We don’t want to give you the wrong idea: things are bad. Antarctic ice sheets are melting, the fossil fuel lobby was everywhere at the COP talks, and even solutions like electric cars have their problems. And that just covers the past few weeks of this newsletter.
But to end 2023 we’d like to focus on a few of the more optimistic stories we have run over the past year.
This roundup of The Conversation’s 2023 climate coverage comes from our weekly climate action newsletter. Every Wednesday, The Conversation’s environment editor writes Imagine, a short email that goes a little deeper into just one climate issue. Join the 30,000+ readers who’ve subscribed.
1. We have skyscraper-sized wind turbines now
Back in January, we asked Simon Hogg, executive director of Durham Energy Institute, about huge new wind turbines being built in the North Sea.
These turbines, he wrote, “stand more than a quarter of a kilometre high from the surface of the sea to the highest point of the blade tip”.
“If you placed one in London, it would be the third-tallest structure in the city, taller than One Canada Square in Canary Wharf and just 50 metres shorter than the Shard. Each of its three blades would be longer than Big Ben’s clock tower is tall.”
The sheer size has some benefits: “A bigger blade extracts energy from the wind over a greater area as it rotates, which generates more electricity.” Each rotation can power an average home for two days.
In theory, Hogg notes, turbines could keep getting bigger and bigger. They will soon run into some practical problems though, as huge blades are harder to maintain and we are running out of ports and ships big enough for them.
Nonetheless, ever bigger wind turbines have been a key reason why Britain has managed to shift much of its electricity generation from fossil fuels to renewables over the past decade.
Wind turbines are already skyscraper-sized – is there any limit to how big they will get?
2. Solar power keeps getting cheaper and more adaptable
Britain is, of course, more windy than sunny. But in much of the world, solar power is the real game changer.
Yet one issue with solar is that we may run out of material needed to produce silicon cells – the main sort of solar panels you see in solar farms or on rooftops. Therefore many academics are looking for alternatives.
One of these academics is David Benyon of Swansea University. In March he wrote about his new research, which involved developing “the world’s first rollable and fully printable solar cell made from perovskite, a material that is much less expensive to produce than silicon.” The technology is still in its early stages and needs to become more efficient but, he writes, “this points to the possibility of making cheaper solar cells on a much greater scale than ever before”.
Perhaps perovskite will become the new silicon, or maybe some other technology will dominate in future, but what’s clear is that solar power is fast becoming even cheaper and more accessible. The challenge for perovskite researchers, Benyon says, is to focus on “converting what’s happening in the labs into real-world devices”.
Perovskite: new type of solar technology paves the way for abundant, cheap and printable cells
3. On the menu: mammoth meatball
Scientists recently created a meatball made of the flesh of extinct woolly mammoth. This in itself isn’t the good news: no one is proposing we fix climate change with prehistoric food.
But it’s proof that cellular agriculture, sometimes called “lab-grown meat”, can work. As Silvia Malagoli at Strathclyde University writes: “Lab-grown meat has the potential to offer a much more sustainable food source than traditional animal farming that could also help reduce the spread of disease.”
This could unlock huge amounts of land for rewilding or recreation. “If scaled up, lab-grown meat would use substantially less land and water. Research finds that around 99% less land is required to produce 1kg of lab-grown meat than would have to be used by European farms to produce the same amount.”
Malagoli also points out that lab-grown meat wouldn’t require the same volume of antibiotics that animal farmers use to prevent the spread of disease: “Their overuse is contributing to a rise of antibiotic resistance. The United Nations estimates that, by 2050, antibiotic resistance will lead to more deaths than cancer worldwide.”
Italy is set to ban lab-grown meat – here’s why it should think again
4. Climate change tipping points can be a good thing too
You’ve probably heard about the doomsday scenario of a part of the climate system – an ice sheet, perhaps, or a rainforest – suddenly passing a “tipping point” beyond which it is impossible to stop it changing into something else (perhaps barren rock or dried out savanna, respectively). The Conversation has covered these scenarios extensively over the years, most recently in a piece by authors of the major new tipping points report.
But that same report also contained some positives. Climate-related technologies or social and political behaviour can also pass similar tipping points, beyond which something better becomes inevitable. Steven Smith at the University of Sussex and his colleagues wrote about these sorts of “positive” tipping points which they say are “already happening, in areas ranging from renewable energy and electric vehicles, to social movements and plant-based diets”.
Their report sets out “ways to intervene in these systems to enable positive tipping points to be triggered – for example by making the desired change the cheapest, most convenient or morally acceptable option”.
They say that passing one tipping point can even set off a domino effect:
“For example, as we cross the tipping point that sees electric vehicles become the dominant form of road transport, battery technology will continue to get better and cheaper.
“This could trigger another positive tipping point in the use of batteries for storing renewable energy, reinforcing another in the use of heat pumps in our homes, and so on. And there are what we call ‘super-leverage points’ – places where we can deliberately intervene with information campaigns, mandates and incentives to create widespread change across sectors.”
Good news then for anyone who feels like we’ve been getting nowhere with climate action despite decades of effort. Things might suddenly look very different once past a certain point. As the saying almost goes, mammoth burgers are impossible until they are inevitable.
Climate ‘tipping points' can be positive too – our report sets out how to engineer a domino effect of rapid changes