The role of technology in tackling climate change

As life reminds us daily, the power of technology is truly limitless. Ever since the industrial revolution began in the mid-19th century, our lives have continued to be enriched by a constant state of technological evolution, which have helped transform how we live, almost invariably for the better.

It’s tough to imagine our lives today without technology, so dependent are we on our devices to run almost every aspect of our lives, from managing our finances, maintaining our health, making sure we’re informed and keeping us safe.

While the development of ‘smart’ technologies has had a significant impact on the micro level in our personal lives, technological advancements have also had a monumental impact at the macro level around the world, and nowhere has this been more evident than in healthcare, with the invention of vaccines; from Polio to TB and presently, the Covid-19 vaccines, helping to eradicate and contain viruses that were decimating communities. However, this has not come without consequences. The resulting exponential population growth and increasing strain on natural resources has brought about the challenge of climate change.

It isn’t hard to see the extent to which climate change impacts our lives. From the record-breaking wildfires in Australia in early 2020, to the floods in South Asia and the droughts in East Africa, the world is literally crying out for help. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report made the starkest warning yet that we are getting dangerously close to the point of no return. Speaking after the it was published, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity” going so far as to say: “the alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.”

While technology helps make our lives easier in the short term, it is also having a long-term impact on the environment that will be felt for generations to come. However, these same technologies can also be used for good, allowing us not only to measure our impact on the environment, but also create innovative solutions to combat the issues. It stands to reason, that if our actions are driving us seemingly to the brink, then we can also develop new technologies that will help us lessen our dependency on fossil fuels.

Many such solutions already exist today. Of course, the development of renewable energy, in the form of solar, wind and hydropower, plays a big role in helping to cut greenhouse gas emissions. If effectively deployed at scale, renewables have the power to lead even the most polluting countries to become carbon neutral by 2050. However, to undo and reverse the environmental and ecological damage of the last century, we need to do more, and it’s not going to happen overnight.

While technology has come leaps and bounds in the past 50 years, it has been more than 150 years since the invention of the first combustion engine, the hybrid engine has only recently become mainstream in the past two decades and we have only just started to tap into the potential of electric cars. In order to really harness change and speed up development, we need to look to the world around us, using what is already at our disposal to help face the issues head-on.

In April 2020, researchers from Lancaster University published research that suggests our over-reliance on new technologies, is actually enabling continued delay rather than offering solutions. Speaking about the report, Duncan McLaren and Nils Markusson from Lancaster University’s Environment Centre said: “such promises have raised expectations of more effective policy options becoming available in the future, and thereby enabled a continued politics of prevarication and inadequate action.”

While we should of course pursue technological advancement, placing our hopes solely in yet more new technologies that have yet to be borne isn’t our best bet, rather instead, we ought to focus efforts on genuine social, cultural and political transformation to make use of the resources around us to affect real-time responses and resolutions to climate change.

How best we mitigate the challenge of climate change is of course, a heavily contested topic, and the merits of renewables, nuclear and other energy sources are often pitted against each other, but there is one truth that is universally agreed; nature is the biggest tool at our disposal, from forestry and agriculture and the tides to the mountains, we have the resources to leverage what have been termed ‘nature based solutions’.

An example of this, can be seen in Singapore, who earlier this month unveiled some of its recent innovations in solar power: floating solar panel farms installed on hydroelectric dams in the island’s surrounding waters that help create energy in the dark. Spanning the space of over 45 American football fields, this floating solar farm harvests enough electricity to power all five of the island’s water treatment plants. Additionally, due to the cooling effect of water, the panels are expected to perform between 5% to 15% better than their land alternatives.

According to the World bank, floating solar has the potential the reach a terawatt scale. This creative innovation provides solar production in land-scarce regions, such as Southeast Asia, allowing developing countries to strengthen their green credentials while leading the way for other countries.

Beyond replacing fossil fuels with cleaner energy alternatives, recent technological advancements aim to remove the existing greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere.

Certain industries need more focus than others. Construction is one such example, causing environmental and ecological damage through deforestation and land grabs, as well as being one of the top polluting industries through its operations. If cement were a country, it would rank number three in emissions. Here’s where ‘Green Cement’ comes in, a new technologically advanced cement that is fired at lower temperatures, which itself cuts emissions by a third. The concrete is then cured using CO2 gas, locking it in the rock, creating carbon reductions of 70 percent.

Known as carbon capturing, projects such as this aim to capture, reutilize, and store carbon. Currently, there are 21 large-scale carbon capture commercial projects across the globe, with each of them utilizing different techniques to capture and make further use of the gas.

The Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University has been exploring other technologies to help address the issue. One idea includes refreezing the North and South poles by spraying tiny particles of salt into the clouds above, effectively brightening them so they can better reflect radiation back into space and out of earth’s atmosphere.

While these solutions can help large corporations and governments combat climate change, realistically, the single most effective technological solutions to climate change are green alternatives that reduce the average person’s overall energy consumption on an individual scale, starting with making our homes more energy efficient.

The recent improvements in household appliances and their energy efficiency have been found to significantly reduce our carbon footprint. In the EU, buildings, including residential homes, account for 35% of the region’s carbon dioxide emissions. While purchasing energy-efficient appliances and adopting a cleaner way of living may seem like a small change with minimal impact, over even just a short period of time, it really does add up. As these ‘smart’ devices continue to upgrade to newer technologies, and start to roll-out across more geographies, we’ll start to see a measurable environmental difference.

The ‘digital age’ has witnessed great feats of technological progress. As our generation is endowed with an unprecedented amount of knowledge, power and capability than at any other time in history, we are tasked with making the most of it to better our world for future generations. By recognizing the role that technology can play in the fight against climate change, we can realize that civilization is not just part of the problem, but also the solution.

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