Game-changers and change-makers: 25 ideas for a greener future

As Earth Day reaches its half-century milestone, a look at 25 ideas – from the innocuous to the ambitious – that may help power the next 50 years of change.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020,
By Simon Ingram and Jonathan Manning
The power of ideas: A visual conceived by Chris Rossetto and Emma Lubbers prepared to envision the spirit ...

The power of ideas: A visual conceived by Chris Rossetto and Emma Lubbers prepared to envision the spirit of London National Park City, as part of the Prize to Transform the Future in 2017. Since then London National Park City has become a reality – with more cities now in consideration – and a new Prize to Transform the Future has been launched.

Photograph by Chris Rossetto and Emma Lubbers / London National Park City

The greatest danger to our future is apathy.” A familiar quote from Jane Goodall holds much truth. Truth both as a warning, and as encouragement to the thinkers, scientists, entrepreneurs and every citizen striving to imagine a better world beyond today.

Now, as Earth Day reaches 50, we are clearer than ever about the impact of humans on our planet. We know what must be done to save not only our way of life, but the habitats and species that rely on our behaviour to evolve for their survival. And this starts at home, in our everyday lives.

From domestic tweaks to whole new way to roll, here are 25 ideas, innovations and ways to engage with the world (and each other) which might help lead us to a brighter future.

(Read: Why we explored two starkly different futures for the Earth in 50 years.)

 

Rethink our urban environment

Last year London became the world’s first National Park City – a status that protects and celebrates its sustainability, biodiversity and overall greenness. “It’s about lifting our ambitions; going further to make the city greener, healthier and wilder,” says Daniel Raven-Ellison, the National Geographic explorer who kickstarted the campaign to make London a National Park City. Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Glasgow are next in line for consideration, and Raven-Ellison has just helped to launch the Prize to Transform the Future – a competition inviting designs for the South East of England that envision a greener city-region – with the winning ideas presented to urban planning decision-makers.

(This is what our cities may look like in the future.)

The expansion of cities to accommodate growing populations is spurring a rethink of how we use urban spaces sustainably. 

Photograph by BNP Design Studio / Alamy

Learn about conservation from the backyard

“Wildeverse is a mobile AR (augmented reality) game that lets users play the role of a wildlife scientist researching apes in Borneo and Congo,” says National Geographic Explorer and Internet of Elephants founder Gautam Shah. His idea is to merge the worlds of gaming and exotic environments – and the issues facing their denizens – into one compulsive experience. Allowing participants to explore full-size virtual jungles from their own home, the game app launched in April, and will soon be expanding to include other biospheres such as the Arctic, Karakorum mountains and the Amazon. “Our dream is that games become the new normal for how the conservation world tells wildlife stories to the world,“ says Shah. “They are so much more participative, social, and engaging than any other medium and we need to take advantage of that.”

Make street trees indispensable

Urban trees clean city pollution, provide shade and prevent floods – yet they face the chainsaw if their branches fall or their roots crack pavements. To build a business case in defence of these roadside giants, i-Tree software calculates the value of the benefits delivered by individual trees. If environmentalists can show, for example, that street trees provide a service worth millions of pounds by removing tons of pollutants, it’s easier to persuade councils to spend a few thousand pounds on tree maintenance – and help prevent the scenes that befell Sheffield in 2017.  

A protest sign adorns a tree on Rivelin Valley Road, Sheffield, 2017. Justified as part of infrastructure improvements to pavements and roads, 6,000 trees out of a scheduled 17,500 were felled before the initiative was paused amidst mounting pressure from protesters – and controversy over which trees were being felled, and why. 

Photograph by Richard Bradley / Alamy

Wildeverse is an augmented reality game that aims to educate its players about threatened species by recreating their habitat – in any environment.

