Humans have had a remarkable knack of finding solutions to various problems over the centuries. At the turn of the 20th century, just as people were becoming concerned that there wouldn’t be enough horses to transport around the growing population and goods they required, Henry Ford invented the motor car. Necessity is the mother of invention as the saying goes. And the higher the stakes are, the faster the solutions seem to be found. You only have to look at how quickly technology advanced during the first world war to see what desire coupled with the necessary funding could do for technological advancement.
We have now reached another point in history where we face some monumental challenges as a species. Many of which are environmental issues. So how can technology help the environment? How can innovation help us solve some of the biggest issues we have collectively faced.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I feel the only way we will be able to negotiate these issues is with innovation. Although as individuals the most direct daily action we can take to help is to cut back and change lifestyles, with a growing aspirational population this is going to prove a constant struggle. We need to do both.
How do we define ‘new technology’?
The word ‘technology’ tends to make us think of electronics these days, but it can actually refer to the creation and application of any new methods for practical ends.
Phone apps have become so ingrained in our daily lives, it is hard to imagine what life was like before them. Facebook and Instagram are both examples of huge apps, with over 3 billion people in the world spending an average of 50 minutes a day on those two alone. But whilst many apps have driven us to screen addictions and ‘FOMO’, some innovators have decided to leverage the technology to help the environment.
Olio is one of my favorite examples of this. It is an app invented by Tessa Clarke in the UK as a response to pain experienced from throwing away food.
Food waste is one of the biggest environmental issues we face. The average UK family throw away an average of one-quarter of their weekly shop. This collectively adds up to around £15 billion of food in landfill!
The app started out simply as a WhatsApp group where people could post about unwanted food items they had and others in the group could respond if they wanted them. The app has moved on and has since grown to be used worldwide by approximately a million people and has saved huge amounts of food from rotting in a landfill.
Check out my interview of Tessa on the podcast below:
Another example of a mobile app that has been able to create a global community of followers is Litterati. The app focuses on the issue of littering, a behavior which leads to many environmental problems such as plastic pollution in the oceans.
By getting people to take photos of pieces of litter on their phones using the app and tag the item with some basic info about the material or brand; Litterati is able to gain valuable data at a big scale, allowing them to challenge large corporations with georeferenced photographic evidence which is hard to argue against in court.
This overcame issues in a court case in California where tobacco companies questioned data on cigarette butt littering collected by surveyors with clipboards. By using technology the court case was won and a cigarette ban was implemented in certain parts of San Fransisco as a result.
I spoke to the founder of the App, Jeff Kirschner on the podcast to find out more:
Blockchain and cryptocurrency
Blockchain is most famously known for being the technology behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. It is a virtual ledger that is distributed and decentralized (i.e not held by a bank like traditional money). This ledger is extremely secure and is virtually impossible to tamper with.
So how can this technology be utilized to help the environment? One area is for preventing deforestation.
The fact the ledger is so hard to tamper with or alter makes it very useful for applications where trust might be an issue. One start-up company, Ubiquity, have started a partnership with Brazil’s Estate Registry Office to use blockchain to track who owns which areas of forest. This allows them to better track problems of people falsely claiming they own land and undertaking illegal logging.
Blockchain has been used to create special cryptocurrencies which aim to tackle particular environmental problems. Earth token in Zimbabwe is paid to local community members when they plant new trees. Using this currency makes it easier for funding from carbon offsets to get to the right people in the right place.
Artificial Intelligence and The Internet of Things
Artificial intelligence (AI) is usually used to refer to any technology that can mimic human cognitive functions in some way, thus expressing a perceived level of intelligence.
Artificial intelligence technology has gone from being the stuff of science fiction films to everyday reality in just a few decades. Amazon’s voice-controlled ‘Alexa’ is an example of this AI which is now in over 100 million homes across the world. AI is now also coupled with the ‘internet of things’ (IoT). IoT technology refers to the interconnection between everyday objects that are all connected via the internet, which enables them to send data between one another.
So where can this fascinating technology help the environment?
A basic example of where AI and IoT are being used is WaterBee, a sensor that collects various environmental data in agricultural soils using sensors allowing it to control the amount of water the soil needs. This means the soil only gets water when it needs it, rather than too frequently, therefore reducing unnecessary water wastage. This is one use of IoT in farming in what is being referred to as ‘smart farming’.
