Sustainability in Tech: How Tech and Human Ingenuity Can Save Our Future and Our Climate
The numbers don’t lie – the effects of climate change are overwhelming and happening right now. Wildfires are more frequent and more destructive in recent years and the wildfire season has increased by 78 days since the 1970s. Nearly 75 percent of our coral reefs, which support 25 percent of all marine life, are at risk of dying or already irreversibly damaged. The same processes that create CO2 also produce air pollutants and in the U.S., we spent an estimated $6.5 billion on health-care costs related to air pollution in 2016 alone. Nuisance flooding affects larger areas than before and more frequently. Storm surges push further inland from rising sea levels and land erosion and threaten coastal cities. This is especially concerning as an estimated 8 of the world’s 10 largest cities and 40 percent of the U.S. population live along the coast.
At VivaTech this year, climate change featured prominently in panels and ever more so in the discussions with my fellow industry leaders. When you reflect on these numbers, it’s easy to see why. Scientists and experts have been very clear on this one point – the time to act is now and the longer we wait, the greater the risk is of irreversible damage. We have a vital responsibility to fight climate change and reverse its most detrimental effects. In some areas, especially surrounding awareness, we’ve began to see improvement, and although it’s not enough, it’s an important start.
At HPE, we’ve made a commitment to sustainability but that’s just the beginning. We’re leading by example in the tech sector as the first IT company to set emissions targets across our value chain that align with climate science. As those who attended Viva Tech will have heard, we’ve also set a goal to reduce our operational emissions by 55% by 2025 (from 2016 levels) and have identified three key industries where a real difference can be made in improving sustainability and fighting climate change.
Nearly two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions are released during the extraction, processing and manufacturing of goods. This data clearly illustrates the link between manufacturing in its current state and increasing greenhouse gas emissions levels, and further illuminates the role technology must play if we hope to stop climate change. Extracting and consuming far fewer materials may be – in large part – the answer to curbing climate change. Technology has the power to change these numbers significantly and for the better, particularly by accelerating the adoption of circular economy principles.
Technology can increase efficiencies of energy and materials through smarter operations, predictive maintenance and refurbishment, and data-driven processes.
We can begin to improve sustainability in manufacturing by first accepting accountability. Based on our own marketplace analysis, we’ve found that although numerous manufacturing companies declare implementation of circular economy principles, most have adopted only basic activities (e.g. improving recycling rates) and only a few have adopted the principles into various streams of their business activities and therefore expanded their business models.
And many circular economy principles are adopted too little, too late in the manufacturing cycle. Often, these efforts are focused only on end-of-life, like recycling, instead of prioritizing earlier intervention like designing products for optimal efficiency. According to a recent study, only one-third of companies integrate circularity into the design phase, and a mere 12% engage in activities that shift ownership models through lease/share services. These numbers aren’t particularly encouraging, but we do have the ability and technology to improve them.
In many ways, data holds the key to our future, and optimizing manufacturing is no exception. If we leverage our unused data produced at different stages within the manufacturing process, and build the necessary computing infrastructure to process it, we can feed it back into the process, which will result in increased efficiency and more sustainable design. And with advanced analytics and AI, we have the ability to gather and synthesize data at every edge to unveil inefficiencies and drive smarter operations and continuous product improvements – whether your edge is a factory floor, a refinery, a power grid, or a crop field.
Adopting circular economy principles isn’t just the moral choice – it’s a profitable one, too.
Applying technologies to transition towards a circular economy for consumer electronics has an estimated potential market worth $90 billion by the year 2030. For HPE, last year alone, our customer engagements on sustainability and IT efficiency contributed to $312 million in HPE net revenue. Those are sound and highly motivating numbers no matter which way you look at the circular economy.
The effects of climate change on energy and utilities is starting to reverberate across industries. The past few decades have been somewhat of a golden age for natural gas utilities, following the boom of natural gas extraction from shale assets. But now that policies are being enacted to reduce our carbon footprint, utilities are beginning to see an increased demand for more renewable energy sources. This increased demand for renewable energy is occurring simultaneously as utilities companies are increasingly unable to bear the financial and logistical burden of rebuilding after natural disasters. The U.S. has already experienced two natural disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion in 2019 alone. Eventually, utilities companies may decide to stop serving areas frequently affected by natural disasters altogether.
It’s clear, now more than ever, that global electricity grids are running up against serious limitations. We need a better alternative to the traditional, wasteful model, which is where intelligent grids come into play. Intelligent grids will function more efficiently, enabling better service, affordability, and resiliency in the face of dwindling resources and increased climate disruptions.
The sheer volume of data required for successful operation of a smart grid infrastructure will require emerging tech like AI.
But smart, sustainable technology isn’t a far-off reality – our customers are already reaping the benefits of a more integrated, edge-enabled grid. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Texas coastal cities. We saw the flooding of our Houston offices and grieved with our colleagues there. Many individuals lost power for days, if not their entire homes, but thankfully, with the implementation of edge devices, CenterPoint Energy, an HPE customer, was able to recover quickly and begin supplying energy back to Houstonians when they needed it most. Climate disruptions, like Hurricane Harvey, demonstrate how critical intelligent grids and smart, sustainable city designs are to our future.
Today, 55 percent of the world’s population lives in cities and by 2050, these numbers will increase to an estimated 68 percent. A potential, additional 2.5 billion will be born into or move into urban areas. This means that cities need to be built smart and sustainable. And smart cities are a smart financial decision, too. When cities are driven by data and enabled by human ingenuity, we could cut down on costs and inefficiencies and build stronger, more resilient economies.
Let’s discuss some of the areas where smart, sustainable city planning could be most beneficial.
Transportation is the biggest, direct contributor to greenhouse gases since 2016. In smart cities, traffic management and car emissions can both be significantly improved through smart traffic lights. For example, Pittsburgh recently installed smart traffic lights, which cut the average journey time by 25 percent and emissions by 20 percent. Intersection wait times have also decreased by up to 40 percent, and that’s valuable time given back to your daily routine and towards productivity.
Smart infrastructure has the potential to improve numerous facets within city living, including better waste management, energy efficiency and emergency responses. AI can simulate emergency situations, predict outcomes and assist in improving emergency responses. Blockchain, although still in its early stages of development, could drastically change emergency responses for the better by connecting services together and aiding in coordination of resource deployment. Smart waste sensors, while still in the early planning phases, can significantly improve the efficiency of waste management by optimizing waste collection routes and even contribute to sustainability goals.
The building sector accounts for 20 percent of energy used globally. Big Data and IoT are the key components in activating technology that will enable more efficient buildings, but we’ll need serious processing power to fully leverage Big Data. Smart controls, which can detect when rooms are being used and traffic patterns, can decrease energy consumption in simple controls by 10 percent and in more advanced controls by up to 40 percent.
The task of combating climate change is a responsibility we all share, and as leaders in the tech industry, we occupy a vital role.
It’s a huge undertaking, but it’s not impossible to make a real difference and we owe it to future generations, as I do to my own children. If we continue to remain indifferent or frozen by fear and indecision, climate change will worsen and it will be those who have contributed to climate change the least who suffer the most dire consequences.
As Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Kofi Annan, said, “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.” We have the knowledge, the information and the education necessary to change our future, and I believe if we come together, we will.
Looking forward to next year’s Viva Tech conference and to leading in the next year in the fight against climate change.