4 brilliant climate innovations from abroad that the U.S. needs to adopt right now

Countries like Thailand and Italy have some genius ideas we need to steal ASAP.

Illustration by Dewey Saunders
A Green New World
Originally Published: 

America likes to fancy itself a leader in technology and innovation. But its inability to take the lead on climate change — the result of heavy lobbying efforts by fossil fuel organizations, regressive conservative politicians, and feet-dragging liberals unwilling to take more than half steps — has not only left us in the midst of a climate catastrophe, but also upended our self-image as a world leader when it comes to invention and ingenuity.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other smart kids in the class, and we can cheat off their papers in order to catch up. Here are some of the most creative climate innovations currently in use in other countries — and which, if we can muster the political will, we should implement here too.

Vertical forests

Two residential towers in the heart of Milan, Italy, have a view of the forest. How is that possible? Because the forest is right outside their windows. The Bosco Verticale, built in 2014, is a unique combination of urbanization and nature preservation, with more than 900 trees and thousands of plants that have been given a home on balconies across the outside of the buildings. While it has been held up as a feat of engineering and treated as a piece of art, the vertical forest is also a surprisingly effective tool for mitigating the environmental impact of urban construction.

To understand how vertical forests help, it’s first important to know the problem that cities can cause. Cities are basically magnifying glasses for the sun. Concrete and cement absorb heat, and the lack of trees and green spaces makes it hard to deflect that sunlight. That makes cities hotter while also making it harder to sequester the carbon emissions that result in worse air quality and ultimately more warming.

The Bosco Verticale as seen on June 17, 2021, in Milan, Italy.

Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

Metropolises like Milan are often growing, and large parks and other green spaces get upended in order to expand the concrete jungle. So if you can’t keep those nature reserves in place, why not just surround the buildings with them? The result is impressive mitigation of some of the worst impacts of urbanization. The trees and plants help to absorb carbon emissions, as well as provide shade from the heat that keeps the area from turning into an urban heat island.

The World Green Building Council notes that the vertical gardens serve as a buffer from air pollution and offer a natural cooling effect throughout the building. A study found that trees help to reduce the carbon footprint of the building by 7.5% annually, and the thoughtfully curated plants have provided newfound biodiversity that helps birds and other wildlife thrive. We can make our buildings beautifully designed and good for the planet at the same time.

Leaf wrappers

We make so much waste in the U.S., and most of it is just from containing other stuff. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we’re filling landfills with more than 82.2 million tons of containers and packaging every year, which makes up nearly 30% of total waste. This isn’t just a U.S. problem, either; the United Nations estimates that human will be dumping more than 12 billion metric tons of packaging into landfills by 2050. There is little sign of this stopping, and because our recycling programs are also incredibly broken, even the ability to repurpose some of this waste seems out of reach.

A street vendor in Thailand using banana leaves to make bowls on Jan. 15, 2022.

Photo by Matt Hunt/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In Thailand, they’ve managed to figure out an option for mitigating at least some of the major packaging waste problems: leaves. Instead of using the standard plastic shrink wrap or bags to bundle bulk items together, grocery stores have started to use banana leaves and bamboo. It’s a pretty simple solution, and one that has been used elsewhere for a number of other purposes; according to Forbes, people in Mexico have tapped banana leaves to wrap tamales, and Hawaiians have used the material to cover pig roasts.

Ditching plastic wrappers in favor of the leaves is a creative solution to a major problem. The natural packaging option works in Thailand because the material is readily available there, and it significantly cuts down on the need for single-use plastic that really serves no purpose other than to cover up a product. Banana leaves are also completely biodegradable, so there is no need to worry about them taking up space at landfills or destroying the planet as they slowly erode. Packaging is meant to be discarded basically immediately. There is no need for it to have any environmental impact, and banana leaves ensure that it doesn’t.

Bullet trains

You have assuredly seen the memes about the cross-country rail system that Gen Zers dream about. Leftists only want one thing and it’s disgusting: efficient, affordable, and accessible transportation across the country.

High-speed rail has been on the minds of people who are interested both in public transportation and emissions reductions for decades, and we simply cannot seem to pull it off. Why? Well, it has a steep upstart cost and requires a significant amount of new infrastructure that we can’t seem to muster the public support to actually stick with. Every decade or so, we toy with the idea of rapidly expanding high-speed rail, like President Barack Obama did in 2009, and then we fail to actually follow through. President Biden’s biggest win thus far is a bipartisan infrastructure package, and it barely moves the needle on expanding high-speed rail — and Biden loves trains!

So we’re stuck looking on with envy at places like South Korea. While in the U.S. we’re debating what half-measures we can pass, South Korea is straight up ditching diesel trains and replacing them with bullet trains that won’t just improve transportation speed but will also cut railway carbon emissions by 30%. The country is planning to finish the transition in full before 2030 as part of a larger plan to achieve carbon neutral status by 2050. They just decided to do it, and now it’s actually happening. Can you imagine?

A KTX bullet train as seen in South Korea on Feb. 13, 2018.

Photo by Allsport Co./Getty Images

If we could actually pull off this type of ambitious overhaul of our rail transportation in the U.S., it wouldn’t just cut down on emissions from train travel — it’d help to eliminate unnecessary air travel, too. Earlier this year, France announced it would ban domestic flights where rail alternatives already exist in order to cut back on emissions. We could do the same, if only we actually had the bullet trains in place to support it.

Actual punishment for polluters

We can implement strict environmental regulations and push companies to clean up their act — and we absolutely should. But it’s hard to make real progress without forceful punishments in place for the corporations that violate those rules.

When BP poured 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf Coast of Mexico, it caused $17.2 billion in environmental damage and irreparably wrecked the ecosystem. No one went to jail. That is not an exception to the rule. Corporations have repeatedly failed to disclose environmental hazards that have destroyed wildlife and communities alike, and no one has face any significant criminal punishment for it.

Here’s a novel idea that we can borrow from China: Arrest executives for their crimes against the planet. Earlier this year, China tossed 47 corporate suits from steel companies behind bars for ignoring environmental regulations and faking emissions data. They’ll serve between six and 18 months for their attempts to flout the rules and forge their records — and the companies got hit with fines, to boot.

And you know what? Good. When companies get hit with fines, they often find ways to mitigate the pain that those punishments are intended to cause by passing the penalty on to consumers. They just charge more for products and services and, more often than not, end up coming out ahead. You’ll notice that BP not only still exists, but is in fact more profitable than it’s been in years. Companies can't pass the punishment of jail time onto anyone.. Maybe it’s even worth taking penalties a step further: If your corporation can’t stop destroying the planet, you should cease existing altogether.