…but I’m not stupid either.
The environment and, more specifically, climate change are among the greatest challenges we face in the world (right up there with economic challenges, political instability, health, safety, and social inequality). It’s no surprise, if we consider the growth of the world’s population over the past hundred years [1927 = 2 billion, 1960 = 3 billion, 1987 = 5 billion, 2015 = 7 billion, and 2050 = 9 billion] and the consequent advances in industrialization to provide for prosperity, comfort and convenience.
Today, approximately 3.5 billion people (~ 50% of world population) live in cities and this is expected to double by 2050. Our cities occupy a small 2% of land but contribute 70% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The buildings in our cities consume more than 40% of our energy and, in general, popular consensus agrees that at least 30% of this is wasted.
Carbon Dioxide (Co2) accounts for more than 76% of GHG emissions and the remainder consists of methane (51% of which is being produced by cows), nitrous oxide (e.g. fertilizer), and fluorinated gases (e.g. refrigeration). Of all greenhouse gas emissions, 35% is generated by the energy sector, 21% by industry, 14% by transportation, and 24% by agriculture and forestry.
Although we are quick to blame the energy sector for the trouble that we are in, something as simple as eating less beef will go a long way also (and consequently leave forests that are now being wiped out to accommodate meat production untouched). It is these facts and figures (and their various sources and numerous truths) that have scientists, environmentalists, big industry, politicians and many more debating the realities of climate change.
Like I said, I am no scientist, but popular belief tends to agree: we have only one Earth that we are trying to preserve for future generations. In order to leave them a better world, we can simply not consume our natural resources in the manner that we have been (despite the economic prosperity that we have generated from it). Today, we live with the consequences of decisions that we made many years ago, the outcome of which we didn’t know or understand at the time. So be it. Now, let’s get on with it:
Last week government officials and business leaders from all over the world gathered to discuss the state of our environment and a path towards reduced energy consumption and a more sustainable future. In Copenhagen in 2009 and in Cancún in 2010, developed countries committed to jointly raising $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries cope with climate change. In addition to this past promise, on the first day of this year’s Summit, the leaders of 20 countries announced an impressive doubling of the research investment in clean tech and alternative energy solutions that should give us the tools to tackle our climate challenge. The joint investment will increase funding from $10B to $20B within the next five years. The private sector is heavily engaged in this journey, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates even committed $2B of his own money to this cause.
One hundred billion, or even twenty billion dollars, sounds impressive, but it kind of dwarfs against what the pharmaceutical industry in the US spends on marketing ($35 billion annually), what consumers in North America have spent during the 2015 Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend ($11B – in two days!), and a global military spending of $1.8 Trillion annually. Bill Gates claims that energy firms spent less than 0.23% of their revenues on research, compared to 15% in the IT sector. I’m sure there is more that can be done if we ensure the environment keeps increasing in importance.
Amidst these somewhat underwhelming numbers, compared to less than ten years ago, however, industry and government around the world are making real efforts and growing in impact. Government is investing in transit to get cars off the road. In an increasing number of countries and regions we have burnt the last piece of coal to generate electricity. Financial and tax instruments are introduced to reward a reduction in energy consumption and environmental footprint. Cleantech is growing in popularity with venture capital, and as agreed in Paris this week, will receive increased funding from public and private sectors.
What I still wonder, however, is if we are taking enough advantage of the digital world that we’ve created to tackle some of the simplest challenges with greatest impact solutions. Is the digitization of countries, cities, and industries, and the Internet of Everything, sufficiently considered by government and business leaders to help lead the way in climate transformation? Has COP21 dedicated a conversation to the role of IT and the Internet in addressing our environmental challenges? We for sure know that IT is a fast growing consumer of energy and a producer of greenhouse gas emissions. We have the opportunity, however, to turn this around and use technology to have an incremental, positive impact on climate change.
Here are some thoughts for consideration:
- Urban mobility “apps” predict how we can move from A to B in a city in the most environmental friendly manner. Real time data is collected from all modes of city transportation.
- Using solar energy to power IT networks that in turn power heating, cooling and lighting. Consequently, reduce AC/DC conversions and avoid 70% electricity loss.
- IP-based, and POE (Power of Ethernet) LED lighting in buildings reduced energy by 50% because of LED and another 50% because of control and automation.
- Sensors (Internet of Things) record environmental highs and lows, as well as energy consumption. Data analytics allow us to respond in real-time and curtail consumption.
- Real time insight in energy behaviour and consumption can turn into actionable reduction. 10% of energy reduction can be achieved by behavioural change triggered by simple awareness and education.
- Working from home while being connected as if one were in the office (TelePresence, Cisco Spark, WebEx, just to name a few networked collaboration tools) takes cars off the road.
- Grid modernization by adding communication networks to the electrical grid to allow for capacity and demand management.
- Planning, optimizing, and redirecting transportation logistics based on algorithms, real-time weather and traffic data, and streamlined and JIT shipment and delivery schedules.
How do you see the digital age, and digitization of business, government, and processes having a positive impact on environmental sustainability?
I would argue that it is paramount for industry and government to take a close look at the impact of business transformation through the use of IT and innovation to have a profound and measurable impact. Why not use the digital infrastructure that we have invested in over the past 20 years to help turn around climate challenge?