Can technology solve our sustainability problems?

Innovation drives the global economy and is changing the way we live at a dizzying pace. Could it overcome our sustainability challenges?

Many of the world’s greatest sustainability problems have been created by advances in technology. The internal combustion engine and electricity production, for example, have enriched our lives. But they are also the main sources of greenhouse gases as well as particulates that have been linked to everything from cancer to poor mental health.

What if we were to turn our inventiveness towards overcoming today’s sustainability conundrums, both big and small? Might innovation be able to mitigate some of the risks it has created?

Tackling global warming

Global warming is humanity’s existential challenge. The Paris Agreement aims to cut emissions in order to keep temperature rises below two degrees Celsius. But it’s unclear how this goal can be achieved (or even if it is enough: a UN report in October said a1.5 degree goal is preferable). ING recently published it's 'Positive Tech Scenario', which depicts an optimistic, though realistic, path for technologies that substitute fossil fuels in energy-intensive sectors. Think of electric vehicles in transportation, heat pumps in buildings, electrification of industrial processes and renewables in the power sector. It concludes that technology can reduce energy-related emissions globally by 64% in 2050. As such, the long run goal of a low-carbon economy is feasible, but the 2030 targets are missed as it takes time before technologies reach sufficient scale to make an impact.

So, other technologies are needed as well. One part of the solution – proposed by Canada’s Carbon Engineering (which is backed by Bill Gates), Switzerland’s Climeworks and others – could be to remove some of the 30 billion tonnes of CO2 put into the air every year and then use it as a replacement fuel or fertilizer. This has been technically possible for decades but prohibitively expensive.

Carbon Engineering believes it has the answer. It uses renewable energy to power water electrolysis and fuels synthesis to produce clean liquid hydrocarbon fuels that are fully compatible with existing engines. While it is still at prototype stage, the process can now extract CO2 at a cost six times lower than originally hypothesised. According to Harvard University’s professor David Keith, who is a founder of the company, costs can be cut further: this is “industrial technology that is doable and can be developed in a useful way.”

The other side of the global warming equation is the need to reduce new emissions. Renewables are a key part of all countries’ strategies: costs have plummeted and renewables are now viable without subsidies in many markets. The sector hasn’t evolved as some anticipated, however. When renewables first appeared, it was hoped that that electricity production would become increasingly localised, via domestic solar panels for example. This would reduce transmission losses and lower carbon emissions. However, progress has been slow to date.

One new development could accelerate change. Physee has developed windows that include sensors to help manage ventilation and sun blinds, based on internal and external conditions; the windows are powered by integrated solar technology: overall, energy consumption can be reduced by as much as 20%. “Our mission is to make buildings comfortable self-thinking power plants,” explains CEO Ferdinand Grapperhaus.

In June, ING Real Estate Finance (REF) signed a partnership agreement with Physee to enable clients to do a PHYSEEbility check via the ING REF Sustainable App. This app helps clients in the Netherlands to instantly see how they can make their property portfolio greener and how much they can save. The Energy Robot, recently introduced by ING REF, takes this a step further. It uses big data, algorithms, and information from smart energy meters in buildings to automatically compare data 24 hours a day with a benchmark for the specific building. This can identify an energy-saving potential of up to 15%, which in aggregate amounts to half the total sustainably-generated energy in the Netherlands.

Cutting urban pollution

One major challenge related to tackling climate change is emerging markets. Their economies, populations and cities are growing faster than developed countries while some of the technologies they currently use are extremely polluting.

For example, in Thailand auto rickshaws known as tuk-tuks are ubiquitous: an estimated 20,000 operate, creating almost 100,000 tons of CO2 a year, according to Michel Hublet, sales and marketing director at Tuk Tuk Factory, a Dutch company that manufactures electric tuk-tuks in Thailand. And in the Philippines 200,000 diesel jeepneys (a long-wheelbase minibus based on a US army jeep) produce 22,000 tons of soot a year, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Reducing this pollution is tough; in the absence of urban rail or other low-impact public transport, tuk-tuks and jeepneys are public transport. And electric powertrains are usually prohibitively expensive: for many people in the West driving a Tesla is as much about showing off their wealth as their environmental credentials.

