David Biello: Moving The Dial On Climate Change Fighting climate change is a big messy task that will take a lot of work. This hour, TED's Science Curator David Biello joins Manoush to share some promising and fascinating solutions.
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David Biello: Moving The Dial On Climate Change

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David Biello: Moving The Dial On Climate Change

David Biello: Moving The Dial On Climate Change

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Climate change is a problem so vast, affecting so many people in so many different ways, that it's hard to know what we should do, which solutions we should focus on, which efforts can truly dial back global warming because the fact is, we are running out of time to make the changes we need to stop irreparable damage to our planet. But there is good news - we have the technology and the science to do it. And so on the show today, how we can build a zero-emissions future.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK MONTAGE)

ASMERET ASEFAW BERHE: There's a global effort underway to accomplish exactly this goal.

AASWATH RAMAN: Having this ability in our toolkit will prove to be essential.

KAREN SCRIVENER: Because it can be done fast, and it can be done on a very large scale.

ZOMORODI: Guiding us through some promising and fascinating solutions is TED science curator David Biello.

David, thank you so much for being here again.

DAVID BIELLO: Thank you for having me back.

ZOMORODI: And today, you're bringing us TED speakers who are trying to save the planet from the state that we're in, right?

BIELLO: Yeah, except it's more important than that, I would say, because it's not just saving the planet. In fact, it's not really saving the planet. It's saving ourselves. You know, the planet has dealt with climate change many times before. And honestly, the planet will be fine. Our civilization, if we don't act now and act quickly, will not be fine.

ZOMORODI: And so let's start with the key number, which is 10 - 10 years. That is the amount of time that climate researchers say we have to really turn things around. David, why a decade?

BIELLO: So in the next 10 years, we will have sort of made the decisions that will determine the climate for centuries, if not millennia, to come. So if we really do want to keep global warming where it's already at - around one degree Celsius or, at most, 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming - then we really have to act now, and we have to act fast. And that's where the 10 years comes in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: OK, so let's get into some of the big ideas and big solutions that can help us fight climate change. And let's start with something that captures carbon dioxide and is literally right beneath our feet - soil.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BERHE: Soil's just a thin veil that covers the surface of land, but it has the power to shape our planet's destiny. See, a 6 foot or so of soil material that covers the Earth's surface represents the difference between life and lifelessness in the Earth's system. And it can also help us combat climate change if we can only stop treating it like dirt.

ZOMORODI: David, I've got to love these climate researchers who love puns. OK, so this is soil researcher Asmeret Asefaw Berhe. Tell us about her and why she likes to talk dirt.

BIELLO: Well, you know, this is one of the reasons that people find climate change so daunting. How do you make soil sexy? Well, Asmeret is the answer because she has a certain passion for dirt as a soil biogeochemist. And she has been studying it as a dirt detective...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BIELLO: ...Since the age of 18. And soil is actually this really complex skin on the face of the Earth that is responsible for life on land. Everything that we do revolves through the soil, and that's true for carbon, as well. You might recognize it from compost. If any of you...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

BIELLO: ...Compost, you'll know that it creates this kind of dark, rich material. And then you spread it in your garden, and suddenly, your tomatoes are that much better. That darkness - that is the carbon itself. And what the carbon does is allow the soil to retain moisture, to retain minerals and other nutrients that the plants need to then grow. As we all know, when plants are growing, they're photosynthesizing. And that means they're pulling CO2 out of the air and turning it into more plant - and in some cases, even burying some of that CO2 for us back into the soil.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BERHE: There is about 3,000 billion metric tons of carbon in the soil. That's roughly about 315 times the amount of carbon that we release into the atmosphere currently. And there's twice more carbon in soil than there is in vegetation and air.

Think about that for a second - there's more carbon in soil than there is in all of the world's vegetation, including the lush tropical rainforests and the giant sequoias, the expansive grasslands, all of the cultivated systems and every kind of flora you can imagine on the face of the Earth, plus all the carbon that's currently up in the atmosphere combined, and then twice over. Hence, a very small change in the amount of carbon stored in soil can make a big difference in maintenance of the Earth's atmosphere.

ZOMORODI: OK, first of all, had no idea that there was that much carbon under there - that we're basically sitting on top of a carbon piggy bank.

