From pollution-busting bubbles to a sea kite reducing marine emissions, discover some of the best solutions for protecting the world’s oceans
Before the current scientific consensus on man-made climate change emerged, many climatologists believed that any extra carbon dioxide released by human activities would be absorbed by the world’s oceans. This proved to be a sticking point in the mainstream acceptance of the greenhouse effect, and it wasn’t until the late 1950s that researchers demonstrated that seawater will not absorb all of the extra carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.
Oceans have been at the centre of climate science because an estimated 83 per cent of the global carbon cycle is circulated through marine waters. Man-made global warming is, in essence, the short-circuiting of this cycle, so understanding and respecting the oceans—the biggest part of the cycle—is crucial for mitigating the damage we have done.
Although we now know that oceans will not absorb all of our carbon emissions, they have absorbed around a third of the CO2 produced by humans. Moreover, the ocean is home to resources that are extremely useful in the fight against climate change. Seagrass meadows sequester carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests, and seaweed is used in a wide range of sustainable innovations. In short, when it comes to climate change, oceans are our best friend.
But oceans are also vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Marine eco-systems are sensitive to climate shocks, with coral cover declining by over half since the 1950s. Human activities also impact oceans in other ways. Oceans are the cradle of life, making up 95 per cent of the space available to living things, yet research shows that marine biodiversity is declining dangerously, with humans the biggest cause. And each year 8 million tonnes of plastic waste escape into the sea.
Given the importance of oceans to our shared future, many innovators are looking to the ocean for inspiration. And some of the most exciting ocean innovators will be at this year’s ChangeNOW summit in Paris.
According to research, 60 per cent of chemical leaks, oil spill-offs, and micro-plastics end up on the seafloor. These pollutants damage the environment, but so too do traditional clean-up methods, which rely on excavations and harmful chemicals. Latvia’s PurOceans Technology believes there is a better way.
The company has developed a proprietary process called ‘deepwater rehabilitation’. During this process, bubbles of ambient air are piped to the lowest depths, where they stick to chemical pollutants before floating back to the surface. Once at the surface, the toxic waste can be safely collected and processed into purified water. PurOcean’s approach avoids the damage to flora and fauna that accompanies excavation and chemical-based approaches, improving the health of the entire marine ecosystem. And as a further bonus, the process enriches the water with added oxygen.
Single-use plastic water bottles are both common and expensive in West Africa. And much of the waste plastic ends up cluttering the streets, going to land fill, or polluting the oceans. Addressing this issue is Senegal-based water company MIYA.
Miya provides 11- and 19-litre water bottles that can be re-used under a deposit scheme where customers return the bottles for refills. In addition to preventing plastic from littering beaches and harming marine life, the MIYA scheme has several additional benefits. Drinking water in the company’s native Senegal is not always safe, yet bottled water is expensive. Many people therefore face an unfortunate trade-off between hygiene and cost. MIYA’s water is more affordable with customers paying $2.08 for a 19-litre bottle compared to the average price of $1.73 for 10 litres.
Globally, around 80 per cent of sewage is dumped into the ocean untreated. And all this pollution from wastewater damages marine eco-systems in a number of ways. At the same time, current wastewater treatment technologies are energy-intensive and cause one per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in France.
NXO-Engineering takes a revolutionary approach to wastewater, seeing it as a repository of resources rather than something to be treated. The startup’s proprietary NxSTEP process uses micro-algae and bacteria to convert the wastewater into biomethane that can be used as a source of energy. As a result, the process is not only less energy-intensive than traditional methods, it actually produces more energy than it uses. The company has also developed a flotation unit that separates biomass from water, leaving the water fit for human consumption – a process that can reduce the cost of drinking water.
Maritime shipping accounts for at least 2.5 per cent of global CO2 emissions. However, this is considered by many to be a gross underestimate of the environmental damage done by container shipping. One study found that, in 2009, a single large container ship emitted almost the same amount of cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as 50 million cars.
French company Airseas has developed a parafoil sail—known as the Seawing—that is designed to be installed on cargo ships to reduce fuel consumption and shipping emissions. The Seawing is designed to deploy automatically, rising up above the ship’s deck on a long cable to grab the steady, strong winds 200 metres above sea level. An automated system monitors and controls the Seawing. The system also monitors forward wind conditions and re-routes the ship to take the most efficient path possible without affecting arrival time.
Airseas is not the only company harnessing the wind to reduce shipping emissions. Rather than using a kite-like parafoil, another French company, AYRO, has developed wingsails—called ‘Oceanwings’—that rise vertically from the deck of a ship.
Oceanwings are compatible with most types of vessel, and can be retrofitted onto existing ships or incorporated into new-build designs. Moreover, operating the Oceanwings does not require the specialist skills traditionally associated with sailing, and the wingsails are safe to use in any weather condition. Sensors on the wingsails measure the wind, generating data that is analysed to adjust the angle and camber of the Oceanwings for maximum effectiveness.
Environmental monitoring is key for environmental protection strategies. Monitoring data helps policymakers set priorities and activities. At the same time, businesses are faced with a growing need to report on biodiversity, yet monitoring has traditionally been costly and difficult to perform at scale. For biodiversity startup NatureMetrics, the answer is in environmental DNA (eDNA) – DNA that is released from organisms into the environment through faeces, urine, slime, scales, and other forms.
NatureMetrics carries out tests in a facility purpose-built for metabarcoding – a method of DNA sequencing that can identify multiple species in a single sample. The system can process more than 100 samples in parallel, reducing sequencing costs and time. The company’s marine division provides powerful data on ocean biodiversity, working on projects such as nature-based solutions in coral reef, mangrove, kelp, and seagrass habitats, and conservation monitoring in marine protected areas.
Want to discover how innovation will change the world in 2022? Read our special report produced in collaboration with ChangeNOW.
Springwise is a proud partner of ChangeNOW. As the world’s largest event for the planet, the three-day international summit brings together entrepreneurs, business leaders, and policymakers to accelerate change.
Words: Matthew Hempstead
29th April 2022