Support Provided ByLearn More
Tech + EngineeringTech & Engineering

Clever Climate Tech at Paris Talks Could Help Trim Emissions

ByManon VerchotNOVA NextNOVA Next

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

LE BOURGET, FRANCE—Last week, as delegates from more than 190 countries worked successfully toward an agreement that would limit global warming to 2˚ C, enterprising companies put forth their own solutions for reducing carbon emissions. In the vast Air and Space Museum here in Le Bourget, the site of the Conference of Parties organized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the companies were vying for the attention among the more than 45,000 people who travelled to Paris to attend the conference.

In the final days of the conference, world leaders reiterated their belief that technology will be the key to achieving necessary greenhouse gas emissions reductions and curb global warming. “Many of us here know that it won’t be governments that actually make the decision or find the product, the new technology, the saving grace of this challenge,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said shortly after the agreement was approved. “It will be the genius of the American spirit. It will be business unleashed because of 186 nations saying to global business in one loud voice: We need to move in this direction. And that will move investment. That will create new, greater research and development, and the next great product will come that will change our lives.”

Support Provided ByLearn More

Countries like France and India have pledged to invest in solar power and share information on renewable energy technologies. The United States also has upheld technology as an essential tool for addressing climate change. “If we put the right rules and incentives in place, we’ll unleash the creative power of our best scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs to deploy clean energy technologies and the new jobs and new opportunities that they create all around the world,” President Barack Obama said at the opening of the conference.

Less than a mile from where the delegates are pulling all-nighters to hammer out a historic climate agreement, the businesses displayed their best efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or, in some cases, to replace fossil fuels outright. Here’s a look at a few technologies on display in Le Bourget:

“Living” Pavements

In concrete jungles like New York City, tarmac and pavement trap heat on hot summer days. But pavement with air holes, like the one developed by JW Pavement, can have a cooling effect.

A JW Pavement employee explains their absorbent tarmac.

The pavement also acts as a carbon absorber by taking in car fumes. Microorganisms living in a soil layer below the pavement then metabolize the carbon dioxide so the pavement can keep absorbing fumes. As an added bonus, the pavement also filters rainwater, making groundwater cleaner and putting less pressure on sewage systems.

Small Nuclear Reactors

While some in the United States are hesitant to use nuclear power, France derives 75% of its electricity from nuclear plants. American-based company NuScale Power is working on a safer, smaller nuclear reactor to shift the country’s energy sources in nuclear’s favor.

Part of the recent hesitancy toward nuclear stems from the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, where after being flooded by a tsunami, the reactors melted down, releasing radiation. NuScale’s design, which is more than 160 times smaller than a normal nuclear reactor, is easier to cool. And because the design is small, it can be produced in factories. Power companies don’t need to build the infrastructure to house these smaller reactors, they can use existing power plants.

Mini Water Turbines

Around 1.6 billion people worldwide live without electricity , but countries like India hope to change that. As they look for alternatives to fossil fuels, hydropower has emerged as a renewable energy source. But it’s not a foolproof solution—hydroelectric dams can restrict water supplies downstream and disrupt river ecosystems.

Smaller turbines, like the one proposed by French company Eco.Cinetic could provide energy for small villages near rivers. The model, which is already in five locations in France, and the company says it doesn’t harm river ecosystems.

Water turbines are an effective, alternative way of giving people in rural areas access to electricity without destroying river ecosystems and without increasing reliance on fossil fuel-powered electricity, said Frédéric Mourier, technical director of the company.

Carbon Capturing Car

It may look like any other car, but hidden under the trunk of a sedan is a complex carbon capturing system. The car, developed by oil and gas company Saudi Aramco, stores carbon from the exhaust emitted and dramatically reduces emissions from the engine.

The trunk of this prototype is occupied by a carbon capture system.

Vehicles produce 14% of total global emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With more than 1 billion motor vehicles around the world, carbon storing technology like this could have a significant impact on air pollution. Currently, cars can be retrofitted to filter out some of the pollutants from their exhaust pipes, but they still release CO 2 emissions.

Aramco’s car isn’t ready for widespread production yet, but a company spokesperson said it was looking into partnerships with other companies to make the project a reality.

Lighter Airplane Seats

Airplanes can weigh several hundred tons, a portion of which comes from simple comforts like cushioned seats. The aviation industry is responsible for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions, which is why airlines have been working on strategies to make their planes lighter.

Hans Vander Velpen displays a prototype that's lighter than existing airplane seats.

The Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), a chemical, fertilizer, plastic and metal manufacturing company, uses 3-D printers to make their lightweight plane seats.

“Every kilogram that you [remove] from an airplane renders 100 tons of fuel during its lifetime,” said Hans Vander Velpen, a sustainability analyst with SABIC. “Every mile that you take away that extra kilogram, you [emit] less CO 2 .”

Since airplanes are the most fuel intensive form of transportation, lighter aircraft could help cut emissions significantly. The seats don’t cost any more than those currently available, and the company is working with Boeing to commercialize the product.

This story is part of the series “ Climate of Hope ” produced by a team of reporting fellows for The GroundTruth Project with support from the JMB Charitable Fund.

Photo credits: Camilla Andersen