Photograph by Wildeverse / Internet of Elephants

If it's good enough for Schwarzenegger... plant-based diets (or even a modest reduction in meat consumption) could considerably reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Photograph by Magdalena Bujak / Alamy

Pursue a plant-based diet

When man-mountain Arnold Schwarzenegger switched to a vegan diet he highlighted the muscle-building alternatives to steak, chicken breast and eggs. Arnie is one of a growing army who appreciate the health-boosting, planet-saving benefits of a plant-based diet. While red meat is associated with serious illnesses, from heart disease to cancer, and livestock herds are blamed for excessive greenhouse gas emissions, the Global Burden of Disease Study recommends that we need to eat more fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and whole grains to reduce our overall risk of death – an idea that increasingly goes for our environment as well as our own bodies. 

Create coral reefs in a printer

The intricate structural complexity of coral reefs provides the foundation for magnificently rich eco-systems. But these rainforests of the sea are endangered by a host of threats including warming oceans, pollution, over fishing and careless tourism. Now, scientists have successfully 3D-printed a structure for coral to grow on as a ‘starter kit’ to kickstart the recovery of these priceless habitats. 

Plant a vertical forest 

If you can’t plant out, plant up. Vertical forests are skyscrapers for trees, inhabited by humans. The pollution-busting, CO2-absorbing idea aims to plant 2 trees, 8 shrubs and 40 bushes for each occupant of the building. Construction has started on Wonderwoods, a 90-metre tall block of 200 apartments in Utrecht, that will have 10,000 plants on its façade, equivalent to 1 hectare of trees, shrubs and flowers – with similar designs springing up around the world.

The Bosco Verticale (vertical forest) in Milan. The skyscrapers were conceived as a way of enriching biodiversity and adding greenery to the city without extending its footprint.

Photograph by Pierluigi Palazzi / Alamy

Sell electricity back to the grid

Most cars spend 95% of their time parked up, so as the UK fleet switches to electric motors it makes sense to seize the opportunity presented by this collective battery capacity. Vehicle-to-grid technology enables plugged-in electric cars to recharge at periods of low power demand, and then sell that electricity back into the grid at times of peak demand, turning the car into a profit creator. It’s also a great way to stabilise the intermittent energy supply from solar and wind, so that zero emission motoring supports zero emission power generation. 

Enjoy a bus at your beck and call

Forget rigid bus routes and timetables set in concrete: a new generation of smart transport services, like ViaVan, is enabling passengers to summon a minibus where they want, when they want via an app, and to be dropped off at the street corner closest to their destination. The hope is that, as shared transport, these services solve the congestion (and associated pollution) created by private cars and taxis.

Where sustainability meets convenience: edible 'Ooho' sachets from Notpla, minibus hailing, Carlsberg's plant n' paper fiber beer bottle, and streetlamps converted to car chargers. 

Photograph by Notpla / ViaVan / Carlsberg / Siemens + Ubitricity

Charge your car from lamp-posts

Recharging an electric car is a challenge for drivers who don’t have off-street parking or a garage to accommodate a charge-point. But a partnership between Ubitricity and Siemens has found an engineering solution to convert lamp posts into charge points, turning roadside parking spaces into charging bays. With the UK’s upcoming phasing out of petrol and diesel models, such a scheme may go from idea to necessity in the next decade.

Eat your food’s packaging

The next revolution in plastic-dodging packaging may have a novel new stage between use, and disposal: consumption. With startups now producing shelf-life friendly packaging from ingredients including plant carbohydrate, natural resins and seaweed to make everything from straws and spoons to liquid containers, edible packaging could have a future (and an impact) if combined with market confidence. It may be closer than you think: UK company Notpla trialled their edible Ooho drinks sachets at the London Marathon in 2019, with other startups focusing on cling film and takeaway containers made from similar materials – all with the aim of dramatically shortening the afterlife of the things around the things we consume.

(Here are five UK innovations that rethink our relationship with waste.)

