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Cuma, Şubat 3, 2023
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Key technologies against the climate crisis

Will new technologies be able to combat the climate crisis created by older technologies?

by İrem Denli


Putting aside all the complexity and perspective most of us have a hard time grasping, two very simple reasons lie at the core of the existence of technology: coming up with solutions to simplify and interpret life with the implacable curiosity of humanity.

We made weapons by sharpening stones to fulfill the need to protect ourselves. With the discovery of fire, we gave a start to the age of ‘enlightenment’. With the invention of the wheel, we laid the base of all transportation systems and logistics of today 

When we reached the second half of the 1800s, we went through The Second Industrial Revolution, known as the ‘Technological Revolution’. With the start of coal use for electricity generation, technology’s first profound effect on climate change kicked in and paved the way for carbon emissions to reach more-serious-than-ever levels. Although the amount of coal used to produce energy was relatively small during the 1880s, it was the year 1961 when coal became the dominant fossil fuel to produce electricity generation. Later scientific studies have documented the destructive effects of carbon emission on the planet; however, fossil fuels are still the most common way to generate energy. 

Concerning that, as technology developed, the number of technological devices used by consumers increased in direct proportion to that. This caused an increase in energy consumption, which directly led to the use of more fossil fuels.

Electricity is an essential factor for digital technologies and on the point of the sector becoming more dependent on electricity as developing mass production requires, the electricity demand also increases accordingly. Currently, most of the electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants, which sums up how fair Lozano’s statement is: ‘The Internet is the largest coal-fired machine on the planet.’ On the extent of this environmental impact’s role on climate change, we can give 4 intertwined examples:

1. Electricity for manufacturing devices

The amount of electricity required for the production of digital devices is considerably larger than for daily use. According to this, a report published by Smil in 2016 puts forth that all cars produced in 2015 weighed 180 times the weight of all portable electronic equipment produced in the same year; however, only 7 times more energy is used in their production.

2. Electricity for digital technology

The overall demand for electricity in digital technology is skyrocketing. Smil expresses that ICT networks used almost 5% of the world’s electricity in 2012 and predicts that it will have reached a level of 20% by 2025. 

A major part of electricity demand results from the direct use of digital technology, such as powering servers, and equipment and charging mobile devices. But especially indirect demand, such as air-conditioning to decrease the temperature of places where digital technologies are used, also should be taken note of.

The heat caused by such technologies hints at the inefficiency of current practices. Two-thirds of the energy used in mobile base stations is wasted as heat; however, if digital technologies were designed to use energy more efficiently, not waste it, this situation could have been prevented.

With that being said, data storage, management, analysis, and the ever-increasing demand for data flow are anticipated to follow an uptrend, meaning that we will need much more energy soon to manage these processes.

3. Electricity for new digital technologies

Some new technologies, particularly blockchain, have been developed without considering the energy needed for their operation and the environmental effects resulting from that. For example, in an article published by the World Economic Forum in 2017, it is stated that ‘By 2020, Bitcoin mining could be consuming the same amount of electricity every year as is currently used by the entire world.’. 

The carbon footprint that Bitcoin had only at the beginning of 2020 was equal to that of Denmark with 34.73 Mt CO, its energy consumption was equal to that of Austria with 73.12 TWh, and its e-waste was equal to that of Luxembourg with 10.95 kt. 

4. Electricity for 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT)

The energy demand of the projects related to Smart Cities, 5G, and the Internet of Things, and the environmental costs of these projects cause concerns. For example, the denser networks needed for 5G will lead to a greater electricity demand unless more energy-efficient technologies are implemented. Similarly, the massive spread of the Internet of Things on a mass scale is expected to give considerable rise to energy use. Some argue that these technologies will enable more efficient systems to get into our lives, and it is almost certain that they will increase the electricity demand. 

Transportation: one-fifth of the global emissions

Modern planes, cars, trains, and ships have made it possible to travel from one place to another much faster than our ancestors could have imagined. But such technological developments and the boom in the use of these vehicles paved the way for more carbon emissions. For example, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, the transportation sector is responsible for almost one-third of the climate-changing emissions caused by the United States. On the other hand, transportation makes up one-fifth of global emissions.

Which vehicle causes how much carbon emission?

According to the data provided by the International Energy Agency, road transport constitutes three-quarters of global transport emissions. While the majority of 45.1% of this comes from passenger vehicles such as cars and buses; 29.4% comes from trucks. Air transport, one of the hot topics of climate change, has an 11.6% share in global transport emissions. The fact that the world’s population is growing uncontrollably indicates that there will only be more drivers and passengers in the future.

The sustainability question

‘Redundancy’ and ‘sustainability’ are the biggest questions in technology. They branch off into two distinct problems:

Replacing rather than repairing

It used to be rare to see mobile phones breaking down in the era when mobile phones were just beginning to become popular and models such as Nokia 3310, Siemens C45, and Nokia 1100 were widely used. Nowadays, the average usage time of our smartphones is limited to two years. Even if the device functions properly, it either stops receiving updates or becomes ‘old-fashioned’ due to the new features in newly released models. So somehow, we feel like we have to update our smartphones with newer and better ones due to both technical and societal pressures. At this point, we come across some interesting data:

  • An average smartphone creates 55 kilograms of carbon emissions in manufacture, equal to 26 weeks of laundry.
  • The number of smartphones sold in 2018 is estimated to be 19 billion. And the total carbon footprint in the production of these devices was at least equal to the annual carbon emissions of the Philippines, whose population is more than 100 million.
  • If we had used each phone sold in 2020 for 1/3 longer, we would have prevented carbon emissions equal to Ireland’s annual carbon emissions.

