Digitalization for a Sustainable World

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Written by Conor Lennon

How tech is contributing to lower emissions and sustainable development

“If we don’t double down on [dealing with] emissions now, it’s our emissions that will double.”

For Marina Otto, Head of UN Environment’s Smart Cities Unit in Paris, we face a stark choice. The way we are currently running the world cannot continue: billions of people are expected to move to cities over the coming decades and, if we maintain a business-as-usual approach to growth, energy use could indeed double. We will see skyrocketing greenhouse gas emissions, worldwide food shortages and water scarcity.

But catastrophe is not a foregone conclusion: through the widespread adoption of existing products and solutions, Otto and many others believe that the challenge can be met, and that a key component of a successful strategy for creating sustainable economies is digital technology. In other words, we need to upgrade our thinking. Guido Jouret, CDO of power and automation conglomerate ABB, believes that we are running the world on an outdated industrial operating system that one might call “IOS1.0”. Jouret says it is killing its host. A sustainable “IOS2.0” mentality is needed, one that takes its inspiration from the internet: a robust, decentralized peer to peer approach that can be applied across different industry segments, all thanks to digitalization. Here are four examples.

First, energy. When fossil fuels dominate the energy system, price is volatile, but supply is relatively stable; the inexorable (and necessary) rise of renewable sources is turning that equation on its head. Price is predicted to plummet (countries that are embracing renewables, such as Germany, are seeing prices go negative at certain times), but due to the intermittency of solar and wind, supply is volatile. Digitalization solves this problem: sensors monitor the activity of every element along the renewable energy value chain, sending data to intelligent industrial software solutions that can match the constantly shifting supply to demand, maintaining a smooth, stable supply for the end user and hastening an era of clean energy. According to the International Energy Agency, by improving the integration of renewable, decentralized energy sources, digitalization will cut 30 million tons of CO2 emissions by 2040.

Transport is currently a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions (around 25%, according to the World Bank). Slowly but surely, we are starting to see a shift to clean, electric transportation. For Mark Radka, Head of UN Environment’s Energy Program, this shift is inevitable, and high growth predictions are frequently being revised upwards. Transport is becoming “smart” and connected, leading to the concept of the “intelligent transportation system”, or ITS. ITS is about joining up the dots to move people and freight around more efficiently, safely and at lower cost. In the Netherlands, an early adopter of the IOS2.0 transport mentality, a company called Fastned is building a nationwide fast-charging network. All of their fast-chargers need to be digitally connected, so that Fastned technicians can remotely “look inside” them, in real time, from their control center, predicting when maintenance is needed and dealing with problems without having to send an engineer. The next step is predicted to be automated transportation, with every vehicle connected to a network. Renewable energy will be directed to the places it is needed, enabling cars to act as “batteries on wheels, supplying excess energy back into the grid and helping to keep the system running smoothly. Radka believes that software is “the brain that allows a complex system to function with millions of actors…sophisticated software is the only way to make it work”.

The third example is food. As we head towards a global population of 9 billion, innovative, digitally enabled farming techniques could provide us with the food we need. At The Climate Corporation, CEO Mike Stern says that he wants his company to be the “digital ecosystem for agriculture”. The Climate Corporation uses environmental, genetic and equipment data to give farmers a precise picture of the effect that their actions are having on crop growth, helping them to improve yields, simplify their operations and reduce risk. Stern is concerned about the implications of population growth, scarcity of available arable land and climate change on our ability to feed the planet. By digitalizing farming and using advanced computational technology such as AI, farmers can better navigate their way through the challenge of sustainably intensifying agriculture.

Other companies in the digital agriculture space, such as Aerofarms, have a more disruptive approach. Aerofarms is a U.S.-based vertical farming company that is, in the words of its CFO, Guy Blanchard, a “change the world company”. It is digital technology that enables Aerofarms to have that level of ambition. Blanchard speak passionately about the company’s ability to transform agriculture by combining Internet of Things and data technology to control every aspect of the growing process, from gases and humidity, to the injection of nutrients and the velocity of the air. He says that, in the controlled environment of the vertical farm, it is possible to adjust the growth cycle of plants and optimize production. And all without any pesticides or herbicides. Spinoff benefits include lower transport emissions (vertical farms can be built in urban areas, close to customers) and a transformed image for the food industry; at a time when farming in many countries is struggling to attract workers (the average of a Japanese farmer is 67) a highly automated vertical farm could go some way to reducing labor shortages, as well as providing new, interesting and highly skilled jobs (many of Blanchard’s hires are data scientists).

The fourth example is the water industry. Waste and bad practice in this area are endemic. Cape Town in South Africa is at risk of being the first major city in the modern era to run out of water. It is not alone: Beijing is facing a severe water scarcity crisis, Moscow deals with major pollution problems and it is predicted that even London, in soggy England, will have “serious shortages” by 2040. Globally, according to the United Nations, 1.2 billion people live in areas of water scarcity, with another 500 million approaching this situation. By 2030, it’s estimated that fresh-water demand will exceed supply by at least 40%. For Guido Jouret, these problems are symptomatic of the “IOS1.0” way of thinking. He believes that the current way that water is distributed, and the resulting waste, can be avoided by exploring decentralized, digitally enabled solutions such as rainfall and moisture capture (he calculates that around 50% of U.S. households could theoretically meet all of their water needs through rainfall capture alone). Jouret is also optimistic about the implications of the clean energy revolution on the “water-energy nexus”: if energy is the largest single expense in desalination plants, then the provision of renewable energy at almost zero marginal cost will slash the costs of turning seawater into drinking water. What is more, seawater contains lithium, which could be mined to create energy storage systems that can further bring down prices (a commercial process is still an idea for the future, but researchers at Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency claim to have developed a method that “shows good efficiency and is scalable”). In comparison to other industries, water has been slow to digitalize, but now the industry is waking up to the efficiencies that digital technology can bring about, and smart water solutions will drive more than 35 billion U.S. dollars’ worth of municipal spending over the next decade.

But is all this enough to make enough of a difference? In its 2017 “Digitalization and Energy” report, the International Energy Agency warns that if adoption is not thought through, digitalization could end up increasing energy use and emissions (after all, digitally enabled efficiency gains could benefit the coal industry as much as the wind industry). However, Marina Otto of UN Environment is optimist. She is convinced that smart solutions will become more widespread, as governments provide incentives and improve regulation. As the private sector races towards a digitalized, automated and connected world, governments urgently need to catch up, understand the challenges and opportunities, and put in place policy that ensures digital technology is part of the solution—rather than a barrier—to a sustainable world.

About the author: Conor Lennon is Public Information Officer at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.