BIELLO: Yup.

ZOMORODI: Correct me if I'm wrong, David, but this is called carbon sequestration, right? And that is a good thing for soil in addition to being good for the atmosphere.

BIELLO: It is a good thing. The problem is most of our agriculture is designed in a way to extract that carbon. And what we've essentially done is overburdened the Earth's kind of natural carbon cycle. It used to be that a certain amount of CO2 kind of moved between plants and the air and the land. But then we came along and started digging up all this buried carbon - carbon that had been laid down by plants even millions of years ago in the form of coal and oil. And when we burn that, it releases this fossil CO2. And that's extra CO2 that had been locked away from the atmosphere for a very long time. And that's why we're kind of out of whack.

ZOMORODI: So it's all the things we humans do to soil - farming, cutting down trees. Like, that's what's pulling carbon out of the ground.

BIELLO: Yes. But that also means we can put it back. We can put some of that carbon back into the soil and lock it away from the atmosphere. And that's going to help us with climate change.

ZOMORODI: How do we do that? I'm picturing, like, a reverse vacuum cleaner, like, sucking it out of the air and sticking it into the ground. But I'm guessing.

BIELLO: I mean, yes, that would be the kind of mechanical way of doing it. But what you just described is essentially a plant. That's how a plant works, using the energy of the sun. So a plant opens the pores on its leaves, sucks in the CO2, uses the energy of the sun to turn that CO2 into more plant. Some of that CO2 then goes on to take up long-term residence in the soil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: I want to ask, like, what is your thinking when someone like Asmeret comes on the TED stage? Like, is your hope that there are more business executives or officials in governments - that they hear this, and they understand how the choices they make can affect something like soil that they're not even thinking about?

BIELLO: That's exactly right. And it's also to show to the world the state of our knowledge. Set aside climate change. It's critical and vital to our continued existence on Earth. That's how important soil is. And in addition to that, it has this extra superpower of potentially helping us solve climate change. It's just important to highlight that and make more people aware that the soil can save us.

ZOMORODI: And so one of the ways to get soil working to stop climate change is to plant trees - reforestation, right? - more of those all-natural vacuum cleaners that suck carbon back into the soil. And that brings us to our next speaker, who is the mayor of Freetown.

BIELLO: Yes. Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is the mayor of Freetown, which is in Sierra Leone. And she actually ran in part on a platform of planting more trees, not just because trees kind of improve quality of life in a city but also because trees can provide this kind of anti-climate change effect. And Freetown has been suffering some of the extreme weather that everyone, really, around the globe has been experiencing as the climate changes.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. I had not realized that there was a huge landslide in Sierra Leone that killed about a thousand people in less than five minutes, which explains, you know, why you would have someone run on a political platform that is environmental, essentially. So here's how she describes what her goals are.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

YVONNE AKI-SAWYERR: Our goal - to increase vegetation cover by 50% in Freetown by the end of my term in 2022. That means we will plant a million trees within the next two years. And we start by planting the first 500,000 seedlings this rainy season.

For nearly a year now, 15 different species of trees have been nursed on 11 sites across the city. And now each tree will be planted in a home, a school, an office, a public space, on a hillside or in a mangrove by a tree steward. A million trees is our city's small contribution to increasing the much-needed global carbon sink.

ZOMORODI: OK, David, not to be cynical, but really, how effective are initiatives and projects like this?

BIELLO: Well, on the one hand, a million trees in Freetown is not going to on its own transform the global climate, right? It's not going to solve climate change. That said, it is one of many such restoration or reforestation projects that together can add up collectively to something that is on the order of a third of all human emissions, right? And it's not just climate change. Like I said, these trees are about improving the lives of residents of Freetown.

But trees don't in the time frame we need solve the problem of climate change. I talked about fossil carbon, right? That's carbon that was locked away for millions of years, and that's the excess carbon that we're trying to get rid of. So a tree can pull that in and lock it away in the tree. That's good for a tree's lifetime, which, depending on the tree and the circumstances, could be anywhere from 10 years to, you know, hundreds of years.

