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Can technology help save the planet?


Only One Earth and 8 billion humans and countless other animals and plants and a multitude of other species inhabiting it—there’s a point where the balance tips and disasters unfold. If the last two years are anything to go by, humans seem to have crossed such a point.

From our carbon footprint to microplastics in our food and water, and the debilitating effects of the pandemic, we’ve survived a lot and this survival comes with stark knowledge of the oftentimes devastating impact of the life choices we make every day.

As per Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, a report by the IPCC—a UN body for assessing the science related to climate change—up to 50 per cent of the world’s population (3.3 to 3.6 billion people) are living in “highly vulnerable” settings that are to climate change.

The good news is that we can hold on to more than hope. We have many of the solutions needed, largely brought about by technology and it’s estimated that we’ll need to invest a couple of percentage points of the world’s GDP to get to net-zero by 2050.


The Role of Tech

The IPCC report sheds a light on the possibility that with the right policies, infrastructure and technology and the will to change our lifestyles and behaviour to be more attuned to sustainable growth, we may be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70 per cent by 2050.

It’s therefore pertinent to ask what role technology can play in helping us create a better Earth. Let’s examine a few examples.


The Science of Data

Some decades ago, the only people who dealt with data were statisticians. Then in the past two decades, the quantum of data generated by us daily increased so much that data is now being equated with oil. Likely because of the wealth of knowledge and insights it holds, for governments, private organizations, and businesses alike.

Data pertaining to our shopping habits, living habits, entertainment habits, travel habits, and so much more is generated in terabytes every day. People making sense of these large quantities of data are data scientists. So far, data science has helped us ascertain our carbon footprint, our plastic footprint, the amount of trash in our oceans, and the rate of global warming, and it has helped us predict cyclones and tsunamis and the increase in water levels across the oceans of the world.

To say that Data Science has a pivotal role to play in helping us overcome the challenges of the world around us would be understating it.


Machines that Learn and Intelligence that is Artificial

When programming was catching up, we could not have predicted that it would bring us to a stage where we would use it to train powerful computers to perform complicated tasks for us like build models that predict everything from traffic patterns to climate change impact on different regions of the world, from draught to extreme rainfall.

As computing abilities develop, we find our machines capable of utilizing historical and fresh data to generate accurate models of the climate, emissions, and migrations of rural and urban populations of humans, animals, birds, and more. These models can help us determine the course of action to combat potential threats to a range of systems such as farms, forests, rivers, and even electricity.

You might wonder what traffic prediction has got to do with climate change. The simple answer is that we live in an interconnected world—the more efficient the route, the lesser the fuel consumption; the lesser the fuel consumption, the lesser the carbon footprint.

Consider that the logistics industry contributes to 8% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions. If the industry benefits from optimized routes, imagine the extent to which all industries could collectively experience the changes that could, if not mitigate, but significantly reduce the industrial carbon footprint. The wonderful thing about ML and AI, is that these technologies have evolved enough to make it possible.


Unlocking the Possibilities of Blockchain

While the world knows blockchain as the force powering crypto currency, it has found a way into conversations around sustainability, pollution, and several other aspects of climate change, as a way to track, monitor, and transition to clean energy and sustainable industry.

A recent UN Environment Programme report about the practical uses of blockchain in combating climate change brings to light an interesting project led by Power Ledger, an Australian company, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, that installed solar panels on the roofs of houses of a village, and allowed the villagers to sell electricity generated, to other users on the grid, and set prices in real-time and carry out the transactions on blockchain.

Imagine the scope of change such a project can bring across the world when implemented at scale. And that is just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities.


Technology as An Environmental Ally

In the words of the organizers of Earth Day 2022, “change starts with action”. It is indeed heartening to observe how “a billion acts of green are happening across the planet”. It’s encouraging that so many technology firms are joining the initiative to find ways to do more with less while still bringing exciting new products to the market.

While it’s quite common to consider tech as the enemy, there is truly another side to this story. Rapid technological advances may have posed a problem to sustainable growth, but it is also true that technology is a strong ally in turning our only Earth into a sustainable home for us all.

(The author Subramanyam Reddy, Founder and CEO, KnowledgeHut and the views expressed in this article are his own)

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