Breakthroughs: Notes from Session 4 of the Countdown Global Launch

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Countdown is a global initiative to accelerate solutions to the climate crisis. Watch the talks, interviews and performances from the Countdown Global Launch at

Digital content creator Prajakta Koli, aka MostlySane, cohosts session 4 of the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

The world around us is mainly made of two things: nature and the materials that we extract from it. To fight climate change, we need to protect and regenerate nature and transform materials into low- or zero-carbon alternatives. Session 4 explored the nexus of protection, regeneration and transformation, using powerful examples.

This penultimate session was hosted by digital content creators Hannah Stocking and Prajakta Koli, who highlighted the global span of Countdown and the innovative climate solutions already in existence. The session also featured a TED-Ed Lesson, created by educator Brent Loken, which asked: Can we create the “perfect” farm? And finally, we heard from TEDx organizers across the globe — including Kampala, Uganda; Putalisadak, Nepal; Almaty, Khazikstan; Darlinghurst, Australia; Rome, Italy; and Sana’a, Yemen, among others — who are hosting TEDx Countdown events today. In total, more than 600 TEDx Countdown events are happening across 86 countries.

Creator Hannah Stocking cohosts session 4 of the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

The talks in brief:

Thomas Crowther, ecosystem ecology professor

Big Idea: Across the world, people are working together to restore the natural glory of biodiverse ecosystems. By gathering and openly sharing these projects, we can unite a robust movement of responsible environmental stewardship and restoration.

How? Restor is a data platform that aims to connect and share the learnings of environmental conservationists who are developing micro- or macro-level projects that reintroduce biodiversity to essential landscapes worldwide. It evolved from another climate change solution — the Trillion Trees movement, which Thomas Crowther helped bring to the mainstream. Research showed that planting a trillion trees worldwide could help capture up to 30 percent of the excess carbon in the atmosphere; however, following criticism that the Trillion Trees movement sought to simply offset carbon emissions, Crowther realized that solving the climate crisis is going to take more than planting trees. We need solutions as diverse as our ecosystems themselves. With Restor, conservationists can learn about key biodiversity restoration projects from around the world, and with machine learning, we can glean insights that will help us develop more resilient and effective solutions.

“We can’t fight the climate emergency if we cannot protect and regenerate our land,” says climate and gender activist Ernestine Leikeki Sevidzem. She speaks at the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Ernestine Leikeki Sevidzem, climate and gender activist

Big idea: We need to care for and live in harmony with the environment.

How? By nurturing a generation — young and old — to protect the nature that provides for them: a forest generation, as Sevidzem calls it. In her native Cameroon, she teaches her community a nature-first dedication to restoring the 20,000-hectare Kilum-Ijim forest that sustains and supplies livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people. Her organization also helps develop gender equality by training people as beekeepers to harness the economic opportunities present in harvesting and selling products from honey and beeswax. In educating both children and adults on what it means to love and preserve the Earth, Sevidzem stands by the need for all of us to foster generations that will inherit a mindset that works with nature, not against it. “We can’t fight the climate emergency if we can’t protect and regenerate our land,” she says.

John Doerr, engineer and investor, in conversation with Hal Harvey, climate policy expert

Big idea: Humanity has to act globally, at speed and at scale, if there’s any hope of cutting the world’s carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030. 

How? While it’s difficult to remain optimistic in the face of ever-increasing carbon production, countries like Germany and China have implemented energy policies that have reduced solar costs by 80 percent and wind by half. As a result, it’s now cheaper to generate clean energy than it is to burn dirty fossil fuels. If the 20 largest-emitting countries — which are responsible for 75 percent of the world’s emissions — commit to green grids, electric transportation and efficient homes and factories, then scalable energy solutions could become a global reality. Although Doerr estimates that we only have 70-80 percent of the energy technology we need to avoid climate catastrophe, he and Harvey believe that committed governments and investment in amazing entrepreneurs could turn things around. “The good news is it’s now clearly cheaper to save the planet than to ruin it,” Doerr says. “The bad news is we are fast running out of time.”

Cement researcher Karen Scrivener shares a breakthrough that could lower concrete’s CO2 emissions by 40 percent. She speaks at the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Karen Scrivener, cement researcher

Big idea: We can cut down the CO2 emissions of concrete — the second most-used substance on Earth (behind water), responsible for eight percent of the world’s carbon footprint.