That's just not long enough. What is to guarantee that these trees that are locking away the carbon today will be locking away the carbon tomorrow? The emissions from California wildfires were absolutely enormous in terms of the carbon dioxide released. And so that's why some scientists are, like, look - it's great, and yes, we should do it, but we need to do more because trees alone are not going to solve our problem. And they're right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So it's clear that forest and soil restoration is important but also that it's not enough. So in a minute, climate change solutions for our cities, from our concrete to our cars. Today's show - building our zero emissions future. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, big ideas and actual solutions to help us stop emitting carbon and fight climate change with our friend, TED's science curator, David Biello.

So, David, we just talked about how planting trees, restoring forests, can help suck carbon dioxide out of the sky. But obviously, we humans also need to stop creating CO2 in the first place. And that leads us to, of all things, concrete. Was I supposed to know that concrete has a big CO2 problem?

BIELLO: (Laughter) Well, you could have guessed it since concrete is made in part with limestone. And limestone is fossil carbon. Only in this case, it's from millions of seashells from tiny sea creatures that lived in ages of Earth's past. So the White Cliffs of Dover are kind of the burial mound of sea life over really eons of time. Think about how many microscopic shells it takes to make those White Cliffs of Dover. And for better or worse, undoing what those tiny sea creatures did is what we're doing when we're making cement and concrete.

We're breaking apart the chemical bonds in the limestone to kind of reduce it so you can turn it into these other elements that we want - the cement and the concrete. And also...

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE BURNING)

BIELLO: ...You're burning fossil fuels to get to those super-high temperatures that allow you to break down the limestone. So it's kind of a double whammy. And that's why the country of concrete is such a huge polluter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SCRIVENER: Concrete is the second-most-used substance on earth after water. And for this reason, it has a significant environmental impact.

BIELLO: So there are a lot of people working on the problem of concrete because it is a very big problem, but the one that I want to introduce you to right now is chemist Karen Scrivener.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SCRIVENER: If it were a country, it would rank third for emissions after China and U.S.A. But, in fact, concrete is an intrinsically low-impact material with much lower emissions of CO2 and energy per ton than other materials like iron and steel - even things like bricks. But because of the enormous volumes we use, overall, it contributes to about 8% of manmade CO2 emissions.

ZOMORODI: OK, so because we use concrete and cement in almost everything we build, from houses to roads - basically all of our infrastructure - that is why it makes up such a big part of carbon emissions. So, David, what the heck do we do about it?

BIELLO: The good news is chemists are always coming up with new ways of making things and doing things. And in this case, a chemist like Karen can come along and invent a new way of making cement that cuts down on the release of that CO2.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SCRIVENER: Here in Switzerland, we have found that clays produce very reactive materials when they're calcined - that's to say heated to around 800 degrees Celsius, significantly lower than the 1,450 needed to produce cement. But more importantly, there's no CO2 emissions from the decomposition of limestone.

We then take this calcined clay, and we add a bit of limestone - but this time, not heated, so no CO2 emissions - and some cement. And this combination of limestone, calcined clay and cement we call LC3. It can be produced with the same equipment and processes and used in the same way but has up to 40% lower CO2 emissions.

BIELLO: So on the one hand, you can burn fewer fossil fuels to make the cement even in the traditional way, right? And then within the kind of cement kiln itself, you can use different chemistries that result in far less CO2 kind of escaping back into the air.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, like Karen says, up to 40% less CO2. I mean, that's a really big deal.

BIELLO: Yeah - be a really big deal when you think about 8% of global pollution is coming from this country of cement and concrete, if you will. And engineers really like tried and tested materials, right? They don't want their building to collapse.

ZOMORODI: Yes.

BIELLO: They want to know that this bridge will hold a certain amount of weight. And this is a direct replacement with all the same properties and yet saves more than a third of the CO2 pollution. So that's an immediate win.

ZOMORODI: And to be clear, there are lots of people who are working on this issue. One of them is another TED speaker, Tom Schuler, who is a mechanical engineer, a professor and CEO of a cement startup. Explain what Tom is doing, please.

