Climate change is having a massive impact on us and our environment Image: Unsplash/Greg Rakozy
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- Technological innovations can help cut the carbon footprint of an increasingly energy-hungry world.
- They can boost energy efficiency in smartphones and computers, resulting in a net decrease in power use.
- AI and other technologies are also helping with studies into the causes and effects of climate change, which in turn supports the development of solutions.
Climate change remains one of the biggest threats facing humanity and our collective future. And it’s one that is increasing in severity: The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently reported that the effects of global warming are being felt at lower temperatures than expected.
While the current mean global temperature increase of around 1.1 degrees Celsius is below the 1.5-degree target set by the Paris Climate Agreement, we are already seeing the catastrophic effects of climate change on land and ocean ecosystems, as well as to communities displaced by flooding and droughts. Now, we must look at what is being done, what we can do, and how we can work together to head off a tipping point that we – and the planet – cannot recover from.
What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?
For those of us working in technology field, that means developing the tools and technologies that can cut the carbon footprint of an increasingly energy-hungry world and develop solutions able to revolutionize nature conservation and address climate change.
Energizing the planet with technology
Inextricably linked to humanity’s impact on the climate is global energy consumption, which has risen nearly every year in the past half-century.
In the short-term, increased technology adoption contributes to this trend. In 2020, for example, smartphones accounted for 1% of global carbon emissions, which is set to rise to 3.5% within a decade. Equally, network traffic is predicted to increase fivefold from 2018 to 2024, with each person in the world expected to generate the data equivalent of 6,700 photo uploads per day by 2024. However, in the long-term, technological innovation will greatly boost energy efficiency in the ICT field, resulting in a net decrease in total energy consumption. Huawei has already committed to increasing the energy efficiency of its products by at least 270%, which is in turn spurring breakthroughs in areas like mathematical theories, algorithms, and materials – breakthroughs that we can pass on to other industries and consumers. In fact, the reduction in carbon emissions enabled by digital technologies in other industries will likely be ten times greater than the carbon emissions produced by the ICT industry itself.
We are also helping telecom operators to increase the proportion of renewable energy they use as well as reduce emissions. To track carbon emissions against data traffic and support operators in refining their net-zero roadmaps, we developed the Network Carbon Intensity Index in 2021 with ICT specialists Informa. We have applied this index to our integrated green development solution, covering sites, networks, and operations. For example, green outdoor telecom equipment sites mounted on poles can reach an energy efficiency of 97% and smart network access technologies can automatically switch smartphone users from 2G or 3G telecom networks to more efficient 4G or 5G networks, realizing measurable energy savings.
Tech4Nature: Giving back with technology
Technological innovation can also be deployed on the frontlines of environmental protection to positively impact climate change.
Under our TECH4ALL initiative, Tech4Nature projects developed with our partners use cutting-edge technology for nature conservation. In Austria, we have deployed a Nature Guardian system with Rainforest Connection, the University of Vienna, and other local partners, to monitor the wetland ecosystem around Lake Neusiedl. Acoustics technology and AI collect and study the sounds of bird and amphibian species with the aim of developing protective measures against climate change, which has shrunk the lake’s reed belt by one third over the last decade and threatened the habitats of both local and migratory species.
In the Palawan Rainforest in the Philippines, similar technology deployed in partnership with Rainforest Connection, Smart Communications, and the Philippine government’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources alerts rangers to the sounds of the chainsaws and trucks used by illegal loggers and the gunshots of poachers in near-real time. Illegal logging accounts for half of deforestation in tropical rainforests, which destroys species’ habitats and itself is a major contributor to climate change due to the reduction of carbon sinks. The Palawan rainforest loses 5,500 hectares of cover – the equivalent of 7,700 football pitches – each year, a trend that we believe technology can break.
Coral reefs are also victims of climate change. Due to rising sea temperatures and the resulting coral bleaching, up to 50% of the live coral framing Point aux Feilles in Mauritius perished in 2016. In 2020 with our partners EcoMode and Mauritius Telecom, we deployed an AI-powered video solution to provide data for studying the reef ecosystem. The project aims to regrow up to 50,000 coral fragments in coral nurseries, rehabilitate the section of reef affected by a disastrous oil spill in 2020, and protect five hectares of coral reef by 2023.
Despite the enormous and sustained environmental pressure facing our planet, I believe that technology can have – and is having – a pivotal impact on the causes and effects of climate change.
Indeed, on the release of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on April 4, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres commented, “The IPCC report before us today is powerful evidence that we have the potential to mitigate climate change. We are at a crossroads. This is the time for action. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming and secure a livable future.”
This year’s Earth Day must be a time of both reflection and action. In particular, we must keep in mind that our children will bear the brunt of the consequences if we fail to act, invest enough in protecting our home, or navigate the crossroads that we are undoubtably at.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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