Can Technology Define The Hour Of Reckoning For Our Planet?

CEO and Managing Partner at Infosys Consulting, a leading business and technology consultancy.

The new devastating UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report paints a grim picture and confirms that it is indisputable that human activities have been the main driver for warming the earth to dangerous levels, triggering extreme climate events. The main culprit is carbon emissions, and if levels remain the same, the planet will reach the tipping point of 2 degrees of global warming by the middle of the century.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has rightly said the report is a “code red for humanity.” The alarm bells are deafening. We must take urgent action to arrest the damage before it is too late. Can technology hold the key to solving humanity’s biggest existential crisis?

Net Zero Is The Only Answer

Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are choking our planet. The IPCC report has delivered a stark warning that the window to make immediate “deep cuts in emissions” is closing fast, and we must reach the minimum target of at least net zero by 2050.

Net zero refers to a state in which greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere are balanced by their removal from the atmosphere. Reaching net zero is vital because — for CO2 at least — this is the state at which global warming stops.

The UN’s own Race to Zero campaign “mobilizes a coalition of leading net zero initiatives, representing 733 cities, 31 regions, 3,067 businesses, 173 of the biggest investors, and 622 higher education institutions.” To stay within 1.5C of warming, we must drastically reduce other greenhouse emissions such as methane and deviate from an overreliance on carbon offsetting in our sustainability plans.

As a global leader in the consulting industry, I’ve had a front-row seat to how powerful new technologies and solutions are shaping our future and solving the world’s most complex challenges. Here are a few initial ideas on how I believe technology can liberate us from this crisis and unlock a new sustainable society.

Healing With Blockchain And Cloud Computing

Data science and cloud computing have unlocked the opportunity to leverage highly elastic computational abilities to compute gross carbon product (GCP) across all carbon-generating sources. They can help define data-based macro-level policies on renewable consumption goals and carbon metrics for businesses and individuals, incentivizing them to reduce their footprint.

IoT devices enabled with edge computing can augment remote monitoring capabilities of carbon-generating sources and prevent unwarranted carbon emissions. For example, a 2015 report by Ericsson cites IoT surface transportation solutions, including traffic monitoring, that will lower emissions by optimizing routes through traffic.

Blockchain technology can create a universal carbon currency through global carbon trading ledgers, which will allow nations to buy carbon credits for their energy needs, developing a progressive framework toward reaching the net-zero goal. The World Economic Forum launched its Mining and Metals Blockchain Initiative, creating a Carbon Tracing Platform to ensure the end-to-end traceability of CO2 emissions using distributed ledger technology.

Cleansing The Planet with AI And Advanced Analytics

The Amazon rainforest is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, according to a study by researchers at the National Institute for Space Research in Brazil. Our oceans are clogged with pollutants, while fish resources are dwindling at an alarming rate as found in a well-known study by members of the Linking Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Working Group. Unsustainable use of natural resources continues to disrupt the delicate balance of our ecosystem.

Advanced analytics can greatly aid the fishing industry by increasing the total biomass of ocean resources while lowering operating costs and prices of seafood. Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology can improve the traceability of seafood supply chains. Predictive analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence can provide precise recommendations on where to fish based on real-time ocean and species data. A recent article from the Environmental Defense Fund outlines several smart technologies such as AI, data sensors and analytics that are helping increase the efficiency of the fishing industry while reversing overfishing. 

Eliminating E-waste With Innovation

The omnipresence of digital technology means our global e-waste is enormous. Based on Statista, the average U.S. household, consisting of 2.53 people, owns 10.37 connected devices. Hologram technology can help by substituting and reducing materials that are non-recyclable or cost-prohibitive to recycle.

Holographic technology can create a truly interactive device that can consolidate and replace all existing consumer electronics. In addition to features such as voice command, biometric authentication and motion detection, hologram devices can display digital keyboards, eliminating the need to produce electronic peripherals such as keyboards, mice and remote controls. The technology is quickly developing, as evidenced by New York startup Looking Glass Factory, which has developed a holographic interface that does not require an augmented reality or virtual reality headset.

The Clock Is Ticking

It is irrevocable that humans have played a damning role in ailing our planet, but we also hold the cure. The innovative application of technology presents us with an opportunity to arrest, even reverse, climate change.

Industry initiatives and policies alone are not sufficient. To truly move the needle, we need an aware citizenry. Every consumer choice must be measured in terms of its carbon impact. Every purchase should have an associated carbon tag. Every ingredient/part should be tracked for its “E” score using IoT sensors that can measure the footprint of every batch of product based on energy utilization, factory floor efficiency and waste.

The impact will be wide-ranging. Supply chains will morph. Irrigation-intensive crops will gravitate toward low-carbon impact regions. The government’s energy policies will yield to the need to compete on low carbon. This, along with the impact of smart energy grids that allow prescriptive AI to suggest energy optimization and incentivized behavioral alerts such as “Walk to destination. Save 4.5 tons CO2. Gain 5000 steps” will add up.

Once the world is comfortable with this paradigm, wearables, IoT and blockchain all wrapped in an AI framework will guide each of us to make a billion sustainable choices, helping us bleed the carbon from the planet.

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