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Can Technology Save the World?

Mankind has evolved thanks to its ability to produce technological innovations that have, generally speaking, made life easier. From the invention of the wheel to the creation of drones, man has sought to apply scientific knowledge to create devices that would carry out tasks – allowing us to develop an industrialised society where machines can execute most of our jobs for us. Understandably then, one widespread attitude among the general public is that technology will “save us” from climate change. But how realistic is this? 

What can we do to keep global temperatures within a 1.5 C increase, as agreed in the Paris Climate Agreement? The consensus amongst scientists is that we need to curb Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, mainly CO2 and methane, to start with. The solution is easier said than done. Our industries, our modes of transport and the internet, the three pillars on which our society is based, run primarily on fossil fuels. Although some companies are committed to divesting – withdrawing from carbon production – many are still investing in long-term oil projects. How can we save our Planet in a way that won’t cripple our economies?

Climate change isn’t the result of one single feature gone wrong. That is to say, there is no silver bullet. It is the product of a series of instabilities that pervade different aspects of our ecosystem, all of which are fundamental to the correct functioning of the whole. There is indeed a need to curb temperature increase, but also remedy water shortages, stop the release of pollutants harmful to us and other species; not to mention the impelling urgency to save a million animal and plant species from extinction. 

A few months before the start of a new decade, human society has the keys to resolve this self-made crisis. But are those keys necessarily technological inventions? Could technology be a double-edged sword, like some scientists are pointing out? 

Preparing for change: Investment is a must

Paving the way between theory and practical solutions isn’t easy. But investing in climate change adaptations is necessary, because the more we delay, the higher the costs will be to counteract its effects.

To meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, investment in mitigation strategies and technologies is a must. A report on adaptation led by Microsoft Corp, the World Bank and former UN secretary Ban Ki-Moon earlier this year, estimated the world needs to invest $1.8 trillion in climate change adaptation by 2030. This is a fraction of the gross world product and hence an attainable sum, in theory. Moreover, the above-mentioned report states that the investment wouldn’t be lost. Investing against climate change could, in fact, yield up to $7 trillion payoffs

It might sound mercenary to talk about an economic return in the face of a crisis that promises to drastically disrupt the lives of millions of people. However, the meagre collective societal response to date shows that unfortunately, money still needs to be the top incentive when it comes to investment. But what are the technological innovations being put on the table claiming to save society? The list of new technologies ranges far and wide. 

The change in climate we are facing is inevitable. As a consequence, we need to prepare urban infrastructures to be better equipped for extreme events, such as water shortages and disruptions in energy production. This involves updating power centres, roads and power systems; mobilizing workforce (read: productivity) and capital investments, whilst reducing the risks (read: costs) of dealing with the aftermath of an increasingly high number of ecological disasters. Hurricane Harvey, for instance, took the lives of 107 people, misplaced hundreds of thousands from their homes and cost 125 billion dollars.

Blockchain solar energy sharing is one option for a more efficient (and decentralized) energy system.
Electricity Sharing

Interestingly, most current innovations apt for urban upgrading are collective technologies, i.e. based on decentralisation and peer-to-peer sharing. In Germany, a company called OLI has invented blockchain systems enabling electricity sharing. OLI boxes in residential, communal and commercial buildings monitor and optimize the use of electricity and heating. This method provides clear information on individual consumption while allowing households to share electricity with neighbours and tenants via Blockchain technology.

Bangladeshi company SOL-Share has come up with an invention of a similar fashion to OLI. They’ve created a high tech platform which engenders peer-to-peer solar energy sharing. This revolutionary technology is based on installing nanogrids, or micro-networks of mini-solar panels, on different roofs. It allows households in densely populated areas off the main energy grid to sell the extra energy they make, reducing wastage and creating extra income.

Thanks to SOL-Share, Bangladesh is now in the lead as the country with the strongest growing domestic solar market in the world. This is a positive example of technology allowing a developing country to increase financial growth sustainably. SOL-Share technology is not yet available in areas where houses are geographically dispersed, so it’s not a win-all solution. However, it is a great start!

A micro solar panel on a roof (copyright owned by Helen Wright, Medium.com)
Alternative Fuel: “Waste is not waste until it’s wasted”

Biogas production from waste can result in a net reduction in CO2 emissions and could potentially power our future. Biogas is the product of biological processing of sewage treatment plants, livestock manure or waste landfills. Its main components are GHG, namely methane and CO2.

Producing biogas involves capturing methane and burning it to generate electricity. The combustion still creates a small amount of CO2, but because it offsets a high amount of methane (a much more potent GHG), its net effect is to decrease temperatures overall.

However, so far the significant investment required by biogas has been an obstacle to this transition. You can read more on this in our interview with BioForceTech, a Silicon Valley StartUp who created the first net-positive biofuel plant in the world. They produce a type of char made from biomass that can decrease emissions of coal-fired power plants from Agri-Tech Producers.

Arial view of BioForceTech plant which makes energy from waste and reducing CO2 emissions (Silicon Valley, San Francisco, California)
Responsible water consumption through High Tech

Italy is among the top consumers of plastic water bottles in the world. Hence, it might not come as a surprise that an Italian company, ProAquaGroup, came up with the first technology that educates citizens on consuming water responsibly. They distribute water to the public directly from local hydro sources, either free of charge or at a low cost. This empowers consumers to bring their own water bottle, forgoing single-use plastic containers.

