State of the Planet

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The Next Climate Tech Breakthrough May Have Already Happened, We Just Didn’t Notice

ants on a plant
Photo: Pixabay

The president of the UN General Assembly says we have only 11 years to “prevent irreversible damage to our planet” from climate change. That’s a short deadline in which to prevent an existential crisis. The global community is desperate for solutions that prevent further environmental damage and help us adapt to life in a new climate.

To stay within the targeted limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, scientists insist that we need to reduce the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere, in addition to dropping new emissions to net-zero. The goal is to implement carbon dioxide removal strategies that capture carbon from the air and safely store it.

Existing CO2 removal technologies usually mimic natural biogeochemical processes that sequester carbon, or amplify the carbon-capturing qualities of the ocean, forests and sedimentary rocks. One method would fertilize phytoplankton in the ocean to increase the photosynthetic uptake of carbon. Another relies on crushing up carbon-absorbing rocks to increase their surface area, storage potential, and the rate of carbon removal.

Now, more than ever, there is a need for creative solutions, and these examples show that the next breakthroughs in sustainable development won’t come from Silicon Valley or scientific labs, but from Mother Nature. We haven’t paid enough attention to the natural world to recognize that it teems with potential solutions to our problems, hiding in plain sight. We can improve the very infrastructure of our built environment if we mimic certain biochemical and geological processes readily found in the natural environment.

Mother Nature is a master innovator. Her breakthroughs are not revolutionary, but evolutionary. Natural selection is the longest-running research and development project — it has lasted 3.8 billion years and counting, to be exact. The traits that survive are the ones that are best adapted to thrive in their specific environment, from sticky gecko feet to water-collecting lotus petals.

The biological world that exists today is efficient, effective and made of the stuff of science fiction: self-regeneration, water resistance, antibacterial materials, incredibly weird methods of movement. It’s a world of dynamic innovation that often goes unacknowledged.

“Learning about the natural world is one thing. Learning from the natural world — that’s the switch. That’s the profound switch.” – Janine Benyus

There is a growing trend of scientists looking toward nature through a new perspective: biomimicry. Essentially, it’s design innovation that models the natural world. The term was popularized in the 1990s by Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute.

The examples are as fascinating as they are absurd. The bullet trains in Japan reach nearly 200 mph thanks to the Kingfisher bird’s aerodynamic beak. Wind turbines are 20 percent more energy efficient when shaped like humpback whale fins, and termite mounds show architects how to improve building air conditioning systems. Industry giants like Seventh Generation are looking to beetles that spray poison to remake aerosol packaging. Swimsuits constructed like shark skin reduce drag so effectively that they were banned at the Olympics. Medical spaces are even applying the antimicrobial properties of shark skin to create sterile surfaces without producing antibacterial resistance.

New technologies that owe their designs to biological models are highly lucrative. It’s estimated that roughly $1.6 trillion of global GDP will come from products and services based on biological design by 2030.

The true value of biomimicry is priceless. Especially if it can be applied to develop carbon-capture technology. One company, Calera, believes that the way corals absorb carbon dioxide into their limestone skeletons can teach us how to capture carbon dioxide from the air and create cement. Imagine living in sustainable cities literally built from repurposed air pollution.

In a recent podcast, biomimicry expert Dayna Baumeister explains how biomimicry can help us bolster our climate resiliency. In her eyes, nature is a shining model for “how we could make materials that aren’t harmful and don’t require lots of energy… how we could build communities and cities in a way that actually gives back to the local ecosystem as opposed to just drains the local ecosystem.”

A whole new market niche for sustainable, nature-based designs has opened up in the last few years. Databases like bring the diversity of life to the fingertips of engineers, artists and entrepreneurs. Companies like Biomimicry 3.8 offer biologists and chemists as consultants to reshape the way entire systems function, such as a carpet factory that functions more like a complete ecosystem. With roof gardens and wetlands built into the actual infrastructure of the factory, Biomimicry 3.8 has not only helped carpet manufacturer Interface reduce its environmental impact, but also provide local water purification and carbon sequestration. When the environment benefits, improved human health and worker productivity is soon to follow as well.

Advanced modern tools now allow scientists to analyze more complex systems in the natural world and adapt them for human behaviors. Computer algorithms can now track the ways ants avoid traffic jams on tiny twigs and in tight tunnels, and then project their efficiency onto traffic light systems and road infrastructure. We can improve our lives by mimicking not only the physical forms of nature, but also nature’s processes at an ecosystem scale.

Biological inspiration is a ray of hope that the global community desperately needs. Public awareness of nature’s applicability could usher in a new appreciation for the environment at a time when exploitation is at an all-time high. Medicine, food, water and energy systems all derive from nature. Biomimicry can help us shift from just harnessing nature’s resources to integrating nature’s already sustainable pathways into society.

Nature is a Rolodex of efficiency, but not every application of biomimicry is necessarily productive for combating climate change. For instance, ant-like traffic systems that save time by streamlining commutes actually enable more cars to move through the same space, thus intensifying the carbon emissions and fuel demands that destroy the environment. We should be conscious that failures are part of the biomimicry process — after all, that’s how adaptation leads to evolution. The survival of the fittest ideas will ultimately limit inefficiency.

With human spaces overtaking natural habitat, industrial factories spewing greenhouse gases into the air, excessive waste habits and widespread pollution, it’s no surprise that the planet is undergoing a sixth mass extinction. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 60 percent of Earth’s biodiversity was lost from 1970 to 2014. We need to fundamentally change our behavior before it’s too late: the very design blueprints that could secure a better future might disappear before we even know it.

It’s time to be more sustainable than just passing up on plastic straws. We can revolutionize the way we interact with each other and the planet by learning from evolution. It’s smug of us to ignore 3.8 billion years of sustainable development as we urgently seek solutions for a better future. Let’s think more like nature. It’s time to adapt.

Isabelle Seckler is a first-year student studying sustainable development at Columbia College.

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