By David Howell
As COP26 in Glasgow approaches, how can technology help in the fight to reverse or at least reduce the long-term impact of climate change? Clean tech and environment tech companies have a myriad of approaches. Can your business impact climate change?
The ambitions of global governments to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, is for some a fantasy, yet for others especially in the tech sector, a more than achievable goal. The current pandemic has shifted attention away from climate change and what practical steps are needed to reduce heating to below 1.50C. The rapid development of electric vehicles is one key component of the equation to reduce emissions by the stated target, but other technologies are also in development that could help the world reduce the impact of climate change over the longer term.
Clearly, a major driver behind many of these new technologies is consumer demand. The awareness of climate change and its potential impact on their lives, has pushed consumers to become more vocal with the companies they buy from asking testing questions about their climate change credentials.
Research by technology expert, Milestone Systems, found that 80% of Britons want their local authority to take more effective action against climate change, as 230 councils have declared a climate emergency in their regions.
Almost one in three (29%) members of the public cite air pollution as a key concern when visiting their local city – significantly more than the 17% who are concerned about terrorism. This is likely related to lower visibility and awareness about what is being done to combat climate issues such as air pollution.
Fewer than half (47%) of Britons is aware that enhanced use of data and technology can help to combat climate change. Younger respondents’ awareness is significantly higher than the oldest members of society (52% of 18-24-year-olds vs 31% of over 65s), signalling that greater communication of the benefits of smart tech on tackling climate problems to older people is especially needed.
The United Nations Secretary-General has labelled climate change “the defining issue of our time.” The growth rate of climate tech from 2013 has been sizable, with more than 3,750% increase over the seven-year period (2013-2019) according to PWC. New clean tech and technologies to tackle the existing emissions crisis are all developing in parallel.
A tech solution to climate change will be multifaceted. Industries including energy, transport, heavy industry and the built environment are all part of the climate change solutions that are in development. Often, these sectors and industries will have to work in partnership as they have a symbiotic relationship. Here, tech partnerships are critical to forge as soon as possible.
Speaking to Silicon, UK, Carsten Brinkschulte, co-founder and CEO of environmental tech start-up Dryad networks comments: “Clean tech is real and necessary. The use of technology is to a great extent, responsible for the carbon emissions driving climate change, and I think technology is the most likely way to solve the problem. At the same time, it is also a great business opportunity: just as when computers replaced typewriters in the ‘90s, we now need to disrupt again. This time it’s in industries that contribute substantially to climate change such as oil and gas, cement, and energy generation.”
Brinkschulte concluded: “Further to the goal of helping the transition to a net zero economy, at a minimum all tech firms should take responsibility for the impact our activities have on the planet. This requires a commitment to continually review every aspect of the business lifecycle through a green lens to minimise the environmental footprint – from product design through to manufacturing, procurement, distribution and recycling.”
In their report, PwC, look closely at the level of investment that is going into clean tech and associated climate-linked businesses. The report is telling in that the pandemic has had little impact on the levels of investments being made. “Since the crisis hit, major firms have pledged billions of dollars into this including Amazon’s $2 billion ‘Climate Pledge’ venture fund, Microsoft’s $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund, and Unilever’s €1 billion climate funds,” says PwC. “In addition, close to 300 companies now have a commitment to achieve net zero emissions before 2050.”
A recent WWF report says the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are over six times the planetary limit of sustainable consumption. Meanwhile, fuel from biomass (plant or animal material) is being burned at almost double what the Earth can sustain. Further irreversible impact on the natural world, on which human society and wellbeing depend, could be the dire consequence of failing to cut our GHG energy use by 75% within ten years, warns WWF.
Also helping in the battle against climate change are professors and students at Universities across the UK, who are also comparing energy from unconventional sources, from aeroplane vibrations to tidal wave power.
Insight reveals 2,000 new homes in Kingston Upon Thames are set to be powered by poo, otherwise known as biogas energy, a ground-breaking scheme that utilises human waste in sewage plants to generate electricity led by Thames Water. With the ability to reduce millions of tonnes of carbon emissions each year, the scheme has the potential to provide clean, green heating to new homes and, if successful, is expected to be a model for similar schemes across the UK. Whilst scientists at Bristol University have recently submitted plans for a first-of-its-kind residential setting to trial their newly harnessed ‘pee power’ technology.
