Last year was the hottest on record — by a large margin. In fact, temperatures in 2023 “likely exceed those of any period in at least the last 100,000 years,” says Samantha Burgess, the deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service. Greenhouse gas emissions, the primary cause of global warming, also smashed previous records and are still on the rise. But while the wildfires, droughts and floods seen across the globe offered a glimpse of what’s to come if we don’t take action, it’s also worth noting — and celebrating — how much progress has been made in meeting climate objectives.
The two-day MaRS Climate Impact conference held at the MaRS Centre last month featured more than 100 speakers and showcased some of the latest breakthroughs in cleantech. From sea to sky to space, there are no limits to the technologies that can help combat climate change. “The challenge now is to create the conditions that will allow these climate champions to scale for global impact,” says Tyler Hamilton, senior director of climate at MaRS.
This January, it’s time for a different kind of reset. Here are five climate resolutions we can’t break this year.
Think of this as emission impossible. Even if we were to completely stop emitting greenhouse gases today, the planet’s temperatures would continue to rise for years. To keep the global temperatures in check, we need to address all the carbon we’ve already released into the atmosphere. Cue Deep Sky Climate, a Canadian company aiming to do that on a gigaton scale. Joost Ouweker, the co-founder of Hopper, has launched Deep Sky Alpha, a research hub that evaluates diverse direct air capture and ocean capture technologies in real-world conditions to pinpoint which ones are the most viable. Deep Sky’s future ambitions span large-scale operations, including the creation of a commercial-scale facility, with an eye to scale to the removal of a billion tons yearly.
Terms of the mission: “It needs to be safe. The public needs to accept that it is safe and it needs to have a meaningful impact on climate. It needs to permanently secure that carbon back underground where it came from.” – Joost Ouwekerk, Co-Founder and CTO, Deep Sky Climate
Our oceans are the world’s largest carbon sinks — but the steady increase in temperature is making them sick. So how can we doctor them back to health? What’s hiding in your medicine cabinet might be able to help. Not so different from your typical Rolaids or Tums, ocean alkalinity enhancement involves adding an antacid to the ocean, which lowers acidity levels and increases its ability to take up carbon from the atmosphere. And with Canada’s extensive coastlines — there’s potential for the country to become a leader in large-scale carbon removal. There are a number of hurdles, however. The complexity of oceanography demands extensive study — there’s a lot we still don’t know. And before this solution is deployed on a large scale, international standards for measurement and verification need to be established and several ethical, economic and technological issues need to be resolved. While a lot of progress has been made even in the last few months, the sector requires funding and support to drive development and implementation.
Putting carbon to bed: “The ocean turns over on the scale of 1,000 years, even if you get it into the deep sea, you’ve stored it for a thousand years. And if it goes into the seafloor, you’ve stored it for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years. This is the only place where large-scale work can be done to save the Earth from climate change.” – Anya Waite, CEO and Scientific Director of the Ocean Frontier Institute
While it likely won’t happen in 2024, space mining is quickly gaining traction and is projected to hit U.S.$33 billion by 2030. Many in the field see it as a way to obtain the elements critical in the fight against climate change while preserving resources here on Earth. Space holds the promise of valuable resources, from helium-3 used in nuclear fusion to precious metals like platinum, silver and gold. But operating in space comes with a hefty price tag, and achieving sustainable development and resilience would require onsite infrastructure not to mention a transformative shift in how we perceive and interact with our world and the universe.
Totally far out: “If you look at a fusion reactor and the supply chain for it, it’s going to involve helium-3 that is going to come from the moon. It is not going to come from Earth. To do all these large climate transition goals — if you’re thinking 50 or 70 years out — we are going to need resources from space in order to transition our economy toward a more sustainable one.” – Daniel Sax, Founder and CEO, Canadian Space Mining Corporation
During the pandemic, food security experts Lenore Newman and Evan Taylor embarked on a thought experiment: What would it take to build a self-sustaining food system on MaRS? Their book Dinner on Mars yielded some pretty interesting results. Many of their findings — such as it’d be impossible to raise livestock — offer insights to processes that could be used to improve agriculture on Earth. It’s no secret that our food system is a major driver of climate change and biodiversity loss. Yet global advancements — including regulatory approvals, significant investment and consumer interest — in cellular agriculture and alternative proteins are being made. The industry has attracted billions in investment and lab-grown meat is working to reach price parity with traditional agriculture by 2030. What is now considered novel has the potential to be considered the norm.
Food for thought: “I’ve tried wild salmon in San Francisco and it’s a cell product, it’s grown on a scaffold in a vat. And I’m a fisherman’s daughter, I’m fussy and I know fish really well. If it was in a poke bowl I couldn’t tell the difference. Raw — eating it just plain — the texture is a little mushy. But boy, it’s close. And they’ve gone from $2,000 a kilo down to $200 a kilo in about a three-year period, so this tech is coming.” – Lenore Newman, Director of the Food and Agriculture Institute, University of the Fraser Valley
2023 was a breakout year for generative AI and LLMs. The rapid growth set off alarm bells as the technology developed faster than we could regulate or fully comprehend the effects. In the case of the climate, however, there’s an urgent need for swift action. Enter the Open Catalyst Project, which tackles energy-related climate issues using AI to speed up the discovery of new materials. By leveraging rapid computer estimations about the performance of various materials as catalysts, scientists can quickly identify the most promising options. This approach cuts down the time and resources needed for these simulations from 24 hours to one second. The potential of AI to manage repetitive tasks empowers humans to focus on creative problem-solving, yet its application necessitates a keen sense of responsibility and ethical considerations. This responsibility also extends to addressing systemic issues encompassing access to education, healthcare and technology.
Key optimization point: “I think chemistry is the most important problem that we need to solve because it opens up a lot of avenues in a lot of applications, including climate science, and it will have a direct impact on our lives.” – Jehad Abed, postdoctoral researcher, Fundamental AI Research (FAIR), Meta
The surge in the use of AI tools shows no sign of slowing — prompting businesses across all sectors to adopt solutions or risk falling behind. FOMO? Check out the next MaRS conference on all things AI, February 22 at the MaRS Centre. Register here.