BIELLO: Well, Tom and his team are tinkering with the elements of the CO2 itself. It's a little bit of a different material than the LC3 that Karen was talking about, and so it's a little bit more cutting-edge. That said, it saves even more CO2. And in addition to that, the idea here is that they would cure the resulting concrete with the CO2 itself. And when you cure the concrete using pure CO2 rather than just kind of the ambient air, which is how we do it these days, you're actually trapping that CO2. You're trapping extra CO2 within the cement and concrete itself. And that's turning it back into rock. And that's what we're looking for, right? We're looking to turn the fossil carbon we released back into fossils, back into rock. This has real potential.

ZOMORODI: So, as you say, we have the technology. We have the science. But what does it take to full-scale change how we build our buildings with cement? How do we actually do enough that it makes a difference?

BIELLO: It's - it really is - comes down to kind of the sufficient testing so that the engineer kind of onsite building a house, building a skyscraper, building a bridge feels comfortable with this material, that it will do exactly what it is proposed to do. And once it's proved out, then I think you can start to see some more rapid uptake. And as this thing scales up, then it gets cheaper, and then you start to see some real significant impacts on our global pollution. And best of all, that CO2 is locked away in our buildings, buildings that we want standing there for as long as possible.

ZOMORODI: So do you think, like, in a couple years, there'll be signs on new construction that says, I don't know, built with CO2-friendly cement? Like, is that what we want to get to? Because as just a normal layperson, you know, I will walk out of this interview looking at the buildings that surround me in a different way. But me alone - I guess I don't have much power here until it becomes really a consumer question.

BIELLO: Yes. And you can have power in that regard. You can go and ask a construction site, say, in your neighborhood or at your company - maybe you're building a new headquarters or something - or whatever influence you may have and ask them, you know, whether they're going to use this new, improved cement, whether it's the LC3 or Tom's CO2-locking-away cement. All of it matters. And we can all have an influence. And then suddenly, the country of concrete - it goes from being a net emitter - right? - the third-largest emitter as a country in the world - to a net sink, a net place for locking away this carbon forever.

ZOMORODI: OK, so using low-emission cement and concrete to make our buildings and our roads - that could be huge. But it is just one piece of the puzzle. And if we're going to make real change, we also have to talk about what produces the most emissions on our planet, and that is transportation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MONICA ARAYA: The tailpipe is a symbol of our worst habits, habits that we have normalized for too long. The burning of 100 million barrels of oil every 24 hours and the extraction behind that oil, the fumes choking our cities, the greenhouse gases going up in the atmosphere and overheating our planet - none of that is normal.

ZOMORODI: That's Monica Araya, and she is a transportation expert. And what she's talking about is changing the entire transportation system.

BIELLO: That's right. In an area like transportation, it's about the kind of systemic change we're looking for in the cement example but writ even larger because when you think about it, the way we move around has so many moving pieces, whether it's all the jobs that are behind how we build our cars and our planes and what have you, all the way through to kind of the personal decision whether to bike or drive a car, whether to buy a car with an internal combustion engine or an electric car, whether your fleet of delivery vehicles, if you're a manager, say, should be electric or something else.

ZOMORODI: And the good news is that there are actually a lot of cities that are trying to change their transportation systems right now, including where Monica lives, Amsterdam.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ARAYA: I live in Amsterdam, where a profound transformation is underway. Amsterdam already promotes biking, public transit, walking. So you might be surprised to hear that even in Amsterdam, there is a problem with air pollution because of road transportation. That is why the city of Amsterdam has a plan to go emissions-free by 2030. And the plan builds on the idea of an expanding zero-emission zone going from the center outwards in three phases. By 2022, all buses and coaches circulating in the city center must be emissions-free. By 2025, the zone expands, and all public and commercial traffic must be emissions-free. That also includes mopeds, ferries and boats. By 2030, the zone expands further, and by then, all transportation must be emissions-free, including personal cars and motorcycles. No more tailpipes. And that is just nine years away.

ZOMORODI: Going electric by 2030, carbon-neutral by 2050 - it seems very popular, and for good reason, that many cities sort of set these goals for themselves. And I think that Monica says there are 30 cities and provinces who have committed to similar measures as Amsterdam has. But can we have some real talk, David? Like, are these - do these kind of goals actually work? Do people - have we heard of goals that have been met?