But advances in electric vehicles – and most especially batteries – mean that relatively low cost electric versions of tuk-tuks and jeepneys are being developed. To make the switch easier, the Thai government is earmarking €3 million to encourage 100 tuk-tuk owners to switch to electric power in a pilot; 22,000 are expected to switch by 2025. Meanwhile, the Philippines' government is providing Ps1.5 billion (€24 million) in loans to help jeepney cooperatives and small companies to buy new vehicles; it plans to phase out existing jeepneys over three years.

Feeding growing populations

Getting enough to eat is a pressing problem for much of the world – it will only get harder as temperatures rise. “A 2012 report by the World Wildlife Fund says that humanity must produce more food in the next four decades than in the last 8,000 years of agriculture combined,” says Rory Aronon, founder of Farmbot. According to Joel Bourne, author of the The End of Plenty: The Race To Feed A Crowded World, the long term goal must be to “close yield gaps and use our water supply better”.

Aronson’s Farmbot project is a precise fully-automated farming system that plants a wide variety of plants closely together to encourage pest resistance. It monitors soil conditions and uses data from weather reports to schedule watering and can automatically detect and remove weeds.

Farmbot is easy to use: it works via a web-based interface and sends email updates to users to tell them what to do. The solution is entirely open source to encourage a community of users to improve it and is scalable and modular in nature. While Farmbot is at an early stage, its precision model could have a major impact on the sustainability of farming. “We may be uncovering a part of the solution to one of humanity’s more pressing contemporary challenges,” says Aronon.

A more radical idea is to re-engineer photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy that enables them to grow. Plants naturally seek to collect more light than they need (to deprive rivals) and hoard energy. By altering photosynthetic systems so they use less chlorophyll crop yields can increase, says Donald Ort, a professor of plant biology at the University of Illinois. Another idea is to design crops that take more CO2 from the atmosphere to accelerate photosynthesis.

Cleansing land and oceans

One of the most obvious symptoms of an unsustainable world is garbage, whether on land or in the sea. According to the World Bank, in 2016 the world’s cities generated 2.01 billion tonnes of household and commercial waste. And rapid population growth and urbanisation mean annual waste generation is expected to increase by 70% from 2016 levels to 3.40 billion tonnes in 2050.

Better collection (in developing countries) and improved recycling efficiency (in all countries) is required to reduce landfill and stop waste getting into rivers and seas where it damages ecosystems. But we also need to make greater use of innovative ideas to capture and transform waste. One high profile example is Dutch organisation Ocean Cleanup, which in September began to tow a 600 metre boom to the Pacific where it will collect some of the 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s water. The system is propelled by wind and waves and will collect plastic for six months before returning it to land for recycling.

Meanwhile, on land the discovery of a microbe in Japan in 2016 that naturally eats plastic has spurred research to increase its efficiency. Scientists at the UK’s University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory studied the structure of an enzyme found in the bacteria and accidentally created a “mutant enzyme” that can break down plastic within a few days. “What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,” says John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth.

On a smaller scale, innovators are finding ingenious ways to use existing waste materials. These include a cycle path in Zwolle in the Netherlands made from recycled bottles, cups and packaging, more than 20,000 km roads that use waste plastic as an alternative to bitumen in India (creating a surface that better resists potholes) and jewellery made from gold recycled from electronics by boutique Dutch firm Mara & Villosa. Alternatives to plastic are also being developed, such as edible cutlery and packaging. Carlsberg is replacing plastic ring can holders, which can trap wildlife, with recyclable glue that uses 76% less plastic than traditional ring can holders. Meanwhile, Dutch company Avantium recently began construction of a plant to produce bio-based plastics on an industrial scale.

