11 ways research and innovation is tackling climate change

A lake in the shape of the world’s continents in the middle of green woodlands.
Image: Petmal via Getty Images

To protect our planet we must act boldly, innovate broadly and implement equitably. This is the central message behind the 52nd Earth Day, an annual event marked around the world on 22 April 2022.

So what does this mean? Well in a nutshell the idea is that everyone — governments, businesses and citizens — must join together NOW to help restore nature, combat climate change, and build a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future for our children.

The challenges are immense. To reduce carbon emissions to Net Zero we will need to make significant advances in a huge number of technologies. In the transport sector alone we need to develop and commercialise — in record time — powerful batteries to drive the next generation of electric vehicles, as well as develop ammonia, or hydrogen-based technologies to power our ships.

We will need to be bold and innovative to build this new green economy, but we must also do it in a way that is fair and equitable so that no one is left behind.

How do we do this? Researchers and innovators around the world are working on solutions. And the UK is at the very front of this global race against time.

Curing our carbon addiction

To limit global warming to just 1.5C we need to urgently wean ourselves off fossil fuels. One way to do this is to buy an electric car. Over the next decade it’s expected that most of us will go electric, but to achieve this we will need a network of fast charging stations to replace petrol forecourts.

At the Energy Superhub Oxford (ESO), the consortium is building a new Electric Vehicle (EV) charging network, which will allow unprecedented rapid vehicle charging in Oxford. Connected to the National Grid’s high voltage electricity transmission network, the superhub will allow for the addition of new chargers as demand grows. 38 charging points will be installed throughout the city for public use, while charging points will also be installed at several Oxford City Council Depots to charge electric vehicles purchased for the fleet.

Energy Superhub Oxford — getting Oxford ready for Net Zero

Electric vehicles are great because they are a lower carbon emission option. However, their production still has an environmental cost. This could be set to change. Professor Marc Pera Titus, a researcher at Cardiff University, is working to develop cheaper and safer alternatives to lithium-ion batteries which don’t involve the use of unsustainable elements such as lithium and cobalt. The batteries, known as Redox flow batteries (RFBs), could also be used to store energy generated from renewable power.

It’s not just transport that needs to go carbon free. We need to overhaul our manufacturing industries too. Dr Melis Duyar from the University of Surrey is looking at ways to manufacture chemicals for fuels, fertilisers and consumer products in a more environmentally friendly way. Duyar is investigating whether we could essentially pull the building blocks of important chemicals, such as carbon or nitrogen, directly from the air.

Removing CO2 from the atmosphere

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) are an important part of the climate equation.

A number of companies are developing CCS technologies. For instance Carbfix, an Icelandic firm, aims to capture carbon dioxide gas emitted at Reykjavik Energy’s Hellisheiði geothermal power plant, convert it into its mineral form, and store it within rocks.

To help Carbfix understand the carbon mineralisation process and monitor how much CO2 can be stored in rocks, scientists at RAL Space have developed the Laser Isotope Ratio Analyser (LIRA) spectrometer. LIRA can be used to monitor the carbon capture and sequestration process.

To test the capabilities of the instrument, the LIRA spectrometer was installed in one of Reykjavik Energy’s turbine halls and coupled to an operational turbine. Over two weeks it was used to take measurements at different sampling points to monitor the isotope ratio of hydrogen sulphide in real time. This isotope ratio will then be used as a marker by geoscientists to track the efficiency of the mineralisation processes, including carbon capture.

We all know that trees suck up and store CO2, that’s why it’s so important to preserve rainforests. However, did you know that algae can also store carbon dioxide? Up to 30 times as much per year as rainforests, in fact.

For the past decade, the team of scientists behind the Brilliant Planet project have been investigating how to grow algae in the desert in Morocco. The aim is to grow the plant at a large enough scale so that it can be used to store carbon.

Brilliant Planet — unlocking the power of algae to capture CO2

Their method includes pumping seawater through a series of containers and ponds to encourage exponential growth of the algae. Scientists then harvest the algae using a fine mesh filter to separate it from the seawater. The algae is then dried in the open air of the desert, before being buried 1m to 4m underground where it will remain stable for thousands of years.

Brilliant Planet will now build a new 30-hectare commercial demonstration facility while continuing its fundamental R&D programme based in London. There it will embrace technologies such as remote sensing, oceanography, sensor development and fluid dynamics in order to optimise the growth of the algae.

You can find out more about carbon capture and storage in our Emissions: Impossible? podcast.

Transforming cities into sustainable environments

One important thing we as individuals can do to cut our personal carbon footprint is to drive less and walk or cycle more. However, most cities are not designed so that they are accessible without cars.

The three-year EX-TRA (EXperimenting with city streets to TRAnsform urban mobility) programme is looking at what strategies and designs are most effective at encouraging residents to leave their cars at home.

People strolling along a street sandwiched between buildings.
EX-TRA is trialling new ways of using streets for people rather than for cars. Image:
SolStock via Getty Images

Working in six test-bed cities (Amsterdam, Bologna, Milan, Ghent, Munich and London), the programme will set up a series of temporary street experiments. The aim is to find out which combination of physical design and regulations leads to the greatest inclusivity in city streets, and how such changes impact the well-being of citizens.