After their first installation in 2017, the “Case dell’Acqua” (literally “Water Homes”) distributed 9 million tonnes of water in a period of 6 months, sparing the use of 18 million plastic bottles. Water Homes are solar-powered and equipped with mini-computers which register data consumption. This allows consumers to know exactly how much water they have been consuming, avoiding the environmental havoc and risks to our health posed by plastic bottles.

Photo from ProAcqua Group of one their Water Homes used in Australia
Cooling down the Earth: Geoengineering 

Last year, a team of academics from developing countries published a paper in the academic journal Nature. They put solar geoengineering forward as a solution to cooling down Earth. The idea consists in spraying five million tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, producing a layer of aerosol particles (sulphuric acid droplets) that would create an effect similar to a volcanic eruption. This solution is often referred to as the “Pinotubo Option”, after the 1991 eruption of mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The particles suspended in the atmosphere would act like tiny mirrors, reflecting sunlight back into space, hence reducing global temperatures.

Although it might initially be perceived as a handy “technofix”, the associated risks could outweigh potential gains. Some critics say that our knowledge of the Earth system is far from being all-encompassing. Therefore, it would be extremely risky to go from current experimental models of this option to real life, full-scale implementation. Plenty of “unknowns” could appear to hijack the situation – and there would be no going back once implemented.

Computer simulations have shown that a consequence to the Pinatubo Option is a non-uniform, regional distribution of temperature change, i.e different parts of the Earth cooling down at different rates. Monsoon patterns in Africa and Asia would be impacted negatively, and precipitations would decrease significantly. A constant stream of precipitations in these areas is vital to crop yields on which the lives of billions of people depend.

Which leads to the fundamental controversy of the geoengineering: who has the right to implement a planetary-wide intervention of this scale? How can we be sure the companies who patent these technologies have the world’s interest at heart? Furthermore, the Pinatubo Option does not address the root of the issue, so it cannot be considered a viable alternative to mitigation. It’s intentionally trying to solve a problem so we don’t have to change the way we live.

One geo-engineering solution to climate change is spraying the stratosphere with particles that reflect sunlight into space, causing a decrease in temperatures.
Carbon Offsetting: friend or foe?

The gold standard for reducing CO2 and other GHG emissions is carbon offsetting. Offsetting consists firstly in calculating the amount of CO2 produced by different human activities. The following step consists in preventing (or removing) the equivalent amount of emissions. This is usually done by purchasing “carbon credits” or “allowances”, certificates bestowing the legal right to emit a certain amount of CO2 or other GHG gases.

Said credits attest that the company has done something tangible to support emission-reducing interventions. Sometimes, these leverage nature’s ability to reduce CO2, for instance, by replanting trees. Because trees are natural “carbon sinks”, as they capture the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, reforestation is a staple intervention in the offsetting industry. Likewise, companies can acquire credits from those who are downsizing, going out of business, moving overseas, or simply haven’t reached their annual carbon limit. Ultimately, carbon credits are an effort to balance out the damage various industrial activities carry out on the environment. For the aviation industry, offsetting will soon be mandatory. In fact, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation has made offsetting mandatory worldwide starting from 2021.

Up until recently, quantifying precisely the amount of GHG offsetting as a consequence of mitigatory interventions (such as reforestation) proved to be difficult. However, Silicon Valley start-up Pachama launched a solution to this issue earlier this year. They’ve created a technology of satellite imagery coupled with artificial intelligence, which is able to precisely establish the amount of CO2 recaptured by forests. In addition, Climeworks have built carbon-removal machines that produce a precise estimate of CO2 being sucked out of the atmosphere. Yet, it is worth noting that the cost of building these is still much higher than planting trees.

Ultimately, carbon offsetting can buy us some time, but it does not represent a long-term solution. At this crucial crossroads in our history what is truly needed is a radical change in human behaviour. The current wave of carbon divestment – i.e. withdrawal of funds and endorsements of oil-based projects- is an example of it. However, is still not as extensive as it could be.

Is technology an answer or part of the problem?

Dr Peterson from Arizona State North, interviewed by Laura Diez on the EcoChic podcast, thinks that technology is not a panacea for all of our problems. Neuroscientific research has shown that technology dissociates people from the present moment. Dr Peterson says that “technology is embedded in our lives in a way that is invasive and harmful. What we need are social alternatives that actually lead to wellbeing. People need to feel more connected and have stronger social lives. The only way of doing so is by overthrowing our current societal norms”. He envisions human beings re-creating a society where everyone works and consumes less. A new social reality where human beings dis-embed massively, if not entirely, from technological dependence.

Dr Peterson is not alone in advocating for degrowth, which would entail a larger distribution of resources and job sharing. This solution would lead to individuals having less income, with the aim of eliminating unnecessary consumption and creating more time to foster social connections. Fewer material goods, more time with family and friends. This future scenario will, of course, require plenty of transitional stages.

Advocating for immediate change is the right path to take when trying to convey the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in. However, it is unrealistic to underestimate the time and effort needed to get where we want to be. Technology isn’t a silver bullet that will save us from our bad habits; but it could help us implement new, positive behaviors.
The first step towards solving a problem is having a deep awareness of it. This could “easily” done by having a way of tracking individual carbon expenditure… maybe even rewarding us for choosing greener alternatives. If committed to a better future, technological innovation will have to overcome the negative legacy of the past.

To conclude, the creation of a Social Contract between tech and society could be fundamental to solving the climate crisis. The focus needs to be on inventions which don’t push us to mindlessly consume, but have a beneficial effect on our behavior and environment. Only in this way, technology could become one of our strongest allies on our quest to a greener future.

Keep an eye out for our upcoming article, on “Conscious Consumerism: bridging the Attitude-Behaviour Gap”.

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