Prefacing the launch of the fourth Observer Ethical Awards in London, we have chosen to highlight 20 of the biggest ethical ideas around at the moment, affording some respite to the prevailing jam-side-down version of life on offer almost everywhere else.
Because while there might be a paucity of cash and unadulterated resources, one thing we have in abundance is ingenuity. As Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, puts it: “There are more incentives to invest in energy efficiency during a recession and when oil prices are high.”
From constraints come great innovations.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that there isn’t a sense of urgency about all this, as Emma Howard Boyd, head of socially responsible investing at Jupiter Asset Management, sponsors of the Big Idea award, makes clear: “The urgency of what is required to combat issues such as climate change has not diminished as a result of the current financial crisis. We need big ideas — and it is at times like these, when there is widespread disruption, that we see innovation and new thinking.”
Big ideas need not necessarily be a whistle-and-bells high-tech response. At least one of our Big 20 can be described as an “ancient technique” on loan from the Aztecs. The modern genius lies in its rediscovery and deployment because, while it would be foolish to believe blindly in a silver bullet for all environmental problems, now is absolutely the time for faith in contemporary ingenuity.
In a nutshell: a way of trapping carbon with “green coal.”
The clever bit: Any biomass waste — from wood to peanut shells — releases carbon as it decomposes. But it can be burned in a kiln by pyrolysis (an airless burning technique) to create biochar, also known as green coal. The biochar is then dug back into the ground to lock carbon into the soil following a system set out by ancient South American civilizations — which exposes the idea as nothing new. What is groundbreaking, however, is using it to mitigate our current predicament — ie, runaway greenhouse gas emissions. According to experts, billions of tonnes of carbon could potentially be sequestered in the world’s soils, specifically from agriculture and forestry residual biomass. Biochar appears to lock carbon in for much longer than other forms or sequestration: a plant or tree will only sequester for 15 to 20 years, for example, whereas it seems reasonable to suggest that the biochar system will sequester for at least 100 years. Also, biochar just happens to anchor soil nutrients extremely well at a time when the planet’s soils have lost half of their carbon thanks to industrialized agriculture.
2. FERTILIZING THE OCEAN
In a nutshell: dumping iron dust in the ocean to remove carbon.
The clever bit: It is acknowledged that the oceans are the planet’s biggest global sink, soaking up 2 billion tonnes of carbon every year. Spreading iron dust on ocean waters can trigger huge plankton blooms the size of a small city. The algae would then absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and when the algae dies, the whole lot sinks to the bottom of the ocean and is sequestered on the seabed. Proponents — notably Victor Smetacek, an oceanographer from the University of Bremen — suggest that it would take just five to 10 ocean-going ore carriers to deposit iron sulphate, a waste product from iron and titanium smelters, into the world’s oceans, and that the phytoplankton created would then remove 1 trillion kilograms of carbon dioxide every year.