Another project transforming cities so they are fit for the future, is Rethinking waste and the logics of disposability: Compound 13 Lab.

In a low-carbon future, cities must develop a circular approach to waste disposal. This research project uses the latest in design technology to help innovate safe and sustainable approaches to plastic recycling.

Transforming our food systems

If we’re going to combat climate change and protect the amazing biodiversity on this planet, we’re going to have to overhaul the way we produce and consume food. One issue is our inefficient use of land, water, and soil. For instance, did you know that over 50% of the world’s crops are used to feed animals and not people?

A large group of cows grazing in a green meadow under blue skies
Over 50% of the world’s crops are used to feed animals and not people

The Transforming the UK Food System for Healthy People and a Healthy Environment SPF Programme aims to fundamentally transform the UK food system by placing healthy people and a healthy natural environment at its centre, addressing questions around what we should eat, produce, and manufacture and what we should import, considering the complex interactions between health, environment, and socioeconomic factors.

The programme is looking at issues such as obesity and public health, sustainable agriculture, alternative protein sources and consumption patterns. For instance, one project is assessing whether cultured meat is a threat or an opportunity for UK farmers, while another is seeking to improve health through strategic menu design in catered environments.

Empowering communities to make decisions

One of the biggest challenges we face when it comes to cutting our carbon emissions and building a green economy is making sure that the solutions and policies we adopt work for everyone, not just a few. One of the best ways of doing this is to empower communities to make their own climate-related decisions.

For instance, researchers at Loughborough University have developed a low-cost landslide early warning system which is able to listen to underground soil movements and alert communities of imminent landslides. The Community Slope SAFE (CSS) is a warning system designed for local people to operate themselves. In Myanmar the team are working with local partners to develop sensors that low- and middle-income communities can afford and to train local youth to operate them.

Meanwhile closer to home in Balsall Heath, south Birmingham, young people aged 14–18 have joined forces with researchers and planners to create Climania, a new board game for communities to learn about the impact of the built environment on climate change.

Climania is available to download, print and play for free. It tasks participants with retrofitting properties — the process of adding additional technology to their homes — while facing different environmental challenges and opportunities.

At the other end of the UK in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, ten community groups are working with researchers to run projects on local climate issues that matter to them. The ten projects will explore a wide breadth of different topics, themes, and geographical reach.

For example, in the Nairn River Enterprise Carbon Impact project, The Green Hive charity will work with a researcher to better understand the positive local impact the charity can have on the local environment, as well as community cohesion.

Meanwhile the Knoydart Foundation, who are responsible for 17,500 acres of community-owned land on the Knoydart peninsula, will work with researchers from Agenda Resilience to train local community members to carry out their own carbon audits.

Waves of Change is inspiring youth climate action in Cornish coastal communities

Finally, the Waves of Change project is engaging young people in Newquay on the north Cornish Coast in climate change research. The young participants will work with academics to co-produce animation, inspiring them to take positive climate action and to share their experiences with others.

More on how research is tackling climate change

If you are interested in learning more about ways researchers are tackling the challenges of the climate emergency why not listen to our series of ten ‘Green Thinking’ podcasts.

Each podcast takes a deep dive into the latest thinking and freshest ideas from creating fashion that has less impact on the planet to how we can green the way that our cities work.

Playlist: Future of Work; Hot Money; Sustainable Cities; Fashion; Transport; Energy; Youth Engagement; The Future Home; Food; and Health

Want to know more?

If you’re a UK taxpayer, your contributions helped fund this work, via UK Research and Innovation — the UK’s largest public funder of research — and the nine research councils. You can read more about what UKRI does here.

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Additional notes

  • Energy Superhub Oxford (ESO) is one of three demonstrator projects part-funded by the UK government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) under its Prospering from the Energy Revolution (PFER) programme.
  • Professor Pera Titus and Dr Melis Duyar are supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
  • RAL Space is part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.
  • Brilliant Planet is supported by UKRI’s Transforming Food Production ISCF challenge.
  • Our Emissions:Impossible? carbon capture and storage podcast features scientists from the Natural Environment Research Council
  • EX-TRA is one of 15 JPI Urban Europe EN-UAC programme consortia projects with funding for UK components provided by the Economic and Social Research Council.
  • Rethinking Waste was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).
  • The Community Slope SAFE (CSS) was developed in collaboration with UK based Datalink Electronics Ltd and researchers at Loughborough University through EPSRC fellowships.
  • Climania: the Climate Action Game is funded by AHRC and UKRI, and supported by Birmingham Architectural Association and the Royal Town Planning Institute West Midlands.
  • Last month the British Science Association (BSA) announced ten successful recipients from The Highlands and Islands Climate Change Community Grant. The Highlands and Islands Scotland projects are funded by UKRI.
  • Waves of Change is supported by UKRI and AHRC.
  • The Green Thinking podcast series was sponsored by AHRC.

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We need a green revolution: ways to reduce waste and emissions; new designs for cities and homes; more sustainable food systems; successful circular economies. For more than 50 years the UK has been supporting research on climate change and solutions. Here’s what we know.

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