Can digital technology help fight climate change?


The future is in technology. Well, that’s the idea, but the reality is often disappointing. We tend to see emerging innovations with rose-tinted glasses, hoping they save us in the fight against climate change while turning a blind eye to how much energy is needed to make smartphones or in fact. that even emails create carbon emissions. Indeed, the world’s fascination with technology comes at a cost to the environment.

But is digital technology both a solution and a problem in the face of climate change?

As the COP26 climate talks approach – just a month away – let’s take a look at some ways technology could help limit the impact.

Artificial intelligence

Among the many items on the COP26 agenda, countries are preparing a roadmap to use artificial intelligence (AI) to fight climate change.

AI relies on complex calculations performed by powerful computers that can consume large amounts of energy.

Training a single AI algorithm system can use nearly five times the emissions produced by a car over its lifetime, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts.

But AI is already helping to make a wide range of industrial processes more energy efficient, simply by performing calculations that humans cannot.

Consulting firm PwC estimates that greater use of AI in four key sectors of the economy, including agriculture and transportation, could reduce global emissions by 4%.

Peter Clutton-Brock, co-founder of the Center for AI and Climate, said artificial intelligence was not “a silver bullet” that could reverse climate change.

“But there are some really interesting and exciting applications emerging,” he said.

These include the use of AI to analyze data on deforestation and sea ice melt, in order to better predict which areas will be affected next.

Applications and search engines

Skeptics may argue that one person can only have a limited impact, but the eco-conscious have various applications at their disposal to monitor their personal carbon footprint.

Various apps estimate the emissions produced by a car or plane ride, while others allow shoppers to scan items and see information about their environmental friendliness.

Google last week announced adjustments to its search tools to show drivers the most fuel-efficient routes and display emissions information for flights.

Search engine Ecosia, meanwhile, is using the profits from its ads to pay for reforestation, with more than 135 million trees planted to date.

Remote work

Has the shift to remote working during the pandemic been good for the environment? It’s still not clear, say the researchers.

The huge drop in commute to work last year was heralded as a contributing factor to lower global emissions, as much of the world squatted at home.

But connecting online still means employees are consuming energy at home – and in the winter, heating individual homes can be less efficient than a single office for an entire team.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) found that if all white-collar workers stayed at home one day a week, global emissions could be reduced by 24 million tonnes, roughly the equivalent of emissions from London in one year.

Workers with long car journeys could certainly reduce their carbon footprint by staying at home, the IEA said. But he found that drivers with a daily commute of less than 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) could actually use more energy by staying at home with the heaters on.

cloud computing

For years, there have been fears that the giant, power-hungry data centers on which the Internet depends could become a major contributor to climate change.

But a study published in the journal Science last year suggests those fears did not come true, thanks to unexpected leaps in efficiency.

In 2018, data centers still only consumed around 1% of the world’s electricity, despite growing demand for data storage.

The tech giants’ drive to reduce their electricity bills is partly thanks to this. Google, for example, has used AI to reduce the costs of cooling its data centers by 40%.

Smart cities

The United Nations estimates that cities are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. And with the forecast of increasingly urban population growth, designing energy efficient cities is a top priority.

The Internet of Things (IoT) – connecting things to sensors that can communicate and make smart decisions – is already being used in urban design.

A pilot project in Amsterdam, for example, used IoT to guide drivers to empty parking spaces, reducing the time spent driving around the city looking for one.

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