupt at Climate Focus.
In the past two decades, tree-planting in China, India and South Korea has removed more than 12bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere – three times the entire European Union’s annual emissions, Wolosin says. This action was driven by fears about flooding and food supply, meaning that global warming needs to be seen as equally urgent in this sector. Regrowing forests can also play a crucial role in sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is likely to be necessary after 2050, unless very sharp cuts are made now.
The race against time
Will these megatrends move fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change? Opinions vary and Anderson is among the most hawkish. He says it remains possible for now, but is pessimistic that the action will be taken. “We’re pointing in the right direction but not moving [there]. We have to not just pursue renewables and electric vehicles and so forth, we have to actively close down the incumbent fossil fuel industry.”
Stern is cautiously optimistic, saying that what has changed in recent years is the realisation that green economic growth is the only long-term option: “There is no long-run high-carbon growth story because it creates an environment so hostile that it turns development backwards.
“There are some tremendous developments so I am very confident now we can do this, but the change, attractive as it is, has to be radical,” he says. “Will we have the political and economic understanding and commitment to get there? I hope so.”
When he was working on an academic project with Nasa, Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, a Swedish industrial designer, realised there could be parallels between sustainability in space and on Earth. The extremes of space required that the vital resource of water be used in the most efficient way possible. Water should also be used like this in the home, he thought.
Inspired by those experiences with the space agency, Mahdjoubi created a shower system that reuses the same water in a circular loop, while two filters take out impurities as it circulates.
This Shower of the Future , from his company, Orbital Systems, can operate on five litres of water. The water constantly circulates for 10 minutes or so – the time of an average shower – in turn saving also on energy.
“The reason that we make it work sustainably in space is because we have to do it,” the Swedish industrial designer said. “What if we try the same things on Earth … [if] the house was like a space capsule, how would we go about it? The most sustainable lifestyle is the one that we have in the most extreme environments and that may be in space or in a submarine where you actually have no choice but to really care for the resources that you have.”
Mahdjoubi said that while savings have been made in how water is used in toilets and washing machines, the same was not true of the shower. “Without changing the technology, we seem to just heat up water and put it down the drain,” he said. In Sweden, where the company is based, the average shower emits 15 litres of water a minute. During a 10-minute shower this amounts to 150 litres, he said.
The Orbital Systems shower starts with five litres of water and adds more if some is splashed out or is taken out of the system by the filters.
Water is first pumped through two filters, one which takes out larger particles such as sand, skin and dust and then a finer filter to extract bacteria, viruses and blood.
From there the water travels through a heater that moderates the temperature, which is set by a wheel control the user can change from hot to cold. The water then exits the shower nozzle as normal.
But when the water trickles through the drain it goes through a sensor which analyses it. If it is contaminated, the sensor recognises this and replaces the water.
The company says water flows at a rate of 20 litres a minute, compared to conventional showers, which typically range between seven and 12 litres a minute.
The shower takes in water from the mains until it senses that there is enough to go in a constant loop, said Mahdjoubi. “Even though the water is clean we would always flush it out before the next user. Comparing [it] to a hot tub where you sit in your own dirt for however many minutes, this is way more hygienic. When you stand in front of one of these showers you completely forget that the water is being recycled. It is the most unremarkable thing.”
The shower unit can be fitted as either an integrated system in the floor or as a standalone cabin with glass walls. The first units were delivered in December with most of the sales to commerical customers such as gyms, residential homes, swimming pools and the Swedish military. Nursing homes and hospitals have also bought them, said Mahdjoubi, because of the filter system.
“Not because they really want to save a lot of water but because you can guarantee that the water is clean and free from Legionnaires’ disease because it is always being filtered.”
How much money is saved depends on the cost of water and energy and how often the shower is used, he said. The company claims that a UK home can save £1,100 a year assuming there are four showers taken a day lasting nine minutes each.
Offsetting this is the price of the shower. The cheaper of the two residential units, where the shower is integrated into the floor of the bathroom, costs £3,300 while the standalone cabin costs £4,100.
As sales increase, Mahdjoubi said, the price would fall to less than £2,000 in three years. “I would say that we are steadily going down in price but we have to start where the market can afford it, that is why we have this premium and commercial focus we have right now,” he said.
