6 climate change innovations to watch

A cross-section of some of the more interesting/unusual climate change innovations either on the drawing board or under development. 

From regenerative biochar measurement and a potentially revolutionary aviation electrofuel to the simple yet brilliant ‘sponge cities’ model and geothermal heated homes, we highlight six innovations and innovators with bold climate change mitigation ambition.

In his closing speech at COP28, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell summed up the outcome as ‘the beginning of the end’ for fossil fuels. With climate action set to be ramped up before the end of this decade, and all eyes firmly on 2050 goals, we snapshot six game-changing ideas, pilots and projects. 

Biochar MRV 

Sweden-based startup Planboo is working to advance the soil carbon sequestration agenda with a focus on biochar carbon credit transparency and veracity. A charcoal-rich substance produced by pyrolysis, biochar supports the retention of cooked plant biomass and formation of a stable, solid material primed for regenerative agricultural  use. Applied back into the soil, biochar helps improve water holding capacity and nutrient retention while preventing atmospheric release for anywhere from 100-1,000 years. Planboo’s digital measuring, reporting and verification (dMRV)

system is putting biochar in the carbon market spotlight through its ‘greenbox’ IoT-enabled device, which is attached to individual kilns for real-time data recording and carbon removal confirmation via an in-field smartphone application. Planboo provides the tools, training and technology for farmers and landowners in tropical regions to turn their waste plant biomass into verified biochar.

Geothermal heated homes

In Massachusetts, USA, a pilot programme by local gas utility Eversource is breaking new ground as the country’s first-ever networked geothermal heating and cooling system. At a depth of 600 feet, a series of wells and pipes feed ground-source heat pumps with a consistent supply of geothermal water that is looped into a home where the pump concentrates the heat to provide household warmth. In summer, the system is reversed with heat extracted from the home, fed back through the loop and sent underground. Eversource is confident that the system will be able to deliver a 20 per cent saving on energy bills and, thanks to the efficient ground-source heat pump, foster emissions reductions of up to 60 per cent.

Electrochemically produced cement

Responsible for around eight per cent of global CO2 emissions, cement is getting a carbon makeover thanks to Sublime Solutions thanks to a Canadian chemist and MIT professor who have developed an electrochemical solution to replace the conventional fossil-fuel production process. The duo uses an electrolyser that splits water to produce an acid and a base. Various carbon-free rocks, minerals and industrial waste materials are dissolved in the acid to extract calcium before being reacted with the base to create calcium hydroxide (slaked lime). This is blended with silica to produce the cement which, once mixed with water, hardens. The entire process is also conducted at ambient temperatures, with limestone inputs replaced by alternative low-emissions materials. Following a successful pilot, the company is now planning to develop its first commercial facility with capability to produce tens of thousands of tonnes of cement per annum.

Data-rich living seawalls

3D-printed coral reef-mimicking seawalls have been around for several years but Miami, USA-based Kind Designs is creating affordable modular panels that sequester carbon and also incorporate an embedded sensor system to collect essential water quality data. In the fight against coastal erosion and habitat protection, this data can be used to improve biodiversity and water quality and help address potential negative impacts associated with the ecological side effects reportedly caused by siting of artificial seawalls. The sensors collect data 24 hours a day across 15 different parameters. Resulting data can be used, for example, to help predict toxin producing algae blooms.

Sponge Cities

Conceptualised over two decades ago by Chinese landscape architect and professor Kongjian Yu, the ‘sponge cities’ model is seeing a resurgence of interest as the number of people across the globe living in flood-prone areas continues to rise and demand for fresh water is forecasted to significantly outstrip supply by 2030.

Sponge cities are designed to retain and absorb rainwater where it falls, using sustainable urban drainage systems and other green infrastructure elements such as city parks, drainage pavements, rain gardens, infiltration and retention wells, permeable roads, groundwater recharging and green 

roofs. This helps create resilient and sustainable urban environments to manage stormwater volume and mitigate the impact of flooding. In China, for example, where 14 cities were selected to pilot the country’s 2016-launched Sponge Cities Program, Shenzhen in the country’s southeast is home today to a 2,300-kilometre high-density greenway network that includes green transport corridors, forests, and parks in areas previously prone to heavy water pollution and flooding.

CO2-derived SAF

In July 2023, US headquartered carbon transformation company Twelve launched the country’s first commercial-scale production facility for power-to-liquid sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). Creators of a revolutionary process that breaks down and re-forms carbon dioxide emissions into chemicals historically produced using fossil fuels, the company’s E-Jet fuel was initially piloted with the US Air Force. The fuel is produced using a ‘suitcase size’ O12  electrochemical reactor that takes in carbon dioxide emitted from waste or captured directly from the air, then splits the CO2 and water using a metal catalyst and electricity before recombining the 

elements into different chemicals. While the process is not, as yet, carbon neutral, and requires significant scaling to be commercially viable, this synthetically created ‘electrofuel’ is set to power an Alaska Airlines flight in its next test phase.