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Friend of Tortoise Exclusive

Is our dependence on technology sustainable?

Is our dependence on technology sustainable?

This event is exclusive to Friends of Tortoise

in partnership with Huawei

Many of the world leaders converging on Glasgow next week have put their faith in technology to solve the climate crisis. Is that tenable? Every technology has a carbon footprint, and the footprint of the tech behind the digital revolution is expanding fast. So we asked: is technology an environmental saviour or a threat?

We heard three answers:

1. Tech can help shrink humanity’s footprint if used smartly and subject to the right regulation.
2. It can also help mobilise the finance to decarbonise the global energy system, which is currently in the billions and needs to be in the trillions.
3. But none of this will constitute a solution to what is a global, long-term problem without a global, long-term acceptance of the need to consume less.

The details:

1. “We feel that climate change is a battle for the destiny of humanity,” said Henk Koopmans, CEO of R & D for Huawei UK. He suggested that not only can innovations in ICT help companies and individuals lower their carbon footprint, but such developments plausibly play into a bigger picture solution. He gave two practical examples:

1.1 Traffic in cities: a third of city traffic can be attributed to drivers looking for parking spaces. If information systems were integrated into cars to guide drivers to free spaces, a lot of emissions could be prevented. 

1.2 More efficient “internet of  things” technologies: in the UK Huawei has deployed a technology known as NBIOT which was the start of narrowband IOT and uses sensors that can work for 10 years on one battery charge. This cuts waste and could enable the development and improvement of a range of new technologies, from smart meters to environmental monitors. 

2. Tech can help mobilize the finance to decarbonise the global energy system, and blockchain could be key to this. Alastair Marke, Director General of the Blockchain and Climate Institute, offered a definition of blockchain as a distributed ledger enabling safe transactions on the internet. 

2.1 A significant positive use of blockchain could be to enable the rapid expansion and democratisation of climate finance through green asset tokenization. Put simply: using blockchain for climate transactions could make green assets more concrete, more visible and more abundant.

2.2 A practical example: blockchain could make possible smart contracts for afforestation projects, releasing money to forest stewards only once the project has reached agreed landmarks. This might require sophisticated data collection by IOT devices such as those mentioned by Koopmans. 

3. The other side of the argument: environmental technology innovations can’t solve the problem of humanity’s expanding carbon footprint by themselves. We also need to consume less.Chris Goodall, editor of Carbon Commentary, said technology advocates were essentially trying to enable us to continue living our lives without significant changes. He suggested that while technological progress is broadly positive, and the entire global power grid could in principle be decarbonised, changes in lifestyle to use energy and resources more efficiently have to be part of the transition. 

Conclusion: we are in a “catch-22”, with new technological advancements and solutions, bringing new problems, requiring new solutions. The session ended not with a silver bullet so much as general agreement that everybody in the sector has an obligation to think harder about the long term impact of what they are doing, and not take it for granted that technology may be the solution to everything. 

editor and invited experts

Giles Whittell
Sensemaker Editor

Alastair Marke
Director-General, Blockchain and Climate Institute

Chris Goodall
Businessman, author and energy expert

Henk Koopmans
Chief Executive Officer at Huawei Technologies Research & Development