Sensors can also provide accurate up to date air-quality data to alert people and reduce the health impacts at particularly bad times. AI has the potential to do this at a very low cost compared to a person manually collecting this data. AI could use models to fill in the gaps between air quality readings to give hyper-local data.
The Small Robot Company
The small robot company is a great example of how robotics and AI can be used to benefit the environment. The machines can be used on farms for a variety of reasons, targeted pesticide use (rather than haphazard spraying) for example.
One of the biggest benefits of handing tasks over to these robots from humans in tractors is they are small and don’t compact the soil reducing the need to keep turning the soil (which releases high amounts of carbon).
To hear more about the small robot company and how they are using AI to help the environment listen to my interview with founder Ben Scott-Robinson below:
Genetic modification is often a controversial topic for many reasons, but used with caution it could have many potential environmental benefits.
Humans have been altering crops for centuries, with farmers selectively breeding them to get the tastiest, biggest most disease-resistant specimens. This took time and wasn’t always predictable and so more recently scientists have figured out how to alter the DNA of crop plants to get desired traits such as disease or drought resistance creating Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
This can lead to many potential environmental benefits:
- It could mean fewer crop failures and therefore less land use required to grow food;
- Drought resistant crops mean less water usage;
- Disease resistance means less pesticide use;
- Less food waste on farms and in supermarkets from crops altered to have longer shelf lives;
- Less fertilizer use.
This is all very exciting, but GMOs have their critics for valid reasons. There are several unknowns around altering crops genetics and then placing them in the context of the natural environment. Critics warn it could lead to the creation of ‘super pests’ that could cause wider environmental issues, or that the GMOs could pollinate with other plants such as weeds creating herbicide-resistant weeds.
One big environmental concern in recent decades has come from an increasing reliance on materials such as plastic that are incredibly cheap, easy to mold into a variety of shapes and last a very long time. Because they are cheap to make, we have no issue with using them once and disposing of them, but the fact they last a long time means they then remain in the environment for a very long time.
Plastics are one example of this type of material, made from oil, once in the environment, they pretty much last forever. Some can be recycled, but many end up finding their way to rivers and oceans where they can pose serious risks to wildlife.
So technology could help here, as companies strive to develop materials to replace these plastics, providing the same functions but without the damaging environmental side effects.
One such company is Mobius, a US start-up that has created a biodegradable alternative to plastic. Not only can this replace many environmentally damaging traditional plastics, but it is made from waste from the paper industry.
Another company Ecovative Design created an alternative to polystyrene packaging using mushrooms. Not only does the company argue that the product is as strong and protective as regular polystyrene but it also biodegrades.
The production of meat and in particular beef can have a dramatic impact on the environment. Firstly, the land use required to rear the cows often leads to the loss of habitats and the over-fertilization of soils. Secondly, the cows themselves produce large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and produce a lot of waste. Finally, many cattle are fed on corn, grain or soy which also takes a lot of lands to produce and has lead to deforestation in many countries including the Amazon rainforest.
Overall the production of meat in this way for billions of people is an inefficient energy-intensive process. There is a push towards getting people to eat more vegan diets but whilst in developed nations vegans are on the rise, the amount of meat consumed in developing nations continues to rise. For this reason, we could do with innovation to help us out.
One way of approaching this is to accept that people will carry on wanting meat and therefore we must find a more efficient way of producing it. This has lead to many startups such as SuperMeat in Israel getting huge amounts of investment to try and recreate chicken and burgers in a ‘lab’ setting, in the hope that we can make meat in breweries in the future rather than on a farm.
This technology has reached an exciting point and we could see lab-grown or cultured meat in restaurants and supermarkets within the next 10 years.
To hear more check out my interview for the podcast with Shir Friedman below.
Renewable and Cleaner Energy
We have been creating energy to cook and heat our homes since the first humans discovered fire. For a long time, this was the only way we knew how to produce energy, by burning various things, whether that was wood, coal or oil.
Unfortunately, this method of creating energy has the unwanted side-effect of producing greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide. It is only recently that we have truly started to understand the negative implications this could have.