BIELLO: We have met some very kind of easy goals. But you're right that none of these very large goals - going electric by 2030 or carbon-neutral by 2050 - have been met. Obviously, those dates aren't here yet, but there's no sign that we are going to meet those goals as of yet. But that's why we need this kind of pincer movement, if you will - both the kind of bottom-up pressure of people making these changes on their own, whether it's deciding to bike more or transitioning from an internal combustion engine car to an electric car or at the topmost level, at the national level, mandates that lock in some of this progress, whether that's a certain amount of electric vehicles for the government's own vehicle fleet or emissions standards for all the vehicles that are out there.

ZOMORODI: But it does seem as though car companies are recognizing that there is demand. I mean, anecdotally, I've seen many more Teslas on the road, electric cars. We pulled into a rest stop along the highway here on the East Coast, and there were plug-in places for electric cars. Like, that wasn't there a year ago. And so is that - is the ball starting to roll when it comes to customer demand and actually creating - fulfilling that demand by car companies?

BIELLO: That's exactly right. There's both the demand from consumers - because driving a car like a Tesla, if you can afford it, is amazingly fun and cool.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BIELLO: And it's utterly silent and, you know, feels like you're living in the future. But also, there are the national-level regulations or state-level regulations or even local regulations that are forcing car companies to produce cars that meet these new emission standards. So it's kind of the combination of the top-down and the bottom-up meeting in the middle of the car companies that's really delivering the progress here. And there's no signs of that stopping or slowing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ARAYA: These are still small steps compared to the scale of our oil addiction. But they signal a new direction of travel. What's really exciting is that the technologies we need for this transformation are here today, commercially available, getting cheaper and getting better. Look at what's going on with electric buses.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, I didn't realize that, as Monica says, the huge bus fleets in China are being switched over to electric.

BIELLO: Yeah, that is the single biggest thing that has been done in the transportation sector for climate change emissions. Just transitioning China's bus fleet has taken a huge bite out of transportation emissions. So it just shows when a kind of big nation - China is the world's largest polluter at this point - takes a big step like that and mandates these things, big change can happen, and it can happen relatively quickly.

And here's the other piece of good news with that. The electric buses that China is building for its own fleet are also being sold into other countries all around the world and electrifying those bus fleets. So when the alternative, the clean alternative, becomes cheaper and better, well, then it starts being adopted everywhere.

ZOMORODI: It's so frustrating to hear - like, it makes you think, like, well, OK, well, let's do it. Let's electrify all of our transportation systems. Why not? But there's resistance. And actually, you have written about some of the downsides.

BIELLO: Yeah, that's right. I mean, it's not a panacea because what makes an electric vehicle clean is that it has no tailpipe, right?

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

BIELLO: But what has happened is that tailpipe has moved many miles away, either to a solar farm, we hope, or a smokestack of a coal-fired power plant. And if you are burning coal to get the electricity for your electric car, well, we haven't really gotten away from releasing the CO2 that is the core of this problem - the fossil carbon. Again, we've got to keep that carbon locked up in the ground - right? - all the carbon.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

BIELLO: We don't want any more fossil carbon let loose. And we want to put some of that fossil carbon back in the bottle, as it were, whether that's the soil or the concrete or wherever else we can find to hide it.

ZOMORODI: So who's that on? If you're thinking of buying an electric car, is it on you to try and figure out where the electricity is coming from that will power your car? Or is this something that we really - has to be sort of a governmental systemic issue?

BIELLO: It's a bit of both - right? - as there are individual choices made. Perhaps you want to know where your electricity comes from anyway. Solar power is now the cheapest electricity ever. So if you're getting your electricity from somewhere else, then maybe you want to make the switch. Maybe it makes sense to put those solar panels on your roof. And then in that case, when you're charging your electric car at home, hey, you're getting it straight from the sun, and you're good to go.

At the same time, we need the kind of national and even international systemic change - right? - that's going to shift us away from coal, that's going to shift us away from natural gas and towards these cleaner electricity sources. So, again, we need that pincer movement. We need the demand and the change in behavior from all of us, and we also need the systemic change kind of coming down from the government level.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ARAYA: Here's the bottom line - the end of the internal combustion engine is within sight. The question is no longer whether this will happen but when - 10 years, 20 years. It depends on us and the choices that we make this decade. So now is the time to go bigger and faster towards a future without a tailpipe, a future where we can meet our transportation needs and have people-friendly streets, a future with a thriving economy and clean air, a future we choose for the climate and for our health.