How? If concrete were a country, it would rank third for emissions, after China and the USA, says Karen Scrivener, who is working on new, greener ways to make this crucial building material. When concrete cools after it’s mixed, the limestone that helps hold it together breaks down, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And while we can’t make concrete without a bonding material, it’s possible we could replace concrete with things like LC3 — a concrete-like mixture of calcine clay, limestone and cement that doesn’t require heating the limestone, slashing concrete’s carbon emissions by 40 percent. Despite its enormous emissions, concrete is still the lowest-impact building material we have, emitting less carbon than iron, steel or bricks. “The possibility to replace portland cement with a different material with [the] same properties … but with a much lighter carbon footprint, is really crucial to confront climate change,” Scrivener says. “It can be done fast, and it can be done on a very large scale, with the possibility to eliminate more that 400 million tons of CO2 every year.”

Tom Schuler, cement entrepreneur

Big idea: Over the last 2,000 years, the art of mixing cement and using it to bind concrete hasn’t changed very much — but the sad truth is that concrete, which is all around us, is one of the biggest emitters of carbon, both when it’s made and when it’s destroyed. But there’s an opportunity to take the carbon out of our infrastructure.

How? One of the key ingredients of concrete is cement, and portland cement is made of limestone — which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when it breaks down as it is heated and cured (or destroyed). Tom Schuler’s company has figured out a way to use less limestone in making cement — and even repurpose waste carbon dioxide as a catalyst for curing concrete. This innovation could potentially save trillions of gallons of water, use existing processes and factories, and even make concrete carbon negative, cutting emissions from concrete by as much as 70 percent.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion and Zelalem Adefris, climate activists, in a video narrated by actor, author and director Don Cheadle

Big idea: Under-resourced communities are the most vulnerable to the instability of climate change — and the best equipped to create new, sustainable, resilient solutions for those challenges.

How? The rising threats of natural disasters, extreme temperatures and polluted environments are driving up energy costs and exacerbating housing insecurity across the United States. In response, marginalized communities across the country are coming together to design people-powered projects that address the issues of climate catastrophe and social inequality. These problems are all connected, and the solutions will be too, says Don Cheadle, introducing social and climate justice advocates Rahwa Ghirmatzion and Zelalem Adefris. In Buffalo, New York, Ghirmatzion shows how the nonprofit PUSH Buffalo mobilized 800 residents to transform an abandoned school into a solar-powered community center, offering affordable housing units to the elderly and mutual aid resources throughout the pandemic. And at Catalyst Miami in Florida, Adefris shares how she’s helping to build a coalition of local partners working to ensure housing is affordable and energy-efficient. One collective, Konscious Kontractors, formed in 2017 to help restore and fortify neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Irma. To mitigate the impacts of the changing climate, we will need to work alongside our neighbors in our communities to create solutions that are inclusive, innovative and long-lasting.

From under the boughs of an ancient oak tree on the grounds of Windsor Castle, Prince William calls for an Earthshot to repair the planet. He speaks at the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge

Big idea: Fixing climate change is possible if we urgently focus human ingenuity and purpose on repairing our planet.

How: Speaking from beneath a nearly 1,000-year-old oak tree on the grounds at Windsor Castle, Prince William issues a challenge to every person around the globe: to show leadership on climate change. With just 10 years to fix the climate before its effects damage the Earth beyond repair, he calls this new decade the most consequential period in history, saying, “The science is irrefutable. If we do not act in this decade, the damage that we have done will be irreversible. And the effects felt not just by future generations but by all of us alive today.” But the same speed of human innovation that accelerated climate change is precisely what makes him optimistic about our future. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s audacious “Moonshot” mission, Prince William now calls on us to rise to our greatest challenge ever: the Earthshot. A set of ambitious goals targeted across industries and sectors, they include: protecting and restoring nature, cleaning the air, reviving oceans, building a waste-free world and fixing the climate … all in the next decade. To do it, we will need people in every corner of the globe working together with urgency, creativity and the belief that it is possible. If we succeed, we win the health of our planet for all. Watch the full talk on

Sigrid performs “Home to You” and “Don’t Kill My Vibe” at the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED

Norwegian singer-songwriter Sigrid, standing in front of a stunning view of a forest lake, delights with uplifting vocals, warm guitar strums and delicate melodies in a performance of her songs “Home to You” and “Don’t Kill My Vibe.”