Climate Action

3 surprising ways technologies are being deployed to tackle the climate crisis

Satellite over the coast.

Earth Observation (EO) involves gathering information about the Earth's surface, waters and atmosphere using remote sensing platforms. Image: Unsplash/SpaceX

Rebecca Geldard
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • More than half of the world's population is already feeling the impacts of the climate crisis.
  • Technology is crucial for managing resources and accelerating decarbonization.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Digital Editor, Linda Lacina, spoke to three innovators working on the latest data-driven and digital technologies critical to global mitigation and adaptation efforts.

The path to net zero is complex and unpredictable. It's also on the most serious deadline humankind has ever faced, with more than half of the world's population already feeling the impacts of climate change.

Technology provides the essential tools for managing resources and speeding up decarbonization and the energy transition for a sustainable future: climate tech is big news and big business. Emerging digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, are helping leaders prepare and build resilience while bringing significant economic opportunities.

The World Economic Forum’s Digital Editor, Linda Lacina, spoke to three innovators working on the latest data-driven and digital technologies critical to mitigation and adaptation efforts worldwide.

Here’s how their discoveries could better protect the planet’s ecosystems, provide carbon capture solutions and double the capacity of onshore wind turbines.

Examples of what remote sensing can measure
Earth observation using remote sensing technology is being used to map the planet’s ecosystems. Image: World Economic Forum

Earth observation for nature conservation

Earth Observation (EO) involves gathering information about the Earth's surface, waters and atmosphere using remote sensing platforms – on the ground, in the air and via satellite. The data is analyzed to monitor and assess both natural and human-made environments for various applications and industries.

And it has the potential to drive $3.8 trillion in economic benefit by 2030 while positively impacting climate and nature, according to a recent World Economic Forum report.

Amplifying the Global Value of Earth Observation estimates EO could inform interventions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 2 gigatonnes annually.

"No one will argue it's important we protect the integrity and health of Earth – because that is our home. For us to properly care for it, we need to understand it, and for us to understand it, we need to monitor it," says Yana Gevorgyan, Secretariat Director of Group on Earth Observations, an intergovernmental body developing collaborative user-driven Earth intelligence solutions.

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"Earth observation data is vast. It's collected from a multitude of technologies and systems. We need to constantly maintain that meticulous organization and how we're collaborating in the space of data sharing and data management – creating products that are standardized, or at least harmonized, for the users to get the right answers they need."

To this end, Gevorgyan has assembled a global science supergroup of data experts, conservation scientists and ecologists to create a first-of-its-kind single, open online resource that consolidates high-quality ecosystem maps from around the world.

‘Atlas’, which will be rolled out first in California, aims to map global ecosystems in unprecedented but accessible detail, allowing governments and individuals to take action for nature conservation.

"Over half of the world's ecosystems today are not mapped. We don't even know where they are. We don't know how to categorize and classify them, and we don't really know enough about their condition and how they're changing," Gevorgyan explains.

“So this initiative aims to close this knowledge gap and put all the world's ecosystems on the map through harmonizing the approach to mapping and placing them, then monitoring change over time.”

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AI for decarbonization

Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing the game in many areas of research, not least in scientific disciplines, where experts believe its use could accelerate a revolution.

Insilico Medicine is another organization harnessing the technology’s potential for good. The biotech company’s Pharma.AI platform is facilitating new drug development in biology, chemistry and clinical research.

Sustainability is an area of focus for its founder, chemist Alex Zhavoronko – particularly how biotechnology and generative AI can be used together to mitigate climate change.

“What I am passionate about, in terms of the application of generative AI in chemistry specifically is, of course, drug discovery,” he confirms. “But now we can also use the same generative artificial intelligence engines to identify solutions that allow you to do more efficient carbon capture. Because we want to live in a greener, healthier world.”

As part of its Generative AI for Sustainability vision, Insilico’s platform is also being used to develop more sustainable chemicals, fuels and materials in partnership with several companies.

"So, now we can create highly specific chemicals that capture carbon efficiently and then release it in a reusable form. So you don't necessarily need to go and store it somewhere," Zhavoronko explains.

“We're currently focused specifically on metal-organic frameworks and amines, but also several other, very promising technologies that allow us to combine certain molecules to create efficient filters that can capture CO2 and then release it in a reusable form.”

Zhavoronko points out the significant demand for the gas in biomanufacturing and other settings.

“A lot of CO2 is purchased for use by biological, biomedical manufacturing. And instead of getting this gas, spending a lot of money on producing it, you can actually capture it from the atmosphere.”

This work, he adds, can help supply that need while contributing to the creation of sustainable products.

“I think in the next five years, we should be able to have materials that will allow us to decarbonize efficiently. And if we figure out a way to also reuse the CO2 for industrial purposes, like, for example, growing artificial meat and artificial food in the laboratory … you would be able to … not only decarbonize but also feed the planet.”

Still in development, WindRunner is the world’s biggest plane.
Still in development, WindRunner is the world’s biggest plane, built to increase wind turbine capacity worldwide. Image: Radia

Aviation for green energy

Wind turbines are an increasingly familiar sight, both inland and at sea, and highly effective at generating electrical energy. Installed wind capacity worldwide has increased by a factor of 98 between 1997 and 2018 – from 7.5GW to 733GW, IRENA data shows.

But while these sustainable-power devices seem pretty large, their size – determined by the constraints of road and rail transportation – is a limiting factor in their potential effectiveness on land, according to Mark Lundstrom, CEO of Radia, a Colorado-based energy start-up.

“The only thing that's standing between us and GigaWind, offshore-sized turbines, onshore, is having a transportation issue solved,” he says.

“Today, the turbines are simply too big to get under bridges, through tunnels, around curves. And that's why blades are typically limited in the 70m range or so, onshore, whereas offshore they're well over 100m in length – Eiffel Tower-sized machines.”

Lundstrom’s answer to the problem? Create the world’s biggest plane to deliver giant rotor blades wherever needed. WindRunner, designed to meet aerospace industry standards, is 12 times bigger in volume than a 747 aircraft and can land on a shorter strip than any commercial plane, according to Radia.

The company says that with a conservative WindRunner fleet, GigaWind could add up to 216GW to the United States’ grid, and supply up to 40% of total US electricity generation by 2050, according to a recent report by consulting firm DeSolve LLC.

“This will enable the doubling of the capacity of a wind turbine. Also, it allows you to triple the acreage in the world where wind is economically viable. And so there's a giant universe of new sites that can be opened up that are not currently available for wind energy,” Lundstrom explains.

“That means that new land masses can be opened up, new revenue streams for new farmers. So new communities have new economic opportunities that they don't have today.”

Radia plans to establish a fleet that will eventually operate from geographical hubs worldwide, delivering parts directly to anywhere within a 2,000km radius.

“Our goal is to continue to build the fleet and to continue to deliver more and more of the turbines of the world, making them bigger and bigger, and have the biggest impact on carbon that we can by deploying more larger turbines.”

Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.

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