ZOMORODI: When we come back, more with TED'S David Biello and how we might be able to use the power of space to cool things down here on Earth. On the show today, building our zero-emissions future. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, building our zero-emissions future. Guiding us through promising and fascinating solutions is TED science curator David Biello. David, thank you so much for being here.

BIELLO: Thanks for having me. It's always a pleasure, even when we're talking about something that could be depressing, like climate change.

ZOMORODI: Well, depressing but also really frustrating, right? Because just one of the frustrating things about this whole climate change problem is that we need energy to cool things down because we're making the planet hotter. And that means we need even more energy to cool ourselves, our homes, our data centers - everything.

BIELLO: That's right. And we're trapped in this vicious cycle where global warming makes the world hotter. That drives demand for cooling, which then drives emissions, which then make the world hotter and so on and so forth.

ZOMORODI: And actually, I'm relieved to say that you have brought us a talk from a pretty mind-blowing speaker - an electrical engineer named Aaswath Raman. And here is how he describes this big energy guzzler.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RAMAN: Cooling systems today collectively account for 17% of the electricity we use worldwide. This includes everything from air conditioners to the refrigeration systems that keep our food safe and cold for us in our supermarkets to the industrial-scale systems that keep our data centers operational. Collectively, these systems account for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But what keeps me up at night is that our energy use for cooling might grow sixfold by the year 2050, primarily driven by increasing usage in Asian and African countries.

ZOMORODI: OK, can we just repeat that? Six times the demand - that is pretty disturbing. But - so any solution could potentially have a big impact. And Aaswath was - actually, I find this so interesting - he was inspired by ancient history to come up with a solution.

BIELLO: Yeah, that's where Aaswath's brainchild comes in, which is this concept of sky cooling - taking advantage of one of the coldest things known to man, which is space.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIELLO: So back in the day, the ancient Persians seemed to have a better grasp of the radiative properties of our atmosphere than maybe we do. They would spread water out in the desert, in the hot desert, in a thin layer. And overnight, it would form ice. And then that ice could be stored in cooling warehouses. That ice formed even though the temperature never dropped to freezing.

How is that possible? Well, it's possible because there's a window in our atmosphere. What do I mean by that? I mean that certain wavelengths of heat - heat is energy. It moves like a wave, and so it has a wavelength. Certain wavelengths of heat pass right through our atmosphere and back out into space, meaning that there's that bit of extra cooling if you can tune the heat to that specific wavelength and kind of point it away from the Earth.

ZOMORODI: So even though the outside air is not below freezing, heat from the water escapes into space. And the water cools, and it freezes. And so Aaswath knows this and thinks, well, I need to find a way to harness this during the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RAMAN: My colleagues and I spend a lot of our time thinking about how we can structure materials at very small length scales such that they can do new and useful things with light. To do this, I designed a multilayer optical material. It's more than 40 times thinner than a typical human hair, and it's able to do two things simultaneously. First, it sends its heat out precisely where our atmosphere lets that heat out the best. We targeted the window to space. The second thing it does is it avoids getting heated up by the sun. It's a very good mirror to sunlight. The first time I tested this was on a rooftop on Stanford. I left the device out for a little while, and I walked up to it after a few minutes. And within seconds, I knew it was working. How? I touched it, and it felt cold.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: I love how the TED audience, like, erupts. But I'm not sure I totally understand this. So he creates a material - a very, very, very thin material - that he's testing on rooftops that essentially is tuning - this is where you pick up, David (laughter).

BIELLO: Yeah, sure. It's sort of the inverse of the greenhouse effect. The CO2 is building up in the atmosphere - right? - and it's trapping all this extra heat. This is a material like a solar panel, right? A solar panel is a material that soaks in the sunlight and turns it into electricity. This is a material that reflects the sunlight back as this heat that can then pass through the atmosphere.

ZOMORODI: OK.

BIELLO: And as a result, even though this material is dark, when you touch it, it feels cold, you know, in the middle of summer. It's pretty freaky stuff.

ZOMORODI: So, OK, let's go back to where we started, which is this need to cool more things because we're making the Earth hotter, and we need more energy to do that, which would also make the Earth even hotter - sort of a Catch-22 situation. But what is Aaswath doing? How does understanding how he could channel the heat out of something - how is that potentially a real game-changer?

