Newsroom - Let’s make tech work against climate change

Effective use of technology is key in the fight against climate change, writes Rohan MacMahon.

Aotearoa is now well underway with a conversation about going “Carbon Zero” (i.e. achieving zero net CO2-equivalent emissions) by 2050. The Government is consulting on means to address what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has described as her generation’s “nuclear-free moment”: the impending threat of climate change. The Zero Carbon Bill is expected to be introduced to Parliament in October.

New Zealand is heavily exposed to the impact of climate change. A rise in sea level of just 30cm, the mid-range of projections, could see one-in-100-year flood inundation events happen every year in Wellington, every 2nd year in Dunedin and every fourth year in Auckland. Aotearoa’s infrastructure assets alone are worth around $200 billion, and much of this is exposed. Climate change could negatively impact major industries like agriculture, tourism, transport and financial services.

So far a lot of the korero around climate change mitigation and adaptation seems to have been around big sources of emissions like agriculture and transport.

Few people have so far considered the role of the tech sector as both a source of emissions and as a means to reduce the emissions of others. Some good work is already underway on both fronts, but is little known. The 2017 stocktake report from the Government’s Climate Change Adaptation Technical Working Group runs to 116 pages, but barely mentions the ICT sector, consigning it to a short section under “Other Business”.

So what is the tech sector’s risk, and opportunity, in mitigating climate change?

The tech sector accounts for around two percent of global carbon emissions: supporting data centres for all the apps we love to use, running broadband and mobile networks, making devices like smartphones and routers, as well as operational costs like call centres and IT. If the tech sector cuts its emissions, it makes a small but welcome contribution to an overall climate change response.

However, more importantly the sector has the potential to enable much more substantive carbon reductions in other sectors.

A study by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative estimated ICT could deliver a 20 percent reduction in global carbon emissions by 2030. There are already several well-developed technologies which can play major roles in mitigating climate change.

Smart Grid: By connecting large numbers of small devices to the internet, we can improve our interactions with the physical environment, allowing us to operate our businesses and run our lives more efficiently with lower emissions. “Internet of Things” sensors and drones can help farmers increase productivity and yield while reducing the environmental impacts of fertilisers.

Virtual & Augmented Reality: By “virtualising” physical transactions and activities, the need for physical transport is reduced. You can step into a virtual world to simulate real-life experience without leaving the comfort of your own home.

Autonomous vehicles: By allowing vehicles to communicate with one another in real time, traffic flow can be vastly improved while congestion is reduced and safety increased. We are already seeing virtualisation reducing the need for physical transport in favour of “delivery” of products and services online. However, an integrated view of transport and emissions across all modes is needed. If this is not in place, digital commerce may actually increase emissions as small, bespoke deliveries of physical goods in small quantities proliferate.

AI/ machine learning/Big Data: By harnessing improved analytical capabilities now available in major technology platforms, we can support better decision-making. Much more data than ever before is now available to you, to your business, to service providers and to the Government. Technology usage of this data is just beginning.

That might all sound rather daunting: a lot of new technologies with major possible impacts over a long period of time. However, we can also adapt to and mitigate climate change using simple, everyday tech which has been around for years, even decades.

For example, white collar workers have been able to work while away from their office for many years. Some do so, but many don’t. Remote working tools like quality home broadband, videoconferencing, cloud-based applications and Virtual Private Networks are part of the solution. The missing piece is cultural: it is up to businesspeople to re-plan their operations to actively take carbon emissions out. If every white collar worker worked from home just once a fortnight, it would reduce pressure on our transport networks (and their carbon emissions) hugely. Benefits would include shorter commuting times for those still travelling to work, and improved work life balance for those working from home. Remote working is also associated with higher employee engagement/ satisfaction and higher staff retention.

Through KiwiBuild, New Zealand is currently trying to substantially increase its housing stock. Hopefully deployment of smart building technology including lighting and heating, as well as effective housing design, can make the new properties more environmentally efficient than the current housing stock. All the more important as the latest estimates are that NZ’s buildings could account for as much as 20 percent of overall emissions.

For industrial companies, technology can improve waste management, reducing waste to landfill. The “TrashTag” app trialled at the Climathon event in Auckland last year helped consumers identify which items are and are not recyclable using the camera on their smartphone. Simple, but with a powerful impact. More re-use and higher rates of re-cycling take us towards a truly “circular economy” where outputs become inputs and the externalities of landfill and CO2 emissions are minimised. 

It’s up to those of us who work in and with the tech sector to advocate for these sorts of innovations, to ensure they are understood and are taken up by major emitters and industries.

Technologies to address climate change are not a panacea. Some tech even makes the problem worse (hello, Bitcoin miners!) while others like carbon capture and storage look like expensive ways to manage emissions rather than reducing them.

Above all, new technologies will not avoid the need for the hard decisions which have to be taken to cut CO2 emissions and build a pathway to zero net carbon. They do not permit the luxury of further delay.

Tech opportunities to improve sustainability range from the futuristic to the mundane. Whatever your perspective or your role in the problem of climate change, let’s make sure effective use of technology offers you potential solutions