Developed by Bristol University, Microbial Fuel Cell energy is set to be trialled for the first time in a residential setting this year. The property in question will be the only home in the world to use pee power as an energy source for electricity.
Bristol BioEnergy Centre Director, Professor Ioannis A. Leropoulos, who worked on the trial, comments: “I think there is a real desire for schemes like ours, we’ve had generally very positive feedback as people seem to be open to the prospect of converting waste directly into electricity. In terms of how quickly this could be rolled out, every time we demonstrate a successful installation, we get closer to wider-scale implementation, but for this to become the norm, it will need to form part of new planning and building legislation.”
Ben Gallizzi, energy expert at money.co.uk, comments: “With energy consumption set to double by 2050, we set out to find the most interesting energy trials and green energy schemes from the world’s best scientists. We were fascinated to find out that in the not-so-distant future dancing in your kitchen could power your kettle and the waste from your bathroom might be used to power your shower.
Gallizzi continued: “One of the main advantages of green energy sources is that they don’t require transportation or associated fuel costs. This is often taken into account by electricity suppliers, meaning better electricity prices for the end consumer.
“With the UK government’s ambitious climate change target to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035, the UK could be three-quarters of the way to achieving net-zero by 2050. This could mean big changes to what consumers look for when searching for the best green energy deals in the future and imagine what our energy comparison sites might look like by 2035 if we are comparing energy deals on poo power Vs Pee Power?”
People, tech and climate change
Can profit and sustainable technology to combat climate change be reconciled?
“Yes, I do believe that this is possible,” commented Eagle Genomics’s Chief Executive Officer Anthony Finbow. “We are at the end of an economic cycle, and at the start of a new one; McKinsey has called it the ‘Bio Revolution’, some prefer the term 4th Industrial Revolution,”
“Technology will play a significant role in this new cycle, as the massive profit and business opportunities involved liberate trillions of dollars of economic potential, delivering much more sustainable ways of living that will also address climate change,” Finbow continued. “To maximise our chances here, we need to develop business ideas that create new products that directly or as a by-product help fight the climate crisis. Enterprises demonstrating leadership here will also attract the most investment and long-term economic success, too.”
It’s clear that a tech solution to climate change will have many aspects some of which will be at home: “Climate change impacts us globally – what happens in one location happens everywhere,” Stuart Bonthrone, Chief Executive of Esri UK commented.
“This means that nearly every single person, and organisation, will have to adapt their behaviour to address this crisis. However, we can only adapt our behaviour if we have a full understanding of how human activity is affecting the climate. And it’s only by using technology that government and business leaders will be able to gain that in-depth understanding of the planet’s health. I believe that technology and modern analytical tools are vital for building informed climate action plans.”
Ultimately, a tech solution to climate change will be joined by governmental action and a shift in behaviour of individuals. The clean tech sector is burgeoning with many innovative start-ups that together could form an overall solution to some of the most pressing climate change issues.
Silicon in Focus
Active Building Centre, which seeks to revolutionise the way the UK designs, constructs and operates buildings by realising the potential for the integration of innovative renewable energy generation and storage technologies, coupled with state-of-the-art digital design.
Is there a tech solution to climate change?
“The more we understand the existential threat that climate change poses, the clearer it becomes that technology will be essential to our solutions. For instance, one of the biggest causes of carbon emissions are buildings, and we’re developing the tech that is driving the decarbonisation of our homes. ‘Active’ buildings are intelligent, tech-enabled buildings that generate their own renewable electricity, work out how much of it they need to use or store and seamlessly sell the surplus back to local communities. These homes are decarbonised and self-sufficient.
“Also, the truth is, when the government sets ambitious deadlines like banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, the industry turns to technology to overcome the barriers and expedite the delivery of clean, affordable, workable alternatives. Just look at the momentum and uptake behind electric vehicles.
