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Can technology save the climate?

Is technology our best chance for a habitable climate?

An urgent need for change

This article will not discuss whether or not climate change is affected by mankind. It is an indisputable fact that our evolution into highly advanced civilisations with mass industries and agricultural exploitation of nature is causing a planetary destabilization. Climate change is not just about temperatures rising, poles melting and increased sea levels. In a matter of centuries, we have exploited our natural infrastructure to such a degree that we have modified the Earth’s surface by 40%.

In the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Risk Report ecological collapse and biodiversity loss are listed in the top 10 risks in terms of impact. It is crucial to understand that nature works as a highly complex and intertwined ecosystem that has its own fine-tuned equilibrium. We only represent 0,01% of all life on the planet, yet our impact has caused the loss of half of the world’s plants and 83% of all wild animals. This impact on ecosystems is having catastrophic effects. It is disturbing nature’s own equilibrium and resilience. The foundation of human life; the air we breath, the water we drink and the food we eat are jeopardized when we diminish biological diversity.

Some believe that future wars will be fought over water: “It’s been argued that drought was a key driver of the revolution in Syria, and as climate change really kicks in it could render countries such as Sudan inhabitable” (TechRadar). Would Europe be able to handle a mass immigration of climate refugees?

We need to find new ways to produce and consume that are sustainable. We need an economic development with respect for ecological boundaries. An example is the Danish toymaker LEGO whom has started to produce their products of sugarcane plastic. LEGO plans by 2030 to produce all their products in environmentally friendly materials and from recycled sources. Fortunately, a global recognition of the dire need for change is on the rise.

Will technology be the answer to the greatest challenge in human history? We will now explore some of the promising technological advancements that may turn the tide.

The Internet of Things (IOT) & Smart Cities

The Internet of Things is about connecting objects through embedded sensor technologies that collect and share data. The data is then used to perform autonomous decisions on real-time information. A transformation that is well underway has been coined the ‘smart’ revolution. We all have smartphones, and in the not so distant future we will all have smart cars, smart houses and live in smart cities. This revolution is powered by IoT.

“The study of animal populations, species migration patterns, fossil fuel emissions and the clean energy revolution, human impacts, soil qualities – all have data generation and analysis at their core”(WWF). IoT-technology can greatly improve our capabilities to gather and analyse big data on these central climate parameters. So how can this aid us in our quest to save the climate? Smart cities. Imagine that every object in a city, e.g. street lights, solar panels, trash bins, cars, buildings and so on are interconnected. Barcelona is one of the world’s leading smart cities. With ‘big data’ they are improving the overall sustainability and liveability of the city. In 2014 the city estimated an annual savings of over US$ 37 million from intelligent street lighting alone.

Smart cities would make it possible for city planners and policy makers to make more intelligent and informed decisions. Why is the smart, sustainable and energy efficient city so important? By 2050 it is expected that 66% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. That means that the footprints of humanity will be highly concentrated and especially in coastal areas, which is already resulting in major stresses to our energy, waste and water systems. You can also read our article about a specific smart city project here.

Virtual and augmented realities

An important part of the climate intervention is to engage civil communities and individuals in the battle for our planet’s safety. What is more inspiring than a well told story? Enter virtual and augmented realities. VR and AR technology will become extremely advanced and common within the next decade. A lot of organisations are already putting it to use. The Economist hosted an event at the Sydney Opera House, where people would experience an animated underwater film about overfishing. In this film they would see it from the perspective of the fish, fisherman and policy makers to better empathise and comprehend the issues of overfishing.

“The ability of the technology to enhance the learning experience by engaging with the user’s emotions can be utilised by conservation organisations to educate the public on current environmental issues” (WWF).

Blockchain & energy trade

Blockchain technology could make peer-to-peer trading of electricity a game changer. Blockchain is a kind of digital trading, where every transaction is secure, transparent and traceable. There is no need for a ‘middle man’ and everyone in the blockchain owns a copy of the ‘digital ledger’. Let’s take Australia as an example. Between 2007 and 2017, the amount of rooftop solar installations increased from approx. 4.600 households to over 1.6 million. As clean energy technology develops there is an emergent number of prosumers– that is, electricity end-users who manage their own energy generation and consumption e.g. a household powered by solar panels. Blockchain could provide the means for trade of electricity between neighbours. A surplus of generated electricity could be assigned to a crypto-currency that could be sold to a neighbour at a price set by the owner.

In large centralized energy networks, where electricity is sent along high-voltage transmission lines from large generators located in rural areas to end-users through lower-voltage distribution networks, there is a huge loss of energy. A decentralized energy network as described above would greatly reduce the amount of energy lost during transmission. And of course, in order to win the battle for a habitable climate the greater clean energy industries like wind turbines, hydropower and photovoltaics (solar panels) needs to become an even more viable solution for energy provision.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning

We can’t talk about how technology could possibly save the climate without mentioning AI and machine learning. As of today, it is involved in almost every technological progress. In general, AI and machine learning will enable us to collect and analyse ‘big data’, when we address challenges in regards to our climate. When talking about agricultural-, food- and ocean technologies that are absolutely vital in restoring the natural infrastructure and securing biodiversity, AI plays a key role.

The use of multiple wireless devices distributed throughout a farm is known as ‘smart farming’ or ‘precision agriculture’. These devices gather real-time data on the health of the soil, air, animals and crops. All of this information is transmitted to web-based interfaces and is analysed using big data techniques to boost farm efficiency and reduce impact.” (WWF)

We also becoming better at tracking changes in oceans. An example would be oyster farms that are being retrofitted with biosensors which record the heartbeats and metabolism of the oysters. Also, environmental sensors are installed to measure the water’s salinity, acidity, temperature and much more. Data is then collected to develop management models for the farms and optimise oyster production. Another example would be hyperspectral imagery of landscapes that provides information on various chemical and geological parameters and biological processes in both terrestrial and aquatic systems. This is helping us to conserve and maintain healthy habitats and protect the life they harbour.

Hope for the future?

There are of course a lot of other significant technological advancements that are critical to our quest for survival. Carbon-capture technologies are expected to be one third of the global climate 2030 solution. There is definitely hope that we may battle climate change with technology, but we need to develop it with respect for nature’s delicate organisation of life.

“And we must stop seeing biodiversity as a victim to be saved by technology and start seeing it for what it really is: our most valuable resource – one that nurtures, inspires, heals, and accompanies us throughout our lifetime across generations. Can technology save life on Earth? Only in partnership with biodiversity” (World Economic Forum)

Want to know more?

Digi-Talks is hosting an event called “Can technology save the climate?”; view the details here.

You can read more articles here.

Sources: Can technology save life on Earth? (World Economic Forum)Will technology save the world? (TechRadar)Can technology save the planet? (WWF)

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