Jun 7th 2018

Can technology save the world?

pollution

Green tech, eco-friendly, sustainability. These are concepts that most of us are familiar with, and were amongst those highlighted by the UN’s World Environment Day this week. The event was also a reminder that many of the environmental problems we face are of our own making, and a consequence of the technological and industrial advancement our species has long championed.

In my last blog, I looked at how technology can be life-affirming. Today, I’m going to look at how tech can be leveraged in a similarly positive fashion, with developers and big business striving to reverse the damage we’re doing to our world.

It’s not going to be easy. Pollution, industrialisation, urbanisation and consumption are driving the degradation of our planet and changes to our climate – facts we cannot (sanely) deny. Technology plays a part too. The damage being caused by pollution, industrialisation, urbanisation and consumption has arguably only been made possible by technological advancement – and our desire for more, quicker, at a lower cost, on a global scale. But, perhaps the tide is beginning to turn: a growing, collective awareness and piling evidence are causing more of us to take responsibility, and to act. And it’s here too that tech can play its part.

According to research from Cambridge University, clean energy technologies are now developing so rapidly that the fossil fuel or ‘polluting assets’ industries will become worthless. Green tech, according to the researchers, is primed to burst the ‘carbon bubble.’

In China, where fossil fuel carbon emissions far outstrip those produced in other regions, focus has started to shift towards promoting green development and clean energy through wind and solar power. In 2017, the country installed 19.7GW of wind power capacity, more than double that of any other market. So, just as the nation led the way in high-output high-pollution manufacturing and production, it could soon assume a pioneering role in renewables technology.

Meanwhile, in the North Pacific Ocean, the Canadian Government, along with two of the world’s biggest aluminium producers, Alcoa and Rio Tinto, hailed a ‘breakthrough’ technology that will remove carbon dioxide from the smelting process. The technology will slash carbon emissions from aluminium production, one of the world’s most common materials, used to make cars, construction materials, industrial machinery, electrical products, drinks cans and foil packaging.

From confident claims to innovative experiments: closer to home in Scotland, Microsoft this week announced that it’s been working to develop self-sufficient underwater data centres, one of which had been sunk off the coast of Orkney Island. It is hoped that the model will create a “environmentally sustainable” solution to energy-intensive data storage. Powered by tidal turbines and wave energy converters, the data centre is as powerful as several thousand high-end consumer PCs, but uses minimal energy as it’s naturally cooled by the ocean.

Across the channel in the Netherlands, The Ocean Cleanup Group has developed technology that it estimates will remove half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years. These ‘garbage patches’ have become a stark visual symbol of our excessive consumption, and, thanks to media coverage and efforts by NGOs a reminder that we can no longer take an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach.

And its not difficult to do. Consumers can use that ubiquitous, always-on piece of tech – the smartphone – to learn about what’s happening on our planet. And then the harder part – make like the green innovators, and act on it!