A family would need to spend an average of about £110 every year replacing the purification capsules.
So far hundreds of the showers had been sold, said Mahdjoubi, and there had been particular interest from Denmark (location of one of the highest water prices in the EU) and from California, where there had been persistent droughts over recent years.
In the late 20th century, those who stood against globalisation were charged with swimming against an unstoppable tide, caricatured as “Stop the world, I wanna get off!” But in the 21st century, history is running with the anti-globalisers. World trade talks have gone nowhere, immigration controls have shot up the agenda, and two post-national EU projects – the euro and Schengen – are under strain. Figures as diverse as Donald Trump, Nicola Sturgeon and Marine Le Pen – who failed to convert a remarkable first-round victory in French regional elections into any outright wins – are all peddling one form of nationalism or another. Rumours of the death of the nation state, then, have proved exaggerated: globalisation is spinning into reverse.
Looking back on the future as it appeared in the 1990s – as a technocratic, transnational order – a democratic push-back was surely inevitable, in some senses even desirable. But when problems from the overuse of antibiotics to terrorism refuse to respect national borders, the retreat from the dream of global governance has some frightening consequences, especially in connection with climate change, the archetypal global problem. Saving the planet in a fracturing world is a daunting challenge indeed.
The Paris COP 21 talks surpassed expectations in rising to it, demonstrating just how much can be achieved by determined diplomacy, even while working within the unbending red lines of jealously sovereign states. A formal treaty was precluded because it would hand a veto to the intransigent legislators of Capitol Hill, while also offending the sensibilities of Delhi and Beijing. Fortunately, it proved possible to work within the fudged alternative framework of a “legally binding instrument”. Everyone offered up voluntary emission targets, and agreed, too, to a five-yearly review of these. While the targets on the table are not yet adequate to avoid the disaster of more than 2C of warming, the surprise inclusion of an aspiration to cap temperature rises at 1.5C signals a shared understanding that the targets will have to be tightened at each successive review. The destructive standoff between developing and developed countries that doomed Copenhagen six years ago has been transcended: the big developing economies, which now produce the bulk of emissions, are no longer pretending that they can delay doing anything until the rich world is perfectly green; at the same time the rich world is effectively accepting that it will have to help shoulder the “loss and damage” costs inflicted by the long legacy of western pollution.
This is, on the face of it, a rare and heartening case of disparate peoples being led to a common conclusion by evidence and reason, but serendipity played its part too. It happens, for example, that in 2015 there is a progressive US president who never has another election to win. It happens, too, that China is the midst of replacing filthy old power stations, which is already curbing its emissions growth, making it less painful than before for Beijing to engage. Indeed, the latest global CO2 data registers a striking levelling off, raising the tantalising possibility that technological progress could be entering a phase where the cast-iron link between emissions and growth begins to rust. If that pattern were borne out in future years, future climate negotiations could get smoother on every front. Then there is the great oil price crash, which facilitates a more fruitful discussion on fossil fuels, by making it much more imaginable to keep it in the ground.
One anxiety is whether this fortuitous alignment of political and economic stars will remain, as nations move from making promises, towards real action. Paris cannot guarantees success, but it does encourage hope – and particularly if Ms Le Pen’s chauvinist form of nationalism can be seen off. The Front National dabbled in greenwash last year, but its insistence on an ecology defined by “patriotism and the national interest”, and its instinctive suspicion of a multilateral UN approach is precisely the attitude which could thwart the translation of impressive COP 21 words into deeds.
Paris has given the world new hope in the possibilities of pragmatic diplomacy, at a time when France’s own politics illustrate the difficulties of assuming solidarity extends beyond national borders. If the answer to climate change is going to have to be found in continuous haggling between 200 nations, then success is also going to depend on winning the argument against narrow nationalism in every corner of the world.
Will the world become battery-powered? That’s certainly the ambition of Elon Musk, the PayPal billionaire turned would-be space explorer and electric car baron.
On Thursday night, Musk unveiled what he called “the missing piece” in sustainable energy: a range of batteries that can be used in homes and businesses to store power from wind or solar or take advantage of cheap electricity to charge up overnight and then be used in peak hours.