Finally banish six pack rings

Ensnaring and stringily lingering, they are long a signature pollutant. But while plastic six pack rings may not be as harmful as they once were, even those meeting the required biodegradable standard still take months to disintegrate – and even then may simply be adding to the plastic soup evident in all the world’s oceans. Now, drinks companies are creating alternatives that, if adopted widely, may see an end to six-pack rings entirely in favour of small blobs of glue. Carlsberg, for instance, whose ‘snap pack’ design recently entered stores and, according to their makers, will save ‘1200 tonnes of plastic entering the ocean’ – the equivalent of 60 million plastic bags. The same company is testing a prototype 'green fibre' beer bottle made from plant materials and paper.    

(Why do ocean animals eat plastic?)

Revolutionise mobility

Choose the most appropriate modes of transport for every journey via a Mobility as a Service (MaaS) aggregator. These apps calculate the quickest or cheapest way to reach your destination via multi-modal transport, including bike share, ride-hailing, taxi, Tube, tram and bus, and then let you buy your tickets via a pay-on-use or subscription model. The apps are live in Helsinki and Stockholm and in development in the West Midlands. The endgame is speed, therefore efficiency, therefore less congested urban centres.

British design firm Hatherwick Studios designed a Toronto waterfront made from wooden structures. With wood a sustainable low-carbon construction option, could concrete-light scenes like this be a future normal?

Photograph by Picture Plan for Hatherwick Studios

Build wooden skyscrapers

A new wave in architecture focuses on using high-density, super-strong structural timber as big-building material. Such projects aim to de-carbonise the construction industry, but rest on an finely-balanced antagonism: harvesting trees that can remove carbon from the air, but in doing so removing the need for more carbon-belching methods.

The numbers are compelling: 5 per cent of all carbon emissions comes from steel production, along with 8 per cent from concrete and cement. An alternative involving the steady planting of mass timber – with ever-refreshing plantation following a harvest – decades of benefit as the trees grow, then a building in which to lock it all up permanently. It’s also lighter so requires less transportation, quicker because it is easy to pre-fabricate, and once up insulates so well you may not need your heating so much.

And these wooden buildings are already going up. An apartment building in Jonesuu, Finland, is currently the tallest ‘all-wood’ building in the world at 12 storeys, but regulations are set to permit the building of taller and taller wooden buildings in the coming years – so we may be entering the age of the ‘plyscraper.’ And however counter-intuitive, that could be good news.

Plant kelp

Forests of macroalgae – seaweed – such as kelp have been shown to be highly efficient at combating deoxygenation, acidification and providing a huge and cultivateable carbon locker. This has the added benefit of enriching biodiversity and providing a habitat for countless links in the marine ecosystem. Recent work on the feasibility of using seaweed as a carbon sink concluded that cultivating it on just 0.001% of the 18.5 million square miles of viable ocean, then harvesting and sinking the crop in deep water, could offset the carbon production of entire industries such as that of global aquaculture. And of course, these forests are totally fireproof.  

Go green beyond the grave

Find solace in a final resting place with a peaceful natural burial plot. Natural burial is an eco-friendly funeral solution that uses biodegradable coffins in plots that will eventually be rewilded, often as woodland. There’s no CO2 from cremation, no embalming and no headstones.

(Read: is it time we changed how we remember the dead?)

Kelp as a carbon locker, a sustainable replacement for tyres, and natural burial alternative: all ways to reduce atmospheric carbon expulsion by human means – or lock it safely up. 

Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic / Cultura Creative (RF), Alamy / Ute Eisenlohr, Alamy

Reinvent the tyre

Tyres are under-considered environmental pariahs – mainly because most people use them, and right now there’s no viable alternative. Research into the origin of small, tubular and uniformly black particles showing up in microplastic samples revealed their origin to be vehicle tyres, and may account for anything between 10 and 28 per cent of the plastics found in our oceans. Research is ongoing into alternatives on both sides of the problem – from more sustainable materials in their manufacture to a reduction in the abrasiveness of the surface they roll on. Will the next 50 years see a contender emerge? The race is on.

Adopt an island mindset

Being by their nature contained with borders of the hardest kind, it’s understandable several islands have been lauded for their notable approach to waste management. In a little over two decades Taiwan went from bearing the nickname ‘garbage island’ thanks to its inability to balance consumption with waste, to an island where the recycling rate is amongst the highest in the world – reportedly over 55 per cent – and its landfill the lowest, at around 1%. Here, residents are charged for waste, recycling trucks play tunes like ice cream vans and plastic is put to novel re-use – from cups made from iPhone screens to bricks made from bottles.