“Similarly, with the introduction of the Future Homes Standard in 2025 banning the installation of gas boilers in new homes, technology and innovation is essential in finding new solutions to age-old problems. The Active Building Centre is already playing a vital role in making this a reality.”
Can profit and sustainable technology to combat climate change be reconciled?
“The technological development we’re seeing is already driving down costs of renewable energy, and these are only set to fall further. Research is key to helping sustainable tech be more accessible. For instance, our active building demos set the standards for future homes and commercial buildings, providing the industry with rigorously tested and refined templates that can act as a prototype proof of practical concept and commercial viability.
“Through research and innovation, we can find solutions that need not put sustainability ahead of profit. That’s why we hired Mark Chapman, Technical Director of the 600-mph plus Bloodhound vehicle, as Innovation Engineer. By using expertise and technical know-how that has already driven innovation in other sectors, we aim to quickly scale down the costs associated with sustainable technology to make green home technology attractive to business as well, and we are already making significant progress.”
Changing human behaviour would avert a climate disaster. Can we use technology to change our behaviour?
“The reality is that technology has always changed our behaviour. The challenge is making the necessary technology available, easy to use and convenient for the consumer.
“This is particularly true in the context of our built environment. As the famous Churchill quote goes, ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’ “We’re finding technological solutions to make green homes more economically viable. This will be key to motivating people to change their behaviour, by switching to more sustainable ways of heating and powering their homes.
“Our vision for the future is that active buildings will be entirely self-sufficient, free from reliance on fossil fuels, and linked together in a decentralised power grid that will allow the distribution of excess energy to other areas of need. Building owners and tenants stand to not only be able to drastically reduce the running costs of their homes, but to actually make money from selling the clean energy they generate to others in need. If we can help people make money from saving the planet, whilst making the tech more affordable, then their behaviour will change significantly.”
Is clean tech real, or is ‘clean tech’ an oxymoron?
“Clean tech is real, it’s already here. Our engineers are among the many who are creating pioneering, tech-led alternatives that are cleaner, more efficient, and climate-friendlier than the flawed systems that have created the pollution, waste and inequality of the past.
“Our innovation will identify the sweet spot for future living, driving economic growth, improving quality of life, and reducing our reliance on large-scale, high-cost, filthy power stations.
“At present, many people are unaware of the clean tech that drives these active buildings. And where they are aware, often the systems are too costly to be affordable. That’s why the work that we’re doing is so important. We’re raising awareness of these vital tech-centred solutions, while driving the innovations that will enable them to be cheap enough to roll out en masse across the country.”
Can you point to any examples of tech that is or will have (when it is perfected) a major positive impact on reducing climate change?
“One of the things we are most excited about is the research and development we’re undertaking on how we can deeply integrate smart IT systems and computers into houses and buildings. This integration will allow different household systems – electricity, water, heating to communicate with each other. Through this, an active building can not only calculate energy need for an individual building and work out how much it should store in household batteries but communicate with other active buildings. Owners could even sell excess energy to other areas in the energy grid that need it.
“The Active Building Centre R&D in Berkeley, on the banks of the Severn Estuary, pioneers new technologies and innovative energy system solutions for residential and commercial properties, to be both deployed into new-builds and retrofitted into existing stock.
“We are collecting proprietary data from a wide range of homes and large installations that will inform future industry standards on how to best configure smart in-building energy systems. By experimenting with these technologies and collecting the data, we are making carbon-neutral buildings a reality.
“It’s a pretty radical concept, but it’s closer than most people think.”
Is there now a real drive to ensure all innovations (not just in the tech sector) have minimal impact on the environment?
“At the Active Building Centre, we believe all innovation should be environmentally conscious. We are already seeing progress on this with the momentum behind the green industrial revolution that will impact every corner of our lives in the coming years. There is always more work to be done. Buildings account for 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions as a country, and the more we can communicate the urgency and size of the task ahead of us, the better placed we will be to resolve these issues on a large scale.
“We’re already the go-to centre for excellence for this technology, being one of the key advising groups on the UK and Welsh government’s £505m Homes as Power Stations Project that will see the retrofitting of 7,000 homes and building of 3,300 new homes with technology that we have a central role in central role in creating. That’s very exciting to be part of.”