BIELLO: Well, so suddenly, you have a way to cool things in the middle of the heat of the day. So you can imagine this material added to an industrial chiller, and suddenly, that industrial chiller does not have to work as hard, does not have to use as much energy because it's getting this boost from the sun itself through this material that Aaswath has discovered.

ZOMORODI: This is the question with all of these amazing ideas and projects. How feasible is this solution? Like, where are we in the process? And how big would it have to scale to actually make an impact on climate change?

BIELLO: So, you know, this is just one material and one company trying to commercialize this material. There are probably a lot of challenges along the way. That said, air conditioning, as we talked about, is a huge and growing demand for energy, for electricity. And so we need all the solutions we can get to both make air conditioners more efficient or just to provide clean electricity to run those air conditioners in the first place. So we're going to need sky cooling and everything else besides to get a handle on this cooling problem.

ZOMORODI: And I love that he was first inspired by ancient history to create this new technology.

BIELLO: That's right. And I think there are a lot of things we can learn from the past about how to take better care of our soil, take better care of our forests. You name it, there are lessons waiting for us in history. But this is a particularly cool physics lesson from history.

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ZOMORODI: Our last topic is more about the long-term thinking that we need when we consider the future of entire countries' and even continents' economies while making sure we keep climate change in mind. Like, how do we take all these solutions that we've discussed and so many others and develop resilient and humane economies going forward?

And the speaker that you've brought to us - I find her very interesting. Her name is Rose Mutiso, and she does clean energy research. And, big picture, she says the responsibility for global warming - it just has not been evenly distributed.

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ROSE MUTISO: Think about this - Californians use more electricity playing video games than the entire country of Senegal uses overall. Also, before gyms were shut down due to COVID, New Yorkers could work out in a 10-degree Celsius gym because the cold apparently burns more calories. And yet, only 3% of Nigerians have air conditioners.

BIELLO: She's really talking about energy inequality. The U.S. and China, just to name two, have benefited from burning really as much coal as desired to industrialize, to build these world-leading economies. And other countries have not found themselves in that enviable position.

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MUTISO: There's a mind-blowing gap between the energy haves and the energy have-nots. And across the globe, we have incredible energy inequality. Billions of people simply lack enough energy to build a better life, affordable, abundant and reliable energy to run their businesses without daily blackouts, to preserve their crops from rotting, to power life-saving medical equipment, to work from home and do Zoom calls with their colleagues, to run trains and factories - basically, to grow and to prosper and to access both dignity and opportunity.

ZOMORODI: And so Rose is saying, like, to have that dignity and opportunity, African countries need to have the same access to energy that every other continent has had access to.

BIELLO: That's right. Think of the amount of carbon we can put in the atmosphere as a budget. As all of humanity, we have a certain budget of carbon that we can spend. The U.S. and China have been burning through that budget kind of willy-nilly with no restrictions, and that has allowed them to develop to where we are today. Africa has not benefited from that, and so any remaining carbon budget should be allocated to them so that they can enjoy kind of similar lifestyles to those enjoyed by those of us in the United States and China.

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MUTISO: Faced with an imperative to not exploit this carbon budget, the world is looking at Africa in a completely contradictory way. On one side, it wants us to grow, to emerge from abject poverty, to build a middle class, to own cars and air conditioners and other modern amenities because, after all, Africa is the next global market. On the other side, because they're anxious to demonstrate action on climate change, rich countries in the West are increasingly restricting their funding to only renewable energy sources, effectively telling Africa and other poor nations to either develop with no carbon or to limit their development ambitions altogether.

Africa obviously needs to develop. That's non-negotiable. And I want to make the case today that Africa must be prioritized when it comes to what's left in the carbon budget. In other words, Africa must be allowed to, yes, produce more carbon in the short term so we can grow while the rich world needs to drastically cut their emissions.

ZOMORODI: And presumably, there are people who are saying, well, wait, wait, wait, wait. Two wrongs don't make a right. Just because we screwed up with the way that we built our economies doesn't mean that African economies should do the same thing and make things even worse, right?