Closer to home, the Isle of Man recently gained recognition as the first nation to be granted UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status for its co-operative attitude towards clean-ups and sustainability – and being a model for how any community could take ownership of its waste. “Every town, or street can be an island,” reported National Geographic UK in its report from the Isle of Man.  “And in that way, the capacity to tackle a plastic problem looks more manageable.”

According to National Geographic explorer and environmental educator Lillygol Sedaghat, critical to this mindset is for people “to realise a) they are a part of a waste system, b) they could make a difference and live a more sustainable lifestyle, [and] c) that our trash doesn’t disappear, it goes somewhere and affects someone.”

Purge hidden plastics 

“I've best been described as a plastic detective,” says Dr Imogen Napper, a marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer. “I investigate the different sources of plastic into the marine environment and identify how to stop them.” Napper’s research has influenced industry-changing initiatives that have exposed the amounts of plastics reaching our seas via often unlikely items such as fibres in clothes – and has led to the banning of microplastics in cosmetics. Consumers considering pre-purchase choices – rather than simply post-use recycling – can help stop the problem at source. “I've found that 3 million microbeads could be in a bottle of facial scrubs,“ she says. “700,000 plastic fibres can come off our clothes when we wash them, and biodegradable bags can still hold a full bag of shopping after three years of being in the ocean.” 

(Read: Biodegradable shopping bags buried for three years still work.)

Imogen Napper examining beach debris. Her research focusses on the pathways plastics take to reach our seas – from cosmetic micro-beads being washed down sinks to synthetic fibres draining out of washing machines.  

Photograph by University of Plymouth

“700,000 plastic fibres can come off our clothes when we wash them, and biodegradable bags can still hold a full bag of shopping after three years of being in the ocean.”

Dr. Imogen Napper

Make national parks in the sea

The sea is essential for the world's ecological balance – and with climate change affecting them profoundly, the need for protected areas to safeguard wildlife and habitats from more controllable factors such as pollution and overfishing has never been greater. Just 4% of the world's oceans fall under the myriad of designations of Marine Protected Area (MPA). And now not only is the race is on to protect the wildest parts of the ocean while they still exist, but to inspire nations to protect their own waters so the local benefits can be felt – both economically and environmentally. In 2019, at one end of the size scale, the government of Ascension Island announced its support for a 440,000 square-kilometre Marine Protected Area, which would constitute the biggest in the Atlantic. And in the same year closer to home, Plymouth Sound took a decisive step forward to becoming the UK's first National Marine Park.     

“We know they work,” says Paul Rose, National Geographic Fellow and Pristine Seas Expedition Leader. “Protected properly, the ocean's got an amazing regenerative power. When people begin to feel and touch small, more local Marine Protected Areas and see the benefits, it's hugely effective.” 

 

Numerous Marine Protected Areas around the Rock Islands in Palau give shelter to reefs, fish and their associated ecosystems – whilst designating areas nearby for domestic fishing, balancing the economic needs of a population with ecological preservation.  

Photograph by imageBROKER / Alamy

‘Taser’ invaders

Ridding the countryside of non-native, ecosystem-disrupting plants such as Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed and rhododenron has historically been a relentless process of chopping, digging and repeated applications of chemical poisoning. New ‘electricide’ technology from Rootwave, however, does away with the herbicide and instead zaps the weeds with an electric current that boils the plant right down to the tip of its roots. The technology could spell an end to more invasive ways of removing invasive ‘guests.’ 

Crack electric aircraft

“We are on the cusp of getting the tech right,” Jon Ostrower of The Aviation Current told National Geographic Traveller in 2019. The 'tech' is electric aircraft, widely believed to be the next big thing in air travel, and a milestone in reducing the carbon impact of flying. It's needed: an estimated 4% of world greenhouse gases are produced by aircraft.  2016 saw the Solar Impulse 2 complete a world circumnavigation, making the possibility of a future of electric aircraft more than pie in the sky. 

