To reach the carbon-reduction goals set by the Paris Agreement — an international commitment to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius — we need to slash 45 percent of emissions by 2030. “At this point, no one thing is going to solve anything,” says University of Toronto professor and earth scientist Barbara Sherwood Lollar. “We need to make rapid progress on multiple fronts.”
How we hit those targets is the stuff of immediate, practical changes and judicious long-term planning. But there’s also a role for moonshot dreamers. Among the legions of scientists, entrepreneurs and government officials searching for and implementing climate solutions are some audacious thinkers looking for answers in the ocean’s waves, the Earth’s crust, the cosmos and the centre of an atom.
“We have never had the confluence of so much opportunity and challenge,” says Daniel Sax, the CEO and co-founder of the Canadian Space Mining Corporation, which aims to provide celestial infrastructure, such as water treatment and renewable oxygen supply. “Challenges are ultimately opportunities for people to innovate, to find real solutions for humanity, to build a better vision of the future.”
In the existential race to save our warming planet, will the exceptions make the new rules? Here, five contenders:
Hydrogen is the most common molecule in the universe but, until fairly recently, we were unaware of how abundant it is in its natural form — and how viable it may be as a source of green energy. It’s found in the Earth’s crust, under the oceans and, notably, in the Canadian Shield. According to U of T’s Barbara Sherwood Lollar, who was, 30 years ago, one of the first to document how pervasive the element is, “Natural hydrogen has the potential to be one of the many things we need to revolutionize our energy and resources.” Hydrogen is an alluring source of fuel because it has a high energy content per unit and its sole emissions are water and warm air. The challenge to date has been the environmental cost of producing it. But unlike hydrogen fuel derived from water (using electricity) or fossil fuels, natural hydrogen is a renewable, ready-to-go gas that doesn’t require energy-intensive production methods, making it a climate-friendly option. Understanding the stability of natural hydrogen sources and how it can be trapped are the subject of research and pilot projects and, as of September 2023, US$20 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Hear Barbara Sherwood Lollar in conversation with Tyler Hamilton, the senior director of climate at MaRS, on November 29 at 3:40 p.m.
For close to a century, the potential of harnessing green, virtually limitless nuclear fusion as an energy source has been well beyond reach. In recent years, however, it has attracted a number of startups, including B.C.–based General Fusion, which is planning to build a machine in Richmond to demonstrate, by 2026, that it is possible to create the conditions to achieve commercially scaleable nuclear fusion. According to Curtis Berlinguette, a chemist at University of British Columbia, nuclear fusion is the only technology that could provide a clean source of energy to power our entire society. Berlinguette leads a research laboratory looking to accelerate decarbonization in various ways, including cold fusion, which remains an elusive scientific grail. While he admits that creating fusion at low temperatures may not be possible, Berlinguette believes pursuing this goal is likely to yield other breakthroughs in powering the future.
Curtis Berlinguette talks about the potential of cold fusion with Meghan Hanley (Thistledown Family Office) on November 30 at 3:05 p.m.
Why asteroid mining? There are some simple answers: the Earth’s resources are finite and the asteroid belt’s minerals are beguilingly abundant. What’s currently being negotiated is how. NASA is exploring the makeup of several promisingly metal-rich asteroids (the first mission launched in October) and the potential financial boon has attracted private enterprise. Though the barriers to extracting nickel and iron from an asteroid are high — Earth’s tenacious gravity; a commute of hundreds of million kilometres — mining in space is an inevitable step in establishing a human presence on the moon and beyond, according to Canadian Space Mining Corporation CEO Daniel Sax, “If we solve these big problems in space, we’ll derive a lot of solutions for life on Earth.” Indeed, this new frontier holds great allure: earlier this month, Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen) unveiled Moonshot 4 Mining, Minerals and Manufacturing, a $5.5 million project (backed by the Canadian Space Agency) to explore lunar extraction opportunities.
Learn more about the future of mining with Daniel Sax, Charles Nyabeze (Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation), Kathryn Wortsman (Amplify Capital), Pooneh Maghoul (Polytechnique Montreal) and Brian Gallant (Space Canada) on November 30 at 2.10 p.m.
Our watery world is 70 percent oceans, and yet we’re facing increasing freshwater shortages. Desalination is playing a growing role in providing coastal communities with drinking water. “We believe we can address the global water-access issue. We’re de facto putting a tap in the ocean,” says Alain-Olivier Desbois, chief finance and impact officer of Sherbroooke, Que.–based Oneka Technologies, which makes desalination buoys powered by the force of waves. One of Oneka’s floating units can serve 1,500 people per day; the devices are zero-emission and their brine by-product has little to no environmental effect. “Simplicity and scalability make it possible to provide similar- or lower-cost water compared to most conventional desalination plants, which are polluting and energy intensive,” says Desbois.
During the long days of the early pandemic, Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, and her friend, food-systems expert Evan Fraser, found themselves mulling the viability of Elon Musk’s plan to build a city on Mars. Their question: Was it possible to create a food system on a planet with no ecosystem? “And, you know, the weird answer is yes,” says Newman. That inquiry led to their book Dinner on Mars, in which they map out solutions for sustaining humans on the red planet. But ultimately, this thought experiment about Martian meals provided breakthroughs for food security here on Earth. Solutions like engineering crops for an inhospitable climate, using water more efficiently, producing protein with precision fermentation have immediate value for the crises currently plaguing our food production. “We have all the technology we need,” says Newman. “We can do wonders.”
Lenore Newman discusses these ideas with Emily Farrar (Genuine Taste), Ralph Christian Delos Santos (Biofect Innovations), Elaine Corbett (Ontario Genomics) and Mary Dimou (Nàdarra Ventures) on November 29 at 1:45 p.m.
Hear more about these solutions at the MaRS Climate Impact conference in Toronto on November 29 and 30.
Illustration: Monica Guan