Two billion Powerpacks – as the batteries are called – could store enough electricity to meet the entire world’s needs.
“That may seem like an insane number,” Musk said. “We’re talking about trying to change the fundamental energy infrastructure of the world.”
The first place to feel the battery charge will be Nevada. Next year, Musk’s Tesla Motors is set to start operating a power-storage-device “gigafactory” across nearly a thousand acres of Nevada real estate. It’s required to contribute .5bn to the local economy, in return for a .25bn tax break.
Battery expert Davide Andrea, an engineer at Colorado-based battery manufacturer Elithion, worries about costs. The most basic home unit will cost ,500. No details have yet emerged about the cost of the large units Tesla is reportedly supplying to companies including Apple and Google to help manage their power supplies.
“Electricity is way too cheap to store in an expensive battery,” Andrea said. “It’s like saying I’m going to be storing my potatoes in a safe. Potatoes are too cheap to store in a safe.”
But Andrea is sold on the idea that batteries are part of a more efficient energy future. He is currently involved in a new project in Boulder to install batteries in homes, in order to ease the strain on power plants and avoid costly rewiring as the sizes of neighborhoods change.
Felix Kramer, a clean energy entrepreneur in California, said he hopes Musk’s presentation on Thursday evening changes minds.
“Tesla demolished the idea that EVs [electric vehicles] were golf carts,” Kramer said. “And maybe they’re about to do it again now. Maybe they’re about to demolish the idea that we can’t switch from coal and gas to wind and solar because of reliability issues. If they convince consumers, that changes the conversation.”
But Andrea and Kramer are enthusiastic about the possibility of greater infrastructure improvements with greater adoption of electric cars. Power provision could get a lot more efficient if cities can be persuaded to draw power from those car batteries, as well as supplying it. That would provide electricity and diminish local reliance on expensive, fossil fuel-powered generators during times of peak demand – when everyone in New York turns on the air conditioner, for example. Nissan is already trying to do this with the Leaf in Japan.
“In a home, the cost of the storage becomes much more important,” Andrea said. “It solves so many problems – the power company no longer has to turn on a dirty power plant during high-demand times. You can use the present wire infrastructure.”
If those sound like lofty goals, they had frankly better be: Musk will have to impress a great many people in order to justify the gobs of money the state of Nevada is giving him – the gigafactory will be allowed to operate essentially tax-free for 10 years and won’t pay property taxes for another 10 afterward. Beyond even that, the state is giving Tesla m in transferable tax credits, which the company can sell to other businesses in the region.
Nor is it the first time Musk has asked the government to chip in: SpaceX receives 5m in help from Nasa.
Still, if Musk’s batteries can merge wind, solar and electric car power into existing grids, that would constitute tremendous economic savings for cash-strapped municipalities everywhere.
“This is within the power of humanity to do,” Musk told the large crowd gathered at Tesla’s design center in a Los Angeles suburb on Thursday. “We have done things like this before. It is not impossible.”
For decades now, the residents of Tokyo have been coming up with novel ways to save space – tiny apartments, skyscrapers stuffed with miniature living quarters and hotels where rooms contain little more than a pull-out shelf with a bed. Now, the rest of the world’s big cities may need to start doing something similar.
Growing populations, coupled with housing shortages, are changing the way urban planners, architects and builders are thinking about living spaces. And in the US, one solution lies in modular fabrication.
Modular structures use pre-manufactured units – homes, apartments or offices – that are built in a factory and transported, usually fully built, to the building site, where they are assembled using a crane. Proponents say these “mods” could offer big cities a sustainable path forward.
Building homes in a factory instead of on-site, the theory goes, can yield more standardization, offering potentially safer and more energy efficient – and environmentally friendly – construction. But the extent to which modular buildings offer long-term sustainability solutions to environmental and social housing issues remains unknown.
New developments such as the My Micro NY and Atlantic Yards projects in New York City are the first examples of modular communities: small apartment units made in factories that, once completed, are stacked readymade at the building site, much like Lego pieces.
“[Modular buildings] will be an important innovation that spreads to many urban markets with high real estate values,” said Elisabeth Hamin, department head for landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
When My Micro NY was announced, the mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, highlighted the environmental benefits of the new building. “Modular construction is faster, less expensive, allows for high levels of quality control and significantly reduces waste and truck traffic,” he said. “It’s also safer for workers as construction is done inside in controlled environments.”