That future would see further benefit in the shape of lower noise levels, more efficiency flight and (hopefully) cheaper tickets. The challenges include the ratio of battery power to payload, range and speed, amongst much else. But nevertheless, in 2019 Israeli aviation company Eviation flew the Alice, billed as the world's first all-electric commercial aircraft. With a nine-passenger capacity and a range of 540 nautical miles, aircraft such as this could be the start of a new wave of quieter, cleaner travel.    

The Eviation Alice, billed as the world's first all-electric commercial aircraft, features a 920 kWh battery enabling it to reach speeds of 240 knots – and travel 540 nautical miles.

Photograph by Eviation

'Clothes that grow’ could reduce the huge volume of short-use clothing that ends up in landfill each year. Petit Pli's focus on the high-turnover childrenswear market aims to provide clothing that will last their wearer from nine months to four years of age.

Photograph by Petit Pli

Buy clothes that ‘grow’

The textile industry is the second biggest polluter after the petroleum industry - fuelled by 'fast fashion' and a discordant non-circular cycle which sees a lorry-load of used clothing incinerated or buried in landfill every single second. A shocking enough stat – even without factoring in the 100 billion new items of clothing produced every year to replace it. 

Domestic clothing turnover doesn’t get much brisker than in the first few years of a child’s life. While passing down the countless vests, trousers, onesies and cute cardigans is an admirable strategy, how about if you only need one piece of clothing to last your child throughout those years? This is the thinking behind Petit Pli, a UK startup which uses aeronautical inspiration to make expandable clothing that a child can wear from nine months to four years of age. It’s pricier than the average child’s top-end clobber, but probably not as pricy as ten sets – and it also means ten less sets consigned to landfill at the end of their life.

Welcome beavers back

Numerous reintroduction trials are revealing what the UK lost when the beaver became extinct in the the 16th century. These buck-toothed dam builders are ecosystem engineers, creating wetlands, developing natural flood defences and purifying water. The results of this were apparent after beavers' activity reportedly reduced potential flooding in the wake of Storm Dennis in February. 

Think laterally about re-use 

We all now know about re-usable bags – and are turning the corner on straws and cups – but what about cutlery sets, handkerchiefs and reusable nappies? In the case of cutlery, carrying a personal set was once the norm. If it was again, the environment would be spared billions of single-use knives, forks and spoons.   

'Cavalcade', an art installation on Woodbine Beach, Ontario, Canada in February 2019. The designers John Nguyen, Victor Perez-Amado, Anton Skorishchenko, Abubaker Bajaman and Stephen Seungwon Baik wanted to interpret migration in both a literal and abstract way. "The human quest for a better life is one that is timeless and universal," they said of the installation.

Photograph by Xinhua / Alamy

Think more about the words that define us

“‘Backpacker’, ‘international student’, ‘expat’, ‘refugee’, and ‘migrant’ are labels that describe a situation. Not a person. They tell nothing about our childhoods, what we do for a living, or what we dream of at night.” Says Ingi Mehus, a sociologist and National Geographic Explorer. Her Roots Guide project, conducted with collaborators Daan Wurpel, Rehab Eldalil, Hamzah Kashash and Meghann Ormond draws to gather stories of people from a diverse collection of backgrounds, with the aim of redefining social associations – labels – and, in Mehus's words, “to replace our fear of migration with the same excitement we have for travelling.”

“Migration has historically been a heated topic,” she says. “Tourism, however, keeps soaring in popularity - growing exponentially since the second World War. Roots Guide is a novel travel guidebook, narrated by over 40 migrants and travellers who call the Netherlands their home. We travelled across the country to meet these people and collect their stories.” The result is a different kind of travel experience and a way of seeing the world, each other – and ourselves – as different stories within a diverse, yet more harmonious whole. 

Commemorate 50 years of Earth Day with National Geographic.

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