But we have now created a world that needs huge amounts of energy to run, 88% of the global population have access to electricity and this is rising every year. It appears the option of reducing this consumption are slim.
In recent times though thanks to technological advancements, we have been able to start generating energy from ‘renewable’ sources as opposed to the non-renewable examples mentioned above. Renewable energy technology has enabled us to create electricity from the sun, from the wind, from rivers and ocean waves.
None of these methods are perfect and research continues. Concerns include the storage of energy for times when the sun isn’t shining or wind isn’t blowing. Hopefully, technology will solve this once again with the improvement in batteries. A further concern is the extraction of materials to create items such as solar panels or wind turbines. Technology must help here by improving the efficiency and recycling of the materials to reduce the impact of mining new ones.
Another controversial topic amongst many traditional environmentalists is nuclear power. This form of energy generation has been around since the 1940s and although it took a while to refine the tec (with a few big disasters along the way) it is now much safer and more reliable. Some countries have really backed its potential with France, for example, now generating 40% of it’s electricity from Nuclear.
Nuclear energy not only has much lower greenhouse gas emissions, but it is also inexpensive (once set up) and has high energy outputs.
The big issue is still around the disposal of the waste, although many advocates argue this pales in comparison to the impacts of the fossil fuels industry.
The big hope could come with the next wave of nuclear energy, nuclear fusion. This technological advancement has been hailed as our energy savior for decades but getting it to work is proving difficult. Currently, it actually takes more energy than it creates but scientists are still optimistic with some at MIT believing it could be realized in 30 years.
Smart Electrical Grid
Apart from finding alternative energy sources, making the existing energy grid more efficient, with the help of technology, can help the environment too.
The electrical grid is the term for the entire electricity cycle from power generation to transmission to distribution to use. Traditionally this was quite crude with the power plant situated near to houses and energy created as and when it was required.
Technology is transforming this into a ‘smart electrical grid’. A combination of a variety of components from smart electric meters to efficiently run renewable resources. This has many exciting outcomes one of which is from 2-way power flow where people will be able to generate their own power (from solar panels or turbines) and feed that into the grid themselves.
Drones have gone from being complex, expensive machines associated with the context of military operations to being so affordable that it was a top request of Christmas wish lists of many children in the last few years.
As the affordability of these machines has improved, people have started using them for various applications which could help the environment.
There are two different approaches to the application of drones. Firstly they can be utilized to gather important survey data such as mapping areas of deforestation, forest fires or even to track the movement of wildlife. With the advancements of the cameras and improvement of the battery life of the machines, drones can access areas quickly and cheaply that were either inaccessible previously or would have required an expensive helicopter to do so.
The company Conservation Drones are utilising drones for many conservation purposes such as detecting forest fires in Indonesia using thermal imaging cameras attached to their drones.
They have also been involved in many habitat mapping projects such as one in Tanzania where they were able to use the drones to accurately map an area to help scientists understand how chimpanzees were using the area. This is the kind of thing that would have been much more difficult and expensive before this technology was available.
The second way to use drones to help the environment is to actively provide the solution. One company doing this is British-based start-up Biocarbon Engineering that have created a re-forestation drone.
The drones which were developed by a NASA engineer can shoot biodegradable pods containing all the ingredients needed for a tree to start growing directly into the ground from about 2 or 3 meters up.
The company estimates this could speed up tree planting by 10 times at approximately 15% of the cost of doing it by hand. It also allows planting in areas that are hard or difficult to access.
Technology has saved our species many times in the past, from life saving vaccinations to sanitising water supplies. And as you can see from this list (which just scratches the surface) there is hope that the ingenuity of humans can help us once more.
There is no doubt that issues such as climate change are some of the most serious that we have ever faced and although we can all try and cut back on emissions and waste, the task at hand is so huge that we are going to need technology to help us out wherever possible.
This isn’t to say that new technology always holds the answer. Using technology for the sake of it can be costly and distracting. Blockchain is a perfect example, the technology requires a huge amount of computing power to run, and therefore a large amount of energy. If this isn’t run with clean renewable energy, it may actually create more problems than it solves.
But we shouldn’t let that get in the way of experimentation and innovation. These things take time and trial and error before the best solutions can be found.