Modular construction isn’t a new concept. A version of it has been used in the US as far back as the 1800s; a century later, American families could order a house from a catalogue and assemble it themselves, Ikea-style. But what is new is putting completed units together to form towering high-rises in big cities.
According to the Modular Building Institute (MBI), a nonprofit trade organization, the modular construction of lodgings – including condominiums, apartments, hotels and housing for workers – grew by 31% between 2012 and 2013.
“Demand for multifamily is very high currently,” said Liz Burnett, communications manager at MBI. “Young people are moving out of their parents’ houses, and older adults are seeking smaller homes with less upkeep.”
Millennials are looking for smaller, more affordable and more sustainable living spaces, Hamin said. But in expensive cities like New York, few affordable options exist for those who live alone. And with the city’s increasing housing shortage, condensing more units on one site makes good business sense.
“[Modular construction] is a realistic option for both creating more units in the always-in-demand real-estate market of Manhattan, but also as less costly approaches to affordable housing in the outer boroughs,” said Jorge Mastropietro, a partner at Jorge Mastropietro Atelier in New York.
“Because of the nature of cities like London, Mexico City and Tokyo, for example, people are willing to live in smaller spaces so long as they are maximized for efficiency and have other desirable amenities.”
The My Micro NY Project is the city’s first micro-unit apartment building, consisting of 55 units measuring between 270 and 350 square feet. Currently, each prefabricated apartment is being constructed offsite at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by a company called Capsys Corp, and will be assembled in early June in the Kip’s Bay neighborhood.
Tom O’Hara, a director at Capsys, said he has seen an increased interest in modular construction in the last four to five years.
“We have been contacted to review and explore dozens of projects from many of the city’s most prolific developers,” he said.
The structures are built off-site in a carefully controlled setting, which can result in less construction waste and air pollution, as well as quicker – and less expensive – construction.
Prefabricators like Capsys are capable of producing one module per day, or 35,000-square-feet per month, from their assembly lines, according to Petr Vancura of structural engineering firm Gilsanz Murray Steficek. A building that would otherwise take 24 months to complete through typical construction might take only 15-18 months to deliver using prefabricated modules.
“I believe such units may relieve pressure at the lower end of the market and improve communities by allowing lower income households to have a presence in the inner cities again,” said Oliver Grimshaw, UK sales manager at Hanse Haus GmbH, one of the largest builders of pre-manufactured homes in Europe.
“As a result, it would reduce emissions from commuting, increase quality of life and enrich city life.”
However, New York’s ambitious Atlantic Yards project calls the efficiency of modular housing into question. The development, recently renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn, is envisioned as 16 modular apartment blocks. But work was stalled in August on the first building after a bitter disagreement over costs between the complex’s developer Forest City Ratner and its partner, Swedish company Skanska.
Forest City announced last month that it would resume construction on the 32-story tower called B2, but the project may take four years to complete, and not two years as originally planned. The next towers will likely be built via conventional construction, instead of modular, Forest City said in announcement made last spring. Forest City CEO and President MaryAnne Gilmartin said in a recent interview that modular is “an ongoing experiment” that “needs to be validated with a standing building”.
While modular buildings may make green sense during the construction phase, their long-term sustainability is less clear, especially in urban areas. The main issue is adaptability, said Renee Chow, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley.
“They are difficult to fix over time, they don’t hold changes in lifestyle well nor do they accommodate changes in uses,” she said.
In a city like New York, famous for its continual reinvention, modular buildings might not allow people to remain part of a community as their lifestyle changes.
“Think of all the cities we like that have endured yet still hold modern ways of living and uses,” she said. “Will the modules do the same?”
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has said hundreds of millions of Earth hour participants around the world will demand a strong global climate agreement by switching off their lights for an hour on Saturday night.
Many of the world’s brightest lights will go dark at 8:30pm (GMT) as Earth hour marks its ninth year. In a video address, Ban said the symbolic switching-off held more significance than ever, just nine months before a pivotal UN meeting on the climate crisis in Paris.
