In this blog post
“Never has science around the world been so abundant to meet the challenges that we have.” – Emmanuel Macro
Recently, Tata Chemicals Europe made it to the headlines of major newspapers and news websites for all the good reasons. They opened the UK’s largest carbon capture plant that can capture 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – equivalent to taking over 20,000 cars off the roads! This is just one of the many examples of how technology is playing a significant role in decoupling development and environmental degradation. Now more than ever, the emergence of new technologies has the potential to transform the crucial process of environmental protection.
Climate Change is Real
“Climate change is not a religion. It is a science. Do I believe in it? No. I look at the data, and the data is clear: it’s real, it’s us, it’s bad, and the time to fix it is NOW.”
– Prof. Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Scientist
The Earth is warming, and the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, and we have unequivocal evidence for that. The world is seeing a peak in undernourishment as extreme weather is affecting food production, availability of freshwater is declining, and health issues are on the rise, increasing mortality rates. Ecosystems are also degrading steeply, limiting their ability to support human well-being.
July 28, 2022, was the Earth Overshoot Day. For the uninitiated, it is a date calculated by Global Footprint Network, an international non-profit organization, when humanity’s demand for ecological resources exceeds the amount Earth can regenerate in that year. It is a stark reminder that urgent actions must be taken to preserve global biodiversity.
Here is how Technology can help
A new wave of technology is emerging which provides deeper understanding and insights into the various environmental challenges and assists us in finding ways in which we can solve them. In fact, these technologies are not just providing solutions to climate change problems but are also helping in convincing both industry leaders and policymakers to take immediate actions by making it possible to measure the intensity, pinpoint sources and attach a number to these problems. Data-driven transparency is a very important aspect in climate change awareness.
Some of the technologies that are helping us reboot the health of our planet are:
1. Carbon Capture – Carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies involve capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from fuel combustion or industrial processes, transporting it mainly via ship or pipeline, and either using it as a resource to create valuable products or services or permanently storing it deep underground in geological formations. Direct air capture (DAC) is also possible, which captures CO2 directly from ambient air (as opposed to a point source). The obtained CO2 can be transformed into a variety of products like solvents, fuels (methanol, aviation fuel), concrete, fertilizer, etc. It is believed that carbon capture can achieve 14 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed by 2050.
2. Methane Tracking Satellite – Methane emissions are responsible for a quarter of all the warming we’re experiencing today. To map and measure methane emissions around the world with precision, a subsidiary of the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund, MethaneSAT LLC has signed a contract with SpaceX to launch a satellite called ‘MethaneSAT’ on October 1, 2022. The data from MethaneSAT will be available for free to everyone and will help countries, companies, and citizens spot problems and identify reduction opportunities. This is not the first satellite of its kind. Another space-based methane monitoring tool is TROPOMI, launched by the European Space Agency in 2017.
Figure 1: MethaneSAT, shown in an artist’s rendering
3. Undersea Robotic Craft – To mitigate climate change, studying the ocean heating patterns is critical as oceans act as an enormous reservoir of both heat and CO2. But gathering accurate and sufficient data about the oceans to feed climate and weather models was a major challenge before the Argo program. Run by an international consortium involving 30 nations, this program operates a global fleet of around 4000 undersea robotic crafts, called ‘floats’, scattered throughout the world’s oceans. These floats dive thousands of meters underwater and measure the temperature and salinity with high levels of accuracy. The floats come to the surface every 10 days to transmit their information to data centres, which is then made available to researchers and weather forecasters all over the world. This data is important for understanding both what’s happening now to our climate system and what’s going to happen to it in the future.
Figure 2: A robotic underwater craft
4. AI for Renewable Energy
Leveraging renewable resources for energy demands usually tops the list of actions to be implemented for climate change but implementation on a global scale is easier said than done. Wind turbines and solar panels are complex, finicky engineering systems that malfunction easily making them costly to operate and maintain. Using artificial intelligence to predict power production and component failures could make it more reliable and an affordable option. Many sensors can be used for monitoring health status of solar panels and wind turbines on utility-scale farms and the data from these sensors can be used to train AI models which could then predict unexpected failures or help operators prepare for power outages and plan routine maintenance.
5. Gravity Energy Storage
Millions of elevators around the world spend a significant amount of time sitting idle but what if this existing infrastructure could be used to store excess wind and solar energy? Engineers in Austria have proposed an inventive concept for gravity-based energy storage which could be a long-term grid-storage alternative to expensive batteries and other complicated storage systems, called Lift Energy Storage System (LEST). To use the LEST technology, a building needs to be at least 50 meters high, have vacant apartments or corridors on the top and bottom of the building, and an elevator with regenerative braking system. Many scientists have also proposed similar gravity energy storage systems before, and some start-ups are already in testing phase of some of these systems.
6. Blockchain for Illegal Fishing
The advances in Blockchain technology is helping stamp out illegal fishing and slave labour in the fishing industry by giving consumers the power to track the entire journey of their fishes “from bait to plate.” This technology can potentially be used for other agricultural commodities as well, revolutionizing systems of certification and traceability. Satellite data and many cost-effective GPS tracking devices are also being used to understand the global fishing and global vessel traffic.
7. Spray-on Plant Coating
We all know the impact plastics have on environmental degradation and how research is going on to find alternatives to it. In one such research by Rutgers University and Harvard University scientists, a plant-based coating was developed that would be greener and safer than plastic packaging and is also strong enough to protect against bruising. It includes natural antimicrobial agents that can fight harmful bacteria and viruses in addition to preventing spoilage. The coating can increase the shelf-life of food and can easily be rinsed off with water. It takes just three days to biodegrade, reducing the load on landfills and limiting the spread of microplastics.
Need for more options
A new report from the UN’s climate panel shows that carbon removal is now non-optional as it’s nearly impossible to prevent 1.5 ˚C of global warming without substantial efforts. Global greenhouse-gas emissions need to be slashed nearly half in just eight years and this would require exceptional human behavior changes and efficiency improvements which would be quite challenging to accomplish in the real world.
Different approaches towards slowing down climate change have different benefits and challenges hence a wider portfolio of carbon removal options is needed. This is going to take significant research and development work to determine the most effective methods according to different scenarios. “We need all hands-on deck to explore a diverse set of options to enact both deep decarbonization and remove carbon dioxide,” wrote Frances Wang, program manager at ClimateWorks Foundation, which funds carbon removal research efforts.
Many existing technologies can have a use case for environmental protection and many more such technologies will be emerging as technology is advancing rapidly. But we need to understand that no human technology can fully replace ‘nature’s technology’ perfected over millions of years. No technology will be able to help us if behavioral changes are not made. Technology can help us save the planet but more than anything, we must learn to value nature.