How Does Biomimicry Thinking Help Humanity Address Climate Change?

Climate change is forcing us to reconsider how we continue to exist on Earth without causing severe irreversible harm to the life systems that sustain us. Over the past three decades, state and non-state actors have focused on trying to find ways to reduce carbon emissions in a process of mitigation, but with those efforts yet to fully materialise, society is realising the urgency of adapting to climate impacts as well. As a problem, climate change is complex and multi-faceted, and affects almost all our modern systems. We need to rethink our use of water, how we structure agriculture, how we improve the urban environment and transport systems, as well as grasp broader issues of social justice.

In some ways, the fact that the international community has created and cooperated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is deeply impressive. However, the atmosphere is still heating, the impacts of climate change are becoming more intense, and emissions are still rising. The search for solutions is vitally urgent. One of the most promising and game changing concepts to emerge from modern systems thinking is biomimicry. Biomimicry has the potential to restructure and rebuild all our systems and processes in order to carry spaceship Earth successfully into the 22nd century- and beyond.

So, what is biomimicry?

By bringing together the Greek words; bios (life) and mī́ mēsis (imitation), biomimicry literally means the ‘imitation of life’. It stems from the realisation that nature has had 4 billion years or so to innovate and experiment in a very complex laboratory, with the process of evolution weeding out successful outcomes and leaving dead ends of the unsuccessful. Nature has managed to develop processes, products, and systems that are not polluting or wasteful, that are localised, diverse, and multi-functional. Scientists, designers, and engineers study nature’s models and emulate their forms, processes, systems and strategies to solve human problems.

Biomimicry and its uses in addressing climate change

Sequestration

For climate change, the most radical realisation regarding biomimicry is that carbon is less a pollutant and more a building block. Plants use carbon to make sugars, starches, and cellulose. Corals use carbon to build reefs, and molluscs use carbon to manufacture their shells. From this perspective, that we are producing excessive amounts of carbon is an opportunity, not a threat. Innovations have emerged that emulate the processes and functions of nature’s organisms, which sequester or recycle CO2, and can be applied to industrial processes and the built environment.

For example, observations of how abalone shells and other corals are molecularly structured have allowed scientists to develop alternatives to concrete. Through the process of “biomineralisation”, carbon from power plants may be sequestered and used to reduce emissions from the production of cement and concrete. Examples include Blue Planet’s bagged concrete and TecEco’s Eco-Cement, which both provide sustainable carbon neutral alternatives to concrete.

Another interesting project aims to create a system that cleans the air and captures CO2. The Boston Treepods from Influx Design emulate the Dragon Blood tree, in particular its large canopy that provides maximum shading and wind flow. This allows the structure to support solar panels used to power the air cleaning system and work like a lung to capture and efficiently store CO2.

Mitigation

Biomimicry thinking has made inroads into how society can reduce its carbon emissions, particularly through providing solutions that essentially redesign buildings, ideas on energy efficiency, and creative renewable technologies. Nature uses ‘free energy’, since most ecosystems exist on sunlight that has been converted by photosynthesis into biomass, wind-dispersed seed pods using air currents, or marine mammals exploiting water currents in migration[1].

Buildings use a lot of energy and are key emitters of GHG emissions. One infamous biomimicry solution that addresses the high energy use in buildings is the iconic Harare’s Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe, an office and shopping complex that uses 80-90% less energy than a typical building the same size. The building’s design was based on the termite mounds of southern Africa, where internal temperatures are stabilised despite major external temperature fluctuations, so the building uses less energy to cool. It is ventilated, cooled, and heated entirely without air conditioning or heating systems.

Several bio-technologies and systems developed aim to replace the use of fossil fuels as the primary energy source that human use in order to mitigate GHG emissions. For example, there is a focus on developing innovations that leverage natural/biological systems behind photosynthesis, which is leading to the development of energy conversion systems also referred to as artificial photosynthesis.

One great biomimicry innovation draws inspiration from sea kelp. The technology, named BioWAVE, combines a pivot mounted on the sea floor with a buoyant float (three blades), which interact with the rising and falling of the sea surface (potential energy) and the subsurface back-and-forth water movement (kinetic energy)[2]. The pivoting structure sways back and-forth in tune with the waves, and the energy contained in this motion is converted to electricity.

Adaptation

So far, it is less common for biomimicry-inspired technologies to focus on adaptation to climate impacts. However, nature-based solutions, using nature in situ to insulate against worst effects of climate change, is being incorporated into policy measures that address flooding, drought, and wildfires. The restoration of mangrove swamps and wetlands works to buffer settlements from climate impacts, and mimicking a fire-adapted forest (thick bark, spaced out trees, low shrubbery) can aid in reducing the impacts of wildfires.

 

In summary, biomimicry thinking can lead to some major advancements in how we address climate change. This report outlined only a few examples, there are a great many more (nine more can be found here). To do its bit, the Biomimicry Institute accelerates the pace of finding solutions by putting on the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. The challenge focuses primarily on new innovations that aid society in mitigating or adapting to climate change or sequester carbon. The winner this year was an ingenious concept that arguably does all three, by mimicking leaf litter on the forest floor that protects seedlings in order to increase forest cover in remote areas. It’s brilliant thinking like this we need more of, and to achieve this biomimicry needs to be incorporated into biology, design, architecture, engineering, and policy making.

 

by Dr Belinda McFadgen, Biomimicry Oregon.


[1] Aanuoluwapo, O. O., & Ohis, A. C. (2017). Biomimetic strategies for climate change mitigation in the built environment. Energy Procedia105, 3868-3875.

[2] Ibid.

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