We are living in a world facing unprecedented global challenges. The Earth has been in a state of relative stability for the last 10,000 years, enabling civilizations to thrive. In a short space of time, however, this stability has been put at risk.
Scientists at the Stockholm Environment Institute have identified that four out of the Earth’s nine ‘Planetary Boundaries’ have been crossed, namely climate, biodiversity, land-system change, and biogeochemical cycles. Risks will only heighten as the population swells to a projected 9 billion by 2050 increasing food, materials, and energy needs.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that our current trajectory of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will give rise to adverse impacts on people and ecosystems through water stress, food security threats, coastal inundation, extreme weather events, ecosystem shifts, and species extinction on land and sea. The challenge of climate change is an urgent one and will impact nearly all aspects of the Earth system and human society.
We are also witnessing an era of unprecedented technological change, the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) as defined by the World Economic Forum. A 4IR for the Earth program has been initiated in collaboration between WEF, Stanford University, and PwC, which is also supported by the Mava Foundation, to overcome the environmental challenges.
According to a PwC report, the 4IR technologies like advanced materials, cloud and big data, autonomous vehicles and drones, synthetic biology, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robots, blockchain, 3D printing, and the internet of things can largely contribute to the change in environment. Their influence will not only be in shaping industry and businesses worldwide but in helping, if proactively harnessed to do so, to safeguard the planet’s sustainability.
Let’s take a look at the biggest contributors to creating a better, cleaner, and safer planet.
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1. Clean Power
The global power sector accounts for 25% of global Greenhouse Gas emissions and is central to decarbonization and electrification goals. Investment of around $20 trillion is likely to be required by 2040. Smart grids, connected to each other via the cloud, and utilizing the IoT, big data analytics, and machine learning, can significantly increase the energy efficiency of the existing grid. Enhanced predictability of demand and renewables supply, can also enhance energy storage and load management, and assist the integration and reliability of renewables.
2. Smart Transport Systems
The transport sector accounts for nearly 14% of global GHG emissions and just over 50% of current global oil demand. Smart transport systems can be realized by employing a number of 4IR technologies working in conjunction. 3D printing and advanced materials enable lighter, more efficient vehicles and local production, with the potential to reduce further energy needs and emissions. 4IR solutions within advanced materials also play a key role in enabling low and zero-emissions vehicles (electric vehicles (EVs), fuel cells, and hydrogen) to compete with and ultimately replace the carbon-intensive internal combustion engine.
3. Sustainable Production and Consumption
Industry accounts for just over 20% of global GHG emissions while circular economy models could add up to $1trillion to the global economy by 2025. A solution that is already being rapidly adopted is the ‘Industrial IoT’ which combines smart machines, smart materials, and smart products across an industrial value chain. The result is advanced production optimized for resource consumption and cost including energy, raw materials, and water, whilst also enabling connection with customer devices to optimize lifespan performance.
Wider 4IR technologies incorporated by the IIoT platform include Virtual Reality product simulators to optimize smart product design, sensor-driven computing, industrial big data analytics, energy-efficient robotics, and intelligent machine applications.
4. Sustainable Land-use
Agriculture, deforestation, and degradation account for 25% of global GHG emissions, and food production could need to rise by 60% to feed a global population of $9 billion by 2050. IoT, sensors, AI, and cloud-enabled ‘precision agriculture’ can use on-farm sensors and connected machinery to access real-time data for farmer smart devices that can optimize how much water, energy, fertilizer, and feed to use, increasing productivity whilst reducing energy use and product waste. Low emissions protein development advances fuse together synthetic biology, AI, cloud, and big data.
5. Smart Cities and Homes
Cities are responsible for up to 70% of global GHG emissions. Buildings alone account for 40% of global energy use. The proportion of the world’s population in urban areas is expected to rise to 60% by 2030. Buildings and cities can utilize an array of 4IR technologies to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.
Smart building systems operate with a range of sensor-and cloud-based AI automated diagnosis and control systems, enabling remote management of water use, heating, lighting, and appliances to improve building-use efficiency. At a city level, urban planners and municipalities can use similar technologies to optimize the performance of urban systems, transport, electricity, waste collection, etc., further reducing energy use and improving energy efficiency.
If implemented successfully, the 4IR for the Earth program will not only accelerate tech innovation for Earth’s most pressing environmental challenges but also help identify, support, and scale new ventures, partnerships, and business models that harness tech to transform how the world tackles environmental challenges.