Growing question of electronic waste (e-waste) 

Despite efforts to recycle digital technology, e-waste, most of which contains concentrated amounts of harmful substances, remains a key issue for the sector. Accordingly, the 41.8 million tonnes of e-waste released in 2014 represents a reusable resource of 52 billion dollars; however, a small portion of it is collected for recycling. Reports in 2019 suggest that there were about 50 million tonnes of e-waste and only 20% of these were recycled appropriately.

In recent years, a trade model that causes serious harm to the environment and turns low-income countries into waste yards for rich countries has developed. For example, although waste treatment facilities like Guiyu in China may have proposed a partial solution for many materials that need to be recycled and developed to generate economic benefits from e-waste, the main point is the same: The fact that the sector is built upon a model that generates huge amounts of waste, rather than a model that fundamentally focuses on sustainability.

Is technology the solution to climate change?

Until this point, we have talked about the deadly role technology plays in climate change. However, we should keep in mind that the solution to climate change lies under the power that fuels it: technology. All we need is the development of responsive and responsible technologies and their application in the right way. 

So, what are some technologies that reduce the effects of climate change?

The 'heat' under our feet

When it comes to renewable energy sources, wind and sun are the very first things to cross most of our minds; however, there is also another underrated renewable energy technology: Ground source heat pumps.

These systems that use heat from the ground to heat buildings in winter and pump the heat back to the ground to cool them in summer are four to five times more efficient than fossil-fuelled systems. Also, unlike wind or solar energy, there is hardly an energy outage. Networked heat pumps are not unfamiliar, they are used in many university campuses today. But only with the right policies. This technology is likely to revolutionise the way we combat climate change. For instance, according to a Massachusetts feasibility study, the use of networked heat pumps instead of natural gas could reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to heating, cooling, and hot water use in Massachusetts by more than 90% by 2050.

A better air-conditioner

Most of us see air-conditioners as one of the most essential home appliances. They pose one of the greatest risks to climate change with the growth in adaptation to cooling systems. 

On the other hand, there is a solution to this problem as well. How? Thanks to new high-performance air-conditioning units which are still under development, it might be possible to slow down climate change and eliminate people’s compromises of life quality. For example, in a 2018 contest organised to design climate-friendly cooling technologies that could be commercialised in the next few years, air-conditioner prototypes developed by Japan-based Daikin with its partner Nikken Sekkei and China-based Gree Electric Appliances with its partner Tsinghua University are more efficient than those we use today. Moreover, they have 80% less impact on climate. 

Unless controlled, room air-conditioners alone could account for emissions equal to almost 132 gigatonnes of cumulative CO2 by 2050. However, with the adaptation to these new cooling systems, it is also likely to decrease the temperature by half a degree Celsius until 2100.

The big three

If we want to reduce the world economy to zero net emissions by the middle of the 21st century, we need to act fast. Thus, we need to expand the use of cost-effective ‘the three giants’, namely wind and solar energy, and electric vehicles. However, what we need to achieve this is to reduce the prices, digitalise the economy and implement more flexible electricity grids. 

The big three have been significantly upgraded and improved since the last decade: While batteries are 90% cheaper for solar energy and electric vehicles, wind energy is now 50% cheaper. Although generating energy from wind and sun is not always possible due to weather conditions, reliable power systems with variable renewable energy become available with the introduction and development of new technologies. These systems include batteries, alternative energy storage, the combination of various renewable energies, programs to reduce energy use during peak periods, and some limited support, including carbon capture and natural gas.

Nuclear Splash

The first 200-megawatt reactor unit in Shidao Bay's new-generation nuclear power plant in eastern China started to operate in December last year. Although having been highly criticised, new-generation power plants could be a turning point in clean energy for future generations.

Today, most conventional reactors produce off-steam up to 300 degrees Celsius, and power industrial processes such as seawater desalination and hydrogen electrolysis, during which water is split into hydrogen and oxygen. Shidao Bay reactor, which uses graphite-covered fossil gravels as an energy resource and pressurised helium as a cooler, produces off-steam of around 560 degrees Celsius. And it can potentially provide power for more processes such as plastic production and efficient hydrogen production through high-temperature water separation. This kind of technology could even facilitate the replacement of coal-based production units with nuclear reactors and enable more extensive reuse of the already-existing power plant steam infrastructures.

Air purifier

Technologies that reduce CO2 from the atmosphere are crucial if we want to achieve net zero emissions and reduce the CO2 levels to those of the pre-Industrial Revolution. There are several approaches to carbon elimination, such as planting more trees, holding the carbon in the soil, and capturing CO2 in the atmosphere directly with machines. Another option is called direct air capture (DAC). It is powerful due to its modular technology. And this means that the same design could be copied and placed anywhere. With this modularity, the cost of separating air from CO2 is expected to decrease by up to 95% in the next few decades. What’s more, Iceland has already started using geothermal energy to power a DAC system that removes and permanently stores CO2 underground.

Solar microgrids

A solar microgrid that generates, stores, and distributes clean energy used in housing and facilities in a local network can provide a solution to energy-related needs and expectations. Capable of integrating with the mains, solar microgrids can disconnect and operate independently in case of mains voltage or cut. Such viability will unlock the invaluable benefits of local security while allowing access to low-cost bulk energy via the macro grid. This implies that solar microgrids can be a flexible and affordable solution in the fight against climate change. 

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Key Technologies Against the Climate Crisis

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