While Attenborough has never shied away from educating people about climate change’s realities, he still maintains an optimistic outlook that can inspire all of us to become a part of the greener future. "Nature is our biggest ally and our greatest inspiration," says Sir David. "We just have to do what nature has always done. It worked out the secret of life long ago. In this world, a species can only thrive when everything else around it thrives too. We can solve the problems we now face by embracing this reality. If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us."
With those inspiring words in mind, here's how environmental sciences can help save the world.
Rewilding isn't about 'repairing' nature. Instead, it creates the conditions to enable nature to do the job for itself. This includes dismantling dykes and dams to let rivers run free again and planting more trees to allow forest regeneration. In addition to restoring the natural beauty of rural areas, rewilding can play an essential role in reversing climate change. Researchers in the UK found increasing England's woodland cover from 13% to 26% would absorb a tenth of the country's carbon emissions every year. The UK government is now raising over £500 million in funding to make this happen. Similar projects are happening in high priority nations, including Brazil. A team led by academics from Pontifical University hopes to restore 30% of farmland in critical areas, which would remove over 465 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in the coming decades.
Rewilding also reintroduces species that have disappeared because of deforestation or other human growth factors. For example, beavers vanished from the UK around 400 years ago. Today, thanks to large rewilding projects, more than 1,000 live in the wild rivers and streams across the Scottish highlands. Elsewhere in Europe, the Eurasian lynx has been reintroduced to the forests of France and Germany, while the bison is once again grazing the wildlands in northwest Poland.
Sustainable population growth
After two centuries of exponential expansion, the rate of human population growth is beginning to slow down. This is due to several factors, including higher living standards, more family planning, female empowerment, and changing lifestyles. For example, people in more developed nations tend to have children later in life. However, while the rate of growth is going down, the overall figure is still rising. In fact, the world population of 7.8 billion is set to keep increasing by 87 million every year.
So, what does this mean for the planet? After all, more people equals a larger global carbon footprint, right?. Well, not necessarily. Reseach from experts at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology found overconsumption is a far greater threat to the environment than overpopulation. For example, a world population with a large number of people using green energy would create lower emissions than one with fewer people running off fossil fuels.
Like China and India, the world’s fastest-developing nations are starting to incorporate more solar and turbine power to offset the negative effects of population growth. Similar measures are being implemented in many of Africa's rapidly growing nations. This means there's a real chance these emerging economies can reduce emissions as their population and income levels continue to rise.
As far as many experts are concerned, renewable energy sources are the best weapons we have against climate change. Unlike fossil fuel combustions, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar emit low (or even zero) carbon emissions, which are one of the biggest contributors to global warming. Morocco recently embraced the power of renewable energy by building the world's largest solar-powered farm. Resting on the edge of the Sahara desert, the Noor-Ouarzazate is a 3,500-hectare complex that produces enough electricity to power Marrakesh in Morocco, which has nearly one million residents. It is also estimated to reduce global carbon emissions by more than 700 tonnes every year!
The Noor-Ouarzazate complex employs hundreds of people and has indirectly created many more job opportunities within the local economy. This proves what advocates of renewable energy have been saying for years, that the switch to renewable energy will create a new industry, driving sustainable economic growth, as well as upward social mobility in safe, prosperous jobs for millions of people in both developed and developing nations. Renewable energy is already supporting nearly 200,000 jobs across the USA. These workers typically enjoy a generous salary package, long-term job security, and additional benefits, including healthcare.
Protecting the oceans
In 2017 Australia's Great Barrier Reef experienced two marine heatwaves. The elevated sea temperatures were a disaster for the underwater ecosystem, destroying almost a third of the reef’s coral. This forced researchers and ecologists into action. They began growing coral fragments in coral nurseries, which were then replanted across the reef in 2018. It was the first time ecologists had taken such a hands-on approach to conserving one of the world's greatest natural wonders, indicating the gravity of the threat from rising sea temperatures.
Researchers are now waiting for another marine heatwave to see if their project has been a success. In the meantime, the same team is looking at new ways to help coral reefs survive rising temperatures. The researchers recently traveled to American Samoa to study shallow reefs with an exceptional tolerance for heat. The team managed to identify the genes that make this possible and are now looking at ways to introduce them to endangered coral without upsetting the natural ecosystem. Lead researcher David Suggett says, "What we're trying to do with this work is understand what would happen in a situation where we had to rely on human intervention in order to keep reefs viable. But that's not what we want. Plan A should be reducing emissions, solving climate change, and removing threats to the reefs."
The world population is expected to hit 10 billion by 2050. With current farming methods, we'd need to clear the majority of the world's forests to produce enough food. Thankfully, advances in sustainable farming suggest the future will be much greener.
Vertical farms in San Francisco and drone farming in the UAE are just two examples of the latest innovations in sustainable agriculture. However, arguably the most exciting work is happening in the Netherlands, the small European nation that sits just behind the USA as the world's largest exporter of agricultural goods.
Using the latest technology and computer modeling techniques, the Dutch created 'precision farming', a new type of 21st-century agriculture that produces more food with fewer resources. Potato farmer Jacob van den Borne now grows more than 20 tonnes of potatoes per acre (the global average is just nine tonnes). Moreover, he does it with 90% less water than his predecessors and has eliminated the use of chemical pesticides.
Duijvestijn Tomatoes is the model for Dutch farming companies in the 21st century. Using hydroponic systems and geothermal energy, tomatoes are grown in nutrient-packed Rockwool substrate bags that allow plants to soak up water when moisture levels are low. Duijvestijn Tomatoes also uses no pesticides and pipes in waste CO2 from a nearby oil refinery. Adam van Adrichem, the general manager for Duijvestijn Tomatoes, explains, "Sometimes these sustainable solutions cost a bit more in the short-term, but in the long-term, they should be more effective. That's actually what we are seeing. You need to invest in these kinds of things for the long-term."
There's a long way to go in the fight against climate change. However, these advances in environmental sciences being pushed forward by academic researchers, graduates, and students, along with a renewed commitment from the general public, means we're well equipped to overcome the challenges ahead!