What do Bullet Trains and Climate change have in common?
Updated: Oct 23, 2019
The year is 1989, and you are a Japanese engineer working on one of the countries’ most ambitious projects yet- The Shinkansen Bullet train. But you have a problem. The train is fast. Too fast actually-so much so that every time it exits a tunnel, it creates a deafening sonic boom. What do you do?
The solution comes from an unexpected place. Birdwatching.
Aspects of the train were modeled based on adaptations of birds, mimicking the noise dampening serrations on feathers, and the shape of a kingfisher's beak that allowed it to silently swoop into water. Following the changes, the train was not only within residential noise limits but also 10% faster and 15% more efficient.
This method of problem-solving, inspired by nature is called Biomimicry, and it may hold the solution to solving climate change. Biomimicry can also be thought of as a way to organise movements and relationships in an ecosystem; relationships that if replicated, can allow us to live in harmony with nature.
Our planet flawlessly solves problems we have struggled with over the last few decades. Our forest ecosystems are designed for mass scale carbon capture. The Nitrogen, water and carbon cycles are perfect manifestations of the successful circular economies of the future; our wetlands and natural plants can clean large volumes of water, running solely on renewable, solar energy.
But human activities disrupt the balance that has allowed life to exist for billions of years, and as we approach a climate catastrophe, it's important that we step back and understand what nature would do in this situation.
Naturally, as CO2 levels rise, trees would thrive and use their built-in carbon capture technology to sequester the excess carbon, preventing the greenhouse effect, but human-caused deforestation prevents this. Fortunately, both manmade and natural technology exists and can aid in the reversal of global warming. In the oceans, we can stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, that photosynthesise and lock-in carbon, sinking into the ocean floor. Or sprinkle CO2 absorbing compounds over in the soil. Direct Air Carbon Capture facilities, inspired by trees could take carbon out of thin air and use it to manufacture building materials, fuels or fertiliser, providing an economic incentive to deploy these methods.
Circular economies such as these would form the cornerstone of a sustainable future market. In nature, one organism’s ‘waste’ acts as nutrition for another, so waste and landfills as humans know them don't exist. Separating raw materials from discarded appliances would replace the destructive and polluting process of extraction from the earth. By modifying our current business models from ownership to licensing (from the manufacturer), products can be returned, the raw materials in them separated for reuse, propagating the cycle.
Like symbiotic relationships in the environment, rich countries can gain by aiding sustainable policies in developing nations. Cities can be made cooler and cleaner by making a few simple design changes. Trees at strategic locations reduce temperatures and clean the air by capturing particles and carbon dioxide. By barring dark roofs and painting roads white, heat can be reflected back into space, reducing the greenhouse effect, and mandating green rooftops could mimic forest cover, provide habitats for pollinators and increase biodiversity. Creative efficient architectural changes, like buildings coloured lighter on the sunny sides, could reduce energy demand for cooling.
Natural food chains are dependant on diversity: a careful balance of numbers, but the explosion in human population numbers and our intensive industrial farming methods to feed that population threaten this balance. Fortunately, vertical farming offers a solution. Indoor farms that are more efficient and less land, water and energy-intensive can be built right in our cities, preventing the destruction of natural habitats and reducing the energy wasted on food transportation.
One fewer child per family reduces CO2 emissions by 58.6 tonnes a year, while giving-up cars and going vegan only save 2.4 and 0.8 tonnes respectively. As we approach the 8 billion population milestone, it becomes evident that policy has to move away from finding solutions to meet rising food demands to instead trying to reduce the population. This makes contraceptives, education, and family planning vital in tackling climate change.
Darwin proposed the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’. In the global market, profitability has become synonymous with fitness, but this is not always true. The profit motive can drive the private sector to make unsustainable decisions with hidden environmental costs. Market incentives require modifications to be environmentally viable. This has been tried through tradable emission permits and carbon taxation but their success depends on widespread implementation and prices high enough to warrant investment into sustainable energy.
Evolution favours new adaptations, efficiency and long term survivability, all lacking in fossil fuels. It is increasingly clear that the future is renewable. Besides protecting icecaps, investment in renewables, increases in employment, reduces raw material prices, stimulates growth in economies, and outweighs any losses created by the death of carbon-based fuels. The question is will we be able to make the switch fast enough to avert a climate catastrophe?
Climate change is a planetary-scale threat, so climate reforms have to be planetary scale, and governments need to understand this. To reach the level of efficiency that exists in the natural world, they need to accept their responsibilities as those the ability to enact widespread policy changes and legislation that mandates sustainability. They must act on facts, not refute them for short term political gain. They must empower the young, the vulnerable and the invisible.
Whether it's the deepest parts of the Mariana trench or the unique ecosystem that’s established itself in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, life finds a way around every challenge and nature finds a balance. But for us to protect the world as we know it, our lives must be compatible with the careful balance established in nature. There may not be a single economic or political solution to climate change but we have a lot to learn from the world around us.
This essay was submitted as an entry to The Economist's Open Future contest, and parts of it have been cited on the Open Future website.