The decade's progress diaries

1st May 2020

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Sarah Milne

This month, like many, I have been working from home. It comes with the territory as a freelance writer – so it was a bit of a shock when, three days in, I'd written the sum total of 220 words.

I can't blame it on the kids or my wife (naturally). In reality, I was far too easily distracted. Instead of writing, I spent most of the week tidying the study. Old magazines were recycled, useful ones categorised and others reread. Which brings me to the point of this column: an article I'd kept from Newsweek (25 October 2010) entitled '10 big green ideas'. The list is fascinating – so, a decade on, have any of them been achieved.

1. Make a greener burger. In 2010, this was about rearing beef without chopping down rainforests. Indeed, campaigners had only just begun to communicate the full climate impact of food consumption, in particular meat. Today we are in a very different place: a greener burger has no beef in it, as people switch to plant-based alternatives (some of which even 'bleed' like meat). For those who don't fancy that, there could soon be burgers grown in the lab, rather than on the land.

2. Invest in the improbable. Venture capitalists like to take risks on 'flaky ideas' that could take 10 or 15 years to bear fruit. A decade on, we can't afford to waste time. This year will forever be known for the coronavirus, but what the crisis has taught us is that innovation can happen far faster than we thought.

3. Get out of the gulf. In 2010 – the year of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – the US was getting 8% (1.6m barrels) of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico, so instead of replacing this supply why not do without it? A good place to start would be to electrify 10% of America's cars by 2020, suggested one NGO. Sales of electric cars have rocketed in recent years, but some analysts suggest ownership in the US still hasn't passed 2%. There's a long way to go. The UK government has brought forward its ban on new petrol and diesel cars by five years, to 2035. Scotland has gone for 2032..

4. Catch a wave. More than 70% of the Earth's surface is covered by water, but turning waves into watts is far from easy. It remains expensive, and the impacts on the marine environment are far from clear, so it's hardly surprising that solar PV and wind continue to dominate over tidal power.

5. Drink your garbage. “Plastic is made of petroleum, so finding ways to reuse it could make us less dependent on oil,“ Newsweek noted. “And the household electronics we discard are loaded with nickel, copper and lithium, which one day could be in short supply. Why not mine our own trash?“ In 2020, we all know about plastic as a pollutant. Finding ways to recycle plastic is only half the story: reduction of all single-use packaging is essential. Then there is electrical waste (which we know even less about) and food waste – so let's not spend the next 10 years focusing on straws.

6. Lighten up. “The best green ideas are the ones that save you money ... And there's no better example of that than LED lighting,“ Newsweek suggested. By 2018 LEDs took 40% of the global residential lighting market – a figure that continues to grow. Add in the quality, longer life, falling costs and energy savings, and this is a business no-brainer.

7. Shout it out loud. Perhaps the most prophetic of the 10 ideas. “Never underestimate the power of protest,“ the article reads. The focus was on environmental NGOs, though, not a Swedish schoolgirl. “Change is coming whether you like it or not,“ Greta Thunberg wrote in September 2019. In the next decade, we need bigger, better, bolder ideas..

David Burrows is a researcher and freelance writer

Image credit: Shutterstock


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