Reducing poverty and ending discrimination

Technology can play a direct role in reducing poverty by creating jobs in sustainable activities and providing low cost energy. One long-mooted project is the exploitation of abundant solar power resources in the Middle East and North Africa for export to Northern Europe via a new grid system (perhaps using ultra high voltage DC technology already proven by China). For example, the world's largest concentrated solar power farm, which will soon be completed in Morocco, will provide power for one million homes and replace high cost fossil fuels. The plant can even provide energy at night by heating salt, which then releases power.

The TuNur solar project in the Sahara has even grander ambitions and hopes to develop a number of solar power plants and transmission systems to get enough electricity to Europe via Malta, Italy and France to power over five million homes or fuel  seven million electric vehicles. By generating wealth and jobs, such projects might help to stem the flow of migrants from North Africa to Europe. However, TuNur remains at an early stage and faces considerable challenges: a similar Desertec project collapsed earlier this decade because of the lack of transmission infrastructure and a failure by European governments to back new generation capacity in Africa.

The ubiquity of smartphones, even in some developing countries, opens up numerous opportunities to alleviate poverty. Perhaps the best known example is Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile wallet. Research by Tavneet Suri of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and William Jack of Georgetown University estimates that it has increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty. The success of M-Pesa has prompted scores of innovations that leverage the money transfer system, enabling users to save, pay their utility bills, and sell solar power; smallholder farmers can also access the financing they need to grow their way out of hunger and poverty.

By improving health outcomes, apps can also help to reduce inequality. For example, an app is helping midwives to reduce infant mortality in rural Guatemala where it is six times higher for indigenous people than in developed countries. The app helps midwives to monitor heart rates and other vital information and send data for remote analysis; mothers at risk are encouraged to have their child in hospital rather than at home. Similarly, app-based eye tests can now perform to a similar standard as traditional charts, opening up the possibility of treating the more than 220 million people worldwide that have curable eyesight-related diseases.

Innovation can even help to prevent sexual and racial discrimination, which persists in most countries despite legislation. Multiple studies have shown that identical CVs with ‘ethnic’ sounding names are less likely to result in an interview for job or university. A summary of various studies by Germany’s Institute for the Study of Labour showed that anonymous job applications increase the probability that applicants from ethnic minorities are invited for interview. Ultimately artificial intelligence (AI) could eliminate bias in candidate selection by replacing human interviewers (although it may be tricky to design completely unbiased algorithms).

A helping hand

The range of ways that technology can help to solve the world’s problems is potentially endless – the examples above barely scratch the surface; robots could assist with care of the growing number of elderly people, AI can help people manage their chronic illnesses, and scores of low orbit satellites can bring the internet to remote locations (improving people’s life chances) or monitor endangered animals to prevent poaching. No doubt, myriad sustainability applications will be found for technological advances in the coming years.

But while inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs may drive the innovations that could overcome many of the world’s sustainability challenges, great ideas don’t always rise to the surface. Sometimes technology needs a helping hand from government intervention. Renewable energy is an obvious example; subsidies were introduced in some countries as early as the 1990s and have only recently been phased out as renewables become competitive. Without subsidies, it is questionable whether the technology would have advanced sufficiently or become cheap enough to survive; electric vehicles may follow a similar course.

Government legislation has also been successful in almost eliminating single-use plastic bags, either by imposing a charge on them or banning them outright. And of course, regulation plays a critical role in creating a level playing field. It can require electricity grid companies to connect to renewable projects, for instance. Perhaps the most dramatic recent shift in regulation was the announcement earlier this year that all plastic in the EU must be reusable or recyclable by 2030 (a commitment backed by €350 million in research funding).

Countries or even regions, however, cannot act alone. The world’s challenges are interconnected and global in nature – cooperation between countries will be critical if we are to use technology to its full potential in tackling sustainability challenges.

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