Can tech combat the climate crisis?

2016 was the warmest year on record – around 1.2°C warmer than pre-industrial levels to be exact. Whilst this doesn’t sound very much, evidence has already shown that an average rise of 1°C across the whole of the Earth’s surface would result in huge changes to the climatic extremes we see today.  Meanwhile, our forests and oceans aren’t faring much better. The significant decline of the planet’s rainforest has been documented throughout my lifetime and, according to a report last year by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2050 there could be more plastic by weight in our oceans than fish. Add to this the recent findings that the Earth is on track to lose two-thirds of its wildlife by 2020 and it’s easy to see that we are already in a pretty dire state.   

Unbelievably, there are those who still insist on denying the existence of the world’s environmental crisis, and worryingly, some of these are in pivotal positions when it comes to what happens in the next 10 years. This by the way is the period in which many experts believe we still have a chance to mitigate the rise in global temperatures. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m far from being an eco-warrior but like many, I am increasingly aware of climate change and the inescapable implications this has for us all; particularly since the most recent findings indicate these could become severe within a much shorter timescale than previously thought. I believe it’s clear to most rational people that we all have a part to play in halting the rise of global temperatures and even small gestures help such as, boiling less water for hot drinks or turning down the central heating by a degree or two.  However, as individuals, making an ‘industrial scale’ impact feels far more challenging.  Having been involved in the application of technology for most of my working life, I wonder if this could be the great enabler of change that will make the single, largest difference.   

Technology in a wider form already plays a huge part in the mitigation of global warming.  Renewable energy and carbon entrapment are good examples of this.  Yet the proliferation of such technology is often at the mercy of government investment and other incentives, which can ebb and flow depending upon the eco-political priorities being played out by governments at any given time.  Information technology on the other hand is all pervasive, both in business and everyday life. Disruptive technology like artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality are dominating industry conferences at present but with little mention of ‘tech for good’.  So is the industry taking the climate crisis as seriously as it should? 

There is actually growing evidence to suggest that tech initiatives which support the environment are on the increase and are of growing interest to the investment community.  New types of funding programmes are being put in place to support these, a recent example being the Barclays Unreasonable Impact Initiative.  This is a partnership between Barclays Bank and Unreasonable Group, which has launched the world’s first international network of accelerators, specifically focussed on scaling up entrepreneurial solutions designed to solve some of our most pressing societal and environmental challenges, while helping to employ thousands of people worldwide.    

All sorts of great initiatives have and are being developed as a result of this funding. An example being the RT7000, a highly innovative solution to the problem of end-of-life plastic, developed by Recycling Technologies. This UK start-up has developed a chemical recycling machine capable of processing up to 7,000 tonnes of plastic waste per annum that would otherwise end up being landfilled, incinerated, exported at cost or dumped illegally. As part of the recycling process, the RT7000 produces a valuable hydrocarbon named Plaxx® which can be used as an alternative to heavy fuel oil in the marine industry, so it is contributing to the circular economy. 

In addition, some of the well-known philanthropic figureheads from the world of IT have declared their intention to back new tech initiatives that have a positive impact on the environment.  Billionaire philanthropist and investor Bill Gates is launching a $1 billion fund called Breakthrough Energy Ventures to invest in new forms of clean energy.  Gates has gathered a group of 20 like-minded investors, including a number of Silicon Valley tech venture capitalists, to join him in the fund which will invest in scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to deliver cheap and reliable clean energy to the world. 

The cynic in us probably thinks that ‘responsible investments’ by certain companies are simply an effort to offset all of the unfavourable things they are involved in and this raises perhaps the biggest dilemma we face.  In the developed world, we have all grown accustomed to our lives as they are: cheap plentiful food, energy on demand, a ‘throw-away’ attitude to consumer electronics, the list goes on.  It’s inconceivable that we can reverse this trend in the short term, particularly as demand from the developing world escalates and politicians shy away from imposing any restrictions that will affect jobs and local economies.  It’s an intractable problem.  So if we can’t reverse it in the time we have, we must find a way to ameliorate it and I think technology will have a big part to play in this.  Innovations such as the RT7000 might be seen as a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the climate problem we’re facing, but it’s a positive step forward by an industry that has always shown leadership and could really help to offset the damage already done.   

That being said, our planet is facing a huge crisis and in reality, we cannot fully alleviate the environmental impact of the way we all live and work.  Despite my optimism in the part technology has to play in helping to offset this, we shouldn’t have a false sense of security and be complacent that it alone will solve the climate crisis.  Every individual has a responsibility to do something on a personal level, whether that is full blown lobbying, or simply turning off a light when you leave the room - as the saying goes, from small acorns… The worst-case climate scenarios could see the world face an ecological meltdown by 2050, well within the lifetime of current generations.  At this point it will be out of anyone’s hands, so failure is definitely not an option. 

Andrew Moore, Director, DAV Management 

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