“Climate change is a people problem. People cause climate change and people suffer from climate change. People can also solve climate change. This December in Paris, the United Nations is bringing nations together to agree a new, universal and meaningful climate agreement. It will be the culmination of a year of action on sustainable development,” said Ban.
More than 7,000 cities in 172 countries are expected to take part in the world’s largest ever demonstration, which has grown from a single World Wildlife Fund (WWF) event in Sydney in 2007.
“Earth Hour shows what is possible when we unite in support of a cause: no individual action is too small, no collective vision is too big. This is the time to use your power,” said Ban.
Organisers said this year’s demonstration would be the biggest yet. Sudhanshu Sarronwala, chair of Earth Hour global said: “Climate change is not just the issue of the hour, it’s the issue of our generation. The lights may go out for one hour, but the actions of millions throughout the year will inspire the solutions required to change climate change.”
Some the world’s most famous landmarks will turn their lights out. The UN building in New York will join London’s Houses of Parliament, Rio de Janeiro’s Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In Bulgaria a giant Danube sturgeon fish will be drawn in fire in the capital, Sofia. Millions of other, more humble, participants will take part by simply switching from electricity to candlelight for an hour.
Colin Butfield, director of campaigns at WWF-UK said the mass participation was a demand for climate action and politicians should take heed. “The fact that such a huge number of people are taking part in Earth Hour across the world and are using it as a moment to inspire action on sustainability in their own communities sends a really clear message that the public is ready to tackle climate change – we now need politicians to show the same drive,” he said.
Britain’s energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, who has been heavily involved in the climate negotiations at the UN, called for a response to climate change that was commensurate with its threat. “It’s time for everyone to recognise that climate change will touch just about everything we do and everything we care about. Earth Hour is an excellent opportunity for millions of people across the world to take one simple step to show they’re serious about backing action on climate change,” said Davey.
Ban said the focus on climate change should not distract from Earth Hour’s other key mission: introducing clean energy to the most remote and impoverished communities on Earth. “By turning out the lights we also highlight that more than a billion people lack access to electricity. Their future wellbeing requires access to clean, affordable energy,” he said.
In 2014 Earth Hour used a crowdfunding platform to raise money and deliver thousands of fuel-efficient stoves to families in Madagascar and solar kits to remote villages in Uganda. The organisation also supplied islands in the Philippines with solar power for the first time and raised money for victims of Typhoon Haiyan.
Governments across the world should make reducing food waste an urgent priority in order to save as much as £194bn annually by 2030, according to a report.
Cutting food waste leads to greater efficiency, more productivity and higher economic growth, it said, but achieving such an aspiration would involve consumers cutting their own food and drink waste by as much as half.
One third of all food produced in the world ends up as waste, with food wasted by consumers globally valued at more than £259bn per year.
It highlights how practical changes, such as lowering the average temperatures of refrigerators or designing better packaging, can make a big difference in preventing spoilage. Approximately 25% of food waste in the developing world could be eliminated with better refrigeration equipment.
In the UK, the most recent data from Wrap showed that households threw away seven million tonnes of food waste in 2012, enough to fill London’s Wembley Stadium nine times over. Avoidable household food waste in the UK is associated with 17 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.
Reducing food waste worldwide can make a significant contribution to tackling climate change, the report said. It found waste is responsible for around 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, 3.3bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) a year.
Wrap estimates that emissions from food waste could cut by at least 0.2bn tonnes CO2e and possibly as much as 1 billion tonnes CO2e per year – more than the annual emissions of Germany.
Dr Richard Swannell, director of sustainable food systems at WRAP said: “Food waste is a global issue and tackling it is a priority. This report emphasises the benefits that can be obtained for businesses, consumers and the environment. The difficulty is often in knowing where to start and how to make the biggest economic and environmental savings.”
Consumers had a vital role to play, he added: “In the UK, where we are based, the majority of food waste occurs in the home.”
Helen Mountford, global programme director for the New Climate Economy, a programme of the commission, said: “Reducing food waste is good for the economy and good for the climate. Less food waste means greater efficiency, more productivity, and direct savings for consumers. It also means more food available to feed the estimated 805 million that go to bed hungry each day.
“Reducing food waste is also a great way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. These findings should serve as a wakeup call to policymakers around the world.”