Will Technology Really Help Stave Off Climate Change?

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This week saw the world’s leaders deliberate on climate change and the speed at which we are hurtling towards a future tainted by its clearly unavoidable impacts. It was the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, held at United Nations Headquarters in New York in an effort to advance global climate action for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At the Summit, which attracted negative feedback from the media, environmentalists and advocacy groups around the world since day one of proceedings: U.S. and Brazil didn’t bother to show up, China and India largely re-stated existing goals, and commitments from other big emitters fell short of that necessary to hit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target of limiting global warming from rising by more than 1.5 degrees above pre industrial levels. 

At the conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck a chord with the audience, urging people to maintain faith that future technology will be able to help stave off climate change. Her view was shared by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who gave a speech in which he argued that “new advances (in technology) are making renewable energy ever cheaper, aiding our common struggle against climate change.”

Are any of these life-and-climate-changing technologies already in existence? If so, why haven’t they saved us yet? Perhaps more importantly, exactly what kinds of technologies are Merkel and Johnson anticipating will help dig us out of the colossal hole in which we have found ourselves?

Perhaps they refer to artificial intelligence (AI) – a tool that is not only playing a growing role in our everyday lives, but could also become a critical factor in helping to save the planet. Microsoft’s five-year, $50 million AI for Earth program awards grants to researchers and innovators trying to solve the world’s greatest environmental challenges using AI to maximize their potential. Researchers supported by dedicated development teams around the world are using the technology to explore untapped parts of the earth, places otherwise too dangerous or difficult to explore. Polar scientist Joseph Cook, for example, is using Al to analyze satellite data for mapping changing ice surfaces over the cryosphere over time, to determine their melting rate.

GPS technology has similarly been hailed a potential game-changer for global greenhouse gas emissions. By using data gained from GPS mapping systems, vehicle fleet operators can make their operations more efficient, reduce unnecessary idling and streamline their journeys and business practises. This is significant, because the transportation sector is responsible for roughly 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, the most important contributor of climate change. 

Solar technology has also been developed for use for many years now, but it is only now that people – and business – are truly harnessing the technology for its value and potential. 

While solar power plants are capital-intensive ventures, with the equipment guaranteed to serve only a relatively short lifespan of perhaps several decades, maintenance costs are relatively marginal and the fuel is free, so this appears to be one of the most straightforward paths to minimising greenhouse gas emissions through offering an alternative to the burning of more traditional fuel – fossil fuels. Solar technology has come a long way in recent years, with improved efficiencies in the manufacturing process one factor for the reduced costs of solar technology of late. 

And then there are far-fetched technologies which have only been developed as pilot projects, since they are still too risky to produce en masse. Take, for example, the ‘drone that pollinates’, which has been developed by researchers in Japan, and which is currently undergoing testing as a ‘bee alternative’. Or, the plane that emits only water. Unfortunately, said plane seats only four people, including the pilot. Regardless, it runs purely off an electrical current from a supply of hydrogen and oxygen, aided only by a battery.

The UN itself is perhaps one of the most significant supporters of technology as a means of addressing climate change. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has publicly been an advocator of “bioenergy with carbon capture  and storage” for some time now. This process depends on growing plants purely for energy production, otherwise known as “energy crops” that absorb CO2 as they grow – and capturing the CO2 released when power is generated from them. The biggest hurdle at this stage? Crops grown for biofuel would be competing for land needed to grow food crops to support our ever-growing global population.

Preventing climate change is simple. All you have to do is stop using fossil fuels and plant a huge number of trees. Every business, start-up and non-profit organisation to date that has attempted to undertake the overwhelming task of solving our environmental woes and putting an end to climate change through the use of technology has utterly failed. Why is this? Well, because the task is now simply too big, too demanding, too arduous for one company, or entity, or country, technology  or person to take on. 

Technology won’t save us now, but continued advocacy for sustainable choices, a global community of more empowered individuals, a reduced emphasis on profit, better global leadership and more scientific research, all supported by technology might just help us make a tiny bit of difference at this stage. That’s the best we can hope for.

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