BIELLO: That's right. And the trick there is we don't know how to do it without fossil fuels. As I mentioned a little earlier, China was, let's say, maybe our first test case of, could a country industrialize without fossil fuels? And the answer was a resounding no. India and the continent of Africa or many of the countries within Africa are next up. Can they bring economic development and real quality of life to the folks living in those countries without burning way too much coal and other fossil fuels? And if they can't, well, then shouldn't any remaining carbon budget be allocated to those countries since they haven't had a fair shot at the pie so far?

ZOMORODI: And for Rose, it really comes down to what she describes as, like, three main points.

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MUTISO: First, Africa isn't the culprit of climate change; it's the victim. Africa and its more than 1 billion people are among the most vulnerable to climate change on the planet, facing the worst impacts of extreme weather, drought and heat. And yet, if you look at the carbon footprint of the entire African continent, 48 African countries combined are responsible for less than 1% of the cumulative carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Second, Africa needs more energy to fight climate change, not less. Because of its climate vulnerability, Africa's climate fight is about adaptation and resilience. Climate adaptation is energy-intensive. To respond to extreme weather, Africans will need more resilient infrastructure. To cope with drought, Africans will need pumped irrigation for the agriculture, and many will need desalination for fresh water. And to survive soaring temperatures, Africans will need cold storage and ACs in hundreds of millions of homes, offices, factories, data centers and the like.

Third, I often hear people say because of climate, we just can't afford for everyone to live our lifestyles. That viewpoint is worse than patronizing. It's a form of racism, and it's creating a two-tier global energy system with energy abundance for the rich and tiny solar lamps for Africans.

ZOMORODI: David, I have to guess that there is some real pushback to Rose's argument.

BIELLO: There are the folks who are, I guess, absolutists when it comes to emissions. We're in this boat together, this planet together, and we need to reduce emissions. And that means everybody has to reduce emissions right now. I will point out that Kenya is probably the world's only green nation. I mean, I think it's something like 80% of its electricity comes from renewable resources, which is truly incredible when you think of a developing country and a very large country, a very large population that's trying to develop.

The truth is that many of these countries are doing more than their fair share to fight climate change and that the historic and present responsibility for our kind of climate change mess is on those of us in the developed world, whether that's those of us in the United States, in Europe, Japan, China - you know, the list of the most developed countries.

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MUTISO: We all have a collective responsibility to turn the tide on climate change. If we fail, it won't be because Senegal or Kenya or Benin or Mali decided to build a handful of natural gas power plants to provide economic opportunity for their people.

ZOMORODI: So with that in mind and thinking back on this hour and all the ideas and projects and technologies and potential solutions and some solutions that are indeed happening, we have just scratched the surface, right? What you...

BIELLO: Oh, yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...Sort of brought to us is, I'm assuming, just a little taste of a vast array of an ecosystem of people...

BIELLO: That's right.

ZOMORODI: ...Who are trying to make the change that we need.

BIELLO: That's exactly right. It is a all-hands-on-deck moment. We need to do more. We need to do it faster. So it's all about doing what you can where you can, whether that's in your personal life or your professional life or, even better, both. You need to be doing things politically, whatever that may mean in your county, state, region or country. We need to be talking about our diets and our commutes. We need to be organizing our efforts, coming together, like you and me, to make sure that we're kind of making the systemic changes we need, where we need to take care of our soil and plant trees. We need to be advocates for solutions, advocates for science, unfortunately, in some cases. And always, we need to advocate for stronger, faster action because whatever choices we make on climate change are going to determine how bad it gets. And it can always get worse. That's where the kind of 10 years is kind of a false number. The world is not going to end in 10 years, right? But it will be that much worse if we have not changed our ways. We can always start tomorrow, but it's far better to start today.

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ZOMORODI: David Biello is TED'S science curator. This episode was inspired by a massive virtual and free TED conference held a few weeks ago called Countdown. And there are dozens of talks from people around the world working to slow and stop climate change. Go and check it out at countdown.ted.com, or subscribe to the "Countdown" podcast. As always, to learn more about the people who are on this show, go to ted.npr.org.

Thank you so much for listening to this episode about building our zero-emissions future. Our TED radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Khala and Matthew Cloutier, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Farrah Safari. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helmes, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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