Five Breakthroughs Worth Celebrating on Earth Day

Five Breakthroughs Worth Celebrating on Earth Day

Earth Day began on April 22, 1970, when 20 million people across the United States rallied for a clean environment. It has since become an annual celebration and a global day of action. In that spirit, we’d like to celebrate how far we’re come. From projects already underway to technologies that sound like pipe-dreams, here are five exciting ways that scientists, farmers, and even astronauts are changing our understanding of the environment and our place in it.

Observing Carbon Concentration from Space

Launching on April 30, NASA’s OCO-3 is designed to monitor and report on the distribution of carbon dioxide around the world. Its predecessor, OCO-2, launched in 2014, has been gathering detailed information about carbon use and storage.

It has used about 100,000 measurements to paint a detailed picture for scientists about the global effects of carbon on the ecosystem.

OCO-2 in action. Image: NASA-JPL/Caltech.

OCO-3, ambitious in and of itself, is a precursor to the Geostationary Carbon Observatory (GeoCarb), which aims to measure carbon dioxide, methane, and carbon monoxide in geostationary orbit. By traveling at the same speed as Earth’s rotation, GeoCarb will be able to make regional assessments, such as how much CO2 the Amazon basin absorbs.

The Highway, Reimagined

On an 18-mile stretch of highway in rural Georgia, the Ray is turning into the first “regenerative highway ecosystem.” In other words, it’s a testing ground for small-scale road projects that could mean the future of transportation.

With solar-paved roads, solar-powered charging stations, and free tire-pressure monitors, it’s already demonstrating how changes can improve both the environment and driver safety.

Up next: charging lanes for electric cars and the smart road dots, which will communicate data, like inclement weather or accidents, to vehicles by way of colors on the road.

A rendering of the Ray’s proposed electric charging lane. Image: The Ray.

Good for the Farm, Good for the Planet

When we think of farming, we might think of tractors, soil-tilling, and land clearing. These common practices release carbon — a necessary, even beneficial currency in agriculture — from the soil into the air. Carbon farming intends to turn that cycle on its head by converting CO2 from the atmosphere into plant material and soil organic matter.

The Marin Carbon Project, or MCP, began in 2008 to encourage carbon farming plans. They’ve already implemented over a dozen, working with land managers to map out a system of carbon sequestration unique to each farm.

MCP is an at-will consortium, so participants, who range from researchers to landowners, play an active role in implementing the values of carbon farming, thereby improving farm productivity and reducing the negative effects on the environment.

One member, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) is devoted to preserving the county’s farmland — and has already permanently protected about half.

Through MCP, Marin County has demonstrated how changing centuries-old agricultural practices can breed a favorable situation for both farmers and land. And it doesn’t take a global initiative to do it. Some of the best things start small.

Catching Carbon — and Putting It to Better Use

It sounds simple enough: air flows through a filter that separates out carbon dioxide. This is called direct air capture (DAC) and it’s already being carried out in small plants. But to tackle excess greenhouse-gas emissions on a global scale sounds far more complicated, and costly.

Last year, a Harvard researcher claimed to be able to get it done for around $100 per metric ton. If this is achieved, it could represent a move towards altering the carbon cycle.

And what about the captured CO2? Companies active in this arena plan to make it useful again. Carbon Engineering, for example, hopes to turn it into a synthetic fuel. Climateworks envisions its second life as methane or a product to sell to soda manufacturers.

If It Looks Like Meat and Tastes Like Meat…

Humans are eating more meat than ever, and that meat is environmentally costly; raising the livestock alone contributes 15% of greenhouse-gas emissions. Companies in both the plant-based and cell-based meat industries are showing us a way out.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have set out to convince meat lovers that they might just be able to have it both ways. Their unique combinations of pea and potato proteins, soy, wheat, and oils yield the closest thing in taste to real meat.

In January 2019, the next-generation Impossible Burger 2.0 was released.

Meanwhile, new companies are aiming to make the real thing from scratch.

Cultured, or more appealingly dubbed “clean,” meat involves extracting muscle cells from animals and, using growth factors, allowing them to proliferate outside the body.

The jury is still out on whether it produces significantly fewer emissions, but the Impossible Burger 2.0 has also proven to require 87% less water and release 89% fewer greenhouse gases than cow meat.

The idea that our preferences, even our tastes, may evolve with these technologies is hard to fathom. But it might just be the future of food.

What new technologies or efforts are you celebrating today?


Related Articles


Thinking Outside the Box: Turning Methane into Biodegradable Plastic

After completing her Ph.D. in Civil & Environmental Engineering in 2009 at Stanford University, Molly Morse harnessed her research on the production of PHA (polyhydroxy alkanoate) biopolymers from methane — and its biodegradation — and shaped it into a start-up business in 2010.


“This Way of Life Is Our Birthright”

“We’ve been building support in Congress. We’ve been fighting in the corporate board rooms, and we’ve been taking our case to court.” There have been four lawsuits brought against the Trump administration’s drilling plans, including by 15 states’ attorneys general, and two different environmental lawsuits..."


“The Soil Is Alive”

Michael Martinez explains the value of community composting: “is very much in doing it. When people see thousands of pounds of food scraps being put into a compost pile and see compost that’s already cooking and turned, they are witnessing the making of that finished product… in the same day.”