Tech to the Rescue: SMART2020 White Paper

Technology has been lauded as humankind's saving grace in our fight against climate change! It's almost like a miracle drug that we can apply to make all our excess carbon go away. But how exactly can technology help?

Technology, the miracle drug

First, we need to understand what technology does exactly. Why do we have it? From a layman's terms and experiences, technology helps you be more efficient; meaning you do things faster and in greater scale. Technology enables the vehicles which makes getting from place to place more efficient. It enables the mobile phone that makes communication more efficient. It enables the robots that make production lines more efficient. It enables the research that makes growing food more efficient.

These examples show the two key reasons why technology has garnered all this savior hype - it can make the fight against climate change more efficient; and it cuts across every industry!

The SMART2020 white paper delves into this, and shows us where exactly the opportunities are for technology as we move towards a low-carbon economy globally by year 2020. SMART2020: Enabling a Low-Carbon Economy in the Information Age makes a number of bold statements about technology, but the statement that resonated with me the most was this:

“...ICT’s largest influence will be by enabling energy efficiencies in other sectors,...could deliver carbon savings five times larger than the total emissions from the entire ICT sector in 2020.”
— SMART 2020

The opportunities from technology

SMART2020 essentially highlights five areas where technology has the most significant opportunities to reduce carbon emissions. These are:

Smart motor systems: Industrial activity is one of the largest contributors to global carbon emissions (23%). And even though we never notice them, motor systems are at the heart of this activity. Motors are not known for their energy efficiency because they always operate at full capacity, no matter the load they are carrying. But technology can make motors smart, meaning they can now measure how much load they are carrying and adjust their capacity and energy use accordingly. This is a big deal for energy savings in the manufacturing industry!

Est. Savings: 200 MtCO2e by 2020 globally

Smart logistics: Increasing globalization and general global economic growth has meant that transportation of goods across countries and continents is growing. But logistics, particularly transport and storage, account for about 14% of global carbon emissions! But technology can go a long way towards making logistics more efficient. This can be done through using software that can optimize transport routes, optimize loading to and fro (to ensure the vehicles are never empty), allow centralized distribution hubs, improve efficiency in home deliveries, improve fuel efficiency in vehicles, and reduce inventory.

Est. Savings: 1.52 GtCO2e in 2020 globally

Smart buildings:  Buildings and their maintenance account for about 8% of total global emission, but this percentage is expected to increase given the growth in urbanization in areas like Asia and Africa. But design, construction, and maintenance of buildings can be much more efficient using technology. The US and Canada are leading the world in this respect. For example, energy modelling software helps architects design for most efficient energy use, sensors help know when people are in a room and automatically put on/off the lights or cool/heat accordingly, and design can best make use of natural sunlight and wind direction.

Est. Savings: 1.68 GtCO2e in 2020 globally

Smart grids: The power sector accounted for 24% of global emissions in 2002, and energy distribution networks contribute enormously to power wastage; e.g. grids often lose power in transmission, need to be higher than capacity needed in case of unexpected power surges, and only have one way of communication - from provider to customers. But making grids smart, using technology, addresses all these. The smart grid enables power to be routed more efficiently using data gotten from how customers use energy. The use of Off-Grid renewable energy is also a significant opportunity to save energy throughout the lifespan of the building.

Est. Savings:  of 7.8 GtCO2e in 2020

Dematerialization: Dematerialization essentially means reducing material/ physical objects, and this can be applied in everyday life and work! Reading an e-book rather than a hardcopy is dematerialization. Or paying your bills online, accessing government services through an e-government portal instead of visiting their offices, working from home, teleconferencing instead of traveling for a meeting, attending events virtually, purchasing/streaming music online instead of buying CDs, etc. Technology makes all these possible! The biggest example of dematerialization that would have the most impact is teleworking/working from home as it reduces the amount of carbon emitted by vehicles.

Energy Savings: 500MtCO2e in 2020

Conclusion:

Essentially, global carbon savings enabled by technology is estimated at 7.8 GtCO2e by 2020(an assumed total of 51.9 GtCO2e globally), the biggest being from Smart Grids. Meaning it can reduce 15% of carbon emissions by 2020 (with only the tech we have right now). Estimated dollar amount to this is about USD 950 billion a year globally. This savings is actually five times larger than technology industry's own carbon footprint and shows the massive impact the industry has for other industries.

As with all things tech, the major implication here is the significant mind-shift people and businesses have to go through to understand, explore and accept these opportunities. This unavoidable culture shock may even be the least challenging thing to overcome. We would still need the right smart technology (some of which are not conceived yet, especially for the dematerialization opportunity), the right skills to operate and maintain the technology, the right processes and procedures, the right production lines, and the right attitude towards long term personal and business savings.

Still, the landscape is hopeful. Some even go so far as saying that just as our 5th wave of technology was the Information Age we are currently in, a 6th waves is fast approaching - the age of Sustainable Technology. Let's be ready!