COP26: How technology can help tackle climate change
The United Nations Secretary-General has labelled climate change “the defining issue of our time.” As COP26 kicks off in Glasgow, Governments across the world are discussing radical solutions to reduce their carbon output.
Even though man-made climate change is still widely accepted, some cast doubt on the ability of humanity to combat this, saying we need to develop technology capable of improving the environment.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted that, if we are to achieve the ambitions of the Paris Agreement and limit future temperature increases to 1.5 degrees, we must do more than just increasing efforts to reduce emissions.
The growth rate of climate tech from 2013 has been sizable, with more than 3,750% increase over the seven-year period (2013-2019) according to PWC.
In its report, The State of Climate Tech 2020: The next frontier for venture capital, PwC outlines the amount of investment into climate tech, noting that the Covid-19 pandemic had little impact.
“Since the crisis hit, major firms have pledged billions of dollars into this including Amazon’s $2 billion ‘Climate Pledge’ venture fund, Microsoft’s $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund, and Unilever’s €1 billion climate funds,” says PwC. “In addition, close to 300 companies now have a commitment to achieve net zero emissions before 2050.”
So what are the major technological solutions being looked at? And how viable are they?
1. Carbon Capture
One of the most well-known solutions is Carbon Capture, but what does that actually mean? Rising average temperatures are primarily blamed on man-made emissions of greenhouse gases that trap radiation in the atmosphere which would otherwise escape into space – the most notable of these gases is carbon dioxide, of which concentrations have increased by almost 50% since the industrial revolution.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a way of reducing carbon emissions. It is a three-step process, according to the UK National Grid, involving: capturing the carbon dioxide produced by power generation or industrial activity, such as steel or cement making; transporting it; and then storing it deep underground.
According to the Global CCS Institute’s 2019 report, at that time there were 51 large-scale CCS facilities globally. 19 of these were in operation, 4 under construction and the remainder in various stages of development. 24 of these were in the Americas, 12 in Europe, 12 in Asia-Pacific and 2 in the Middle East.
2. Climate Repair
The University of Cambridge’s Centre for Climate Repair is investigating several concepts that could repair the damage being done by human pollution. These include tackling the melting polar ice caps by refreezing them by brightening the clouds above them. This would see tiny drops of salt sprayed into the sky to assist the clouds in reflecting radiation back into space.
Another solution under consideration is “greening” the oceans to encourage the growth of more plant matter and algae which would absorb more CO2.
3. Improving household efficiency
For individuals, there are a number of ways technology can help to reduce personal energy usage, which in turn could play a major role in helping to tackle climate change. More importantly, much of this technology is already available.
Across the EU, buildings consume 40% of overall energy and are responsible for 35% of CO2 emissions – although energy consumption per household has dropped over the past 50 years due to efficiency measures, such as changes to lightbulbs.
The European Union has established an energy labelling scheme that labels appliances for how energy efficient they are, informing consumers about how much it will cost them to run refrigerators and washing machines, as well as other products from light bulbs to televisions. Moving to more energy friendly solutions could have a significant impact.
4. Analytics through AIoT
A key part of improving the climate is keeping track of carbon emissions and running climate models to see what changes need to be made in order to keep global heating below the vial 1.5 degree mark.
Artificial intelligence of things (AIoT) integration enables seamless sourcing of real-time activity level data and asset inventory data from a variety of systems that are measuring, tracking or analysing the climate.
The technology can also be used for predictive analytics in order to simulate emissions over time. Abatement planning is a challenge primarily due to the lack of accurate measures for determining the emissions derived from certain processes. AIoT technology tackles this challenge by creating insights from real-time data to better predict process emissions, according to The World Economic Forum.
5. Green cement and better buildings
Improving the way we build and manufacture new homes, offices and equipment is vital to slowing the climate crisis.
In the UK last week, a radio host went viral for claiming we can grow cement, and even though this is false, it touches upon a key problem for construction. The world uses four gigatons of cement in construction annually. Cement, on the surface, may not seem like a big problem, but it requires limestone to be heated to more than 2,700 degrees in a chemical reaction that also releases enormous quantities of CO2.
Solidia has developed a cement that can be fired at lower temperatures, cutting emissions by a third. Its concrete is then cured using CO2 gas, locking the pollutant in the rock, creating carbon reductions of 70 percent. This could be vital – cement contributes around 8% of all global carbon emissions so finding alternative solutions could help reduce this.
6. Cows and agriculture
Another major carbon emitter is the humble cow. Methane is reaching record levels due to cattle farming, with agriculture accounting for around two thirds of all methane emissions related to human activities between 2000 and 2017.
A 2018 paper by Joseph Poore of Oxford University, found that veganism would cut carbon emissions from food production in half, freeing up land for other uses. With almost 80% of the world’s farmland dedicated to rearing animals, figures suggest that a plant-based diet would cut the use of land for agriculture by 76%.
But what if technology intervened instead? The reason cows generate so much methane is because of how their digestive system works, fermenting food inside their stomachs, that ultimately cause them to pass methane.
Scientists recently discovered that a red seaweed which grows in the tropics can reduce methane emissions by 80% in cows when it is added as a supplement to cattle feed.
Though there is currently not enough of this seaweed to cover the 1.5 billion head of cattle across the world, technology could be used to grow more or to isolate the crucial ingredient to reduce emissions.
Electricity powers the world and there are now numerous green ways of generating power, such as solar, wind or hydroelectric. The problem with many of these solutions, however, is they depend on the weather or other factors outside of human control. Thus, storage is becoming increasingly important.
In California, giant battery facilities are being built to house electricity in order to feed into the US state’s electrical grid when necessary. California is currently the global leader in the effort to balance the intermittency of renewable energy in electric grids with utility-scale batteries, but the rest of the world is rapidly following suit. Plans range from a 409-megawatt system in South Florida, to a 320-megawatt plant near London in the UK, to a 200-megawatt facility in Lithuania and a 112-megawatt unit in Chile.
“Energy storage is actually the true bridge to a clean-energy future,” Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association told the BBC.
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