4 ways technology helps us reduce our carbon footprint

Environment   |   
Published July 19, 2019   |   

The first justification for investing in technology is usually to increase efficiency and profits. Whether you’re a company or a consumer, most of us look to technology to automate daily tasks and save money. Companies invest in online services to automate their email marketing. And consumers adopt LED lighting to cut down on utility bills. But technology does other things too, like help save the planet. Here are four ways technology can reduce our carbon footprint.

Smart Home Devices

Smart home devices are programmable devices you can use to improve your home’s energy efficiency. Almost all smart devices, like thermostats and appliances, are connected to the internet via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. So, controlling them with a smartphone or other mobile device is possible. Remote control helps when you’re at work or vacation and forget to turn off the lights.

Some smart devices even use artificial intelligence to learn your daily routines. For example, smart water heaters use machine learning to track your hot water usage. Do you do laundry and take showers at night? A smart water heater will adjust its heating times to meet your night owl schedule. That means less energy used keeping the water hot throughout the day. When you combine AI-powered smart scheduling with lower cost, off-peak hour rates, you can cut your kilowatts usage per month and save money too.

And smart home devices are essential components of smart grids. These modern electric grids communicate with smart meters and appliances to form a vast and complex communication network. Unlike analog meters, smart meters are capable of two-way communication, talking with utility companies to deliver energy more efficiently.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is on the radar of anyone following paradigm-shifting tech today. AI can identify patterns within enormous amounts of data much faster and more accurately than humans. It’s the same technology Netflix uses to suggest videos based on your past viewing or what Facebook uses to tag people in pictures. AI excels at pattern recognition and making predictions. And climate scientists are adapting it in a myriad of ways, from predicting climate change to protecting our seas from overfishing.

Some big-name companies like Microsoft are funding AI-powered climate research. One of Microsoft’s funded projects examined how hurricanes affect forests. How does that help the environment? Well, along with human habitats, hurricanes also destroy forests. When trees are felled by 100 mph windows, they no longer trap CO2 through photosynthesis. Instead, they rot and create CO2. So, identifying hurricane-resistant species helps control greenhouse gas emissions.

During the project, researchers used overhead, high-resolution photos of rainforest canopies after a hurricane to identify surviving tree species. But the photo analysis would take years for humans. Instead, the team used AI to search the photos and identify forest composition after a hurricane. The data is being used to protect valuable, carbon-capturing trees from the ravishes of powerful storms.

Carbon Capture

Most human activities like manufacturing, farming, and driving contribute to a rise in greenhouse gases. About 30% of global greenhouse emissions come from the industry sector. And destroying rainforests only makes things worse. Oil, coal, and trees are made from carbon. And when we destroy them through burning or clear-cutting, we release that CO2 into the atmosphere. But what if we could pull back the CO2 from the air? We can, in a process called carbon capture.

Carbon capture plants are usually giant arrays of fans that suck in air, directing it to specialized facilities that then separate the carbon from other gases. Carbon capture plants are often located next to power plants with the intention of sucking off the emitted CO2 from burning fossil fuels. These capture sites are carbon neutral, meaning their net output is zero. But other carbon capture technologies actually remove excess carbon from the atmosphere (i.e. carbon negative).

But even after you trap CO2, you’ve got to store it someplace to keep it out of the atmosphere. The Canadian company Carbon Engineering is developing a carbon-negative process that captures CO2 from the air and converts it to clean-burning fuels. The company is operating a plant in Squamish, British Columbia, that is removing one ton of CO2 from the air each day.

Meat Alternatives

Our meat and dairy consumption have big consequences for the planet. One major problem is in the number of resources it takes to produce these foods. While meat and dairy account for only 18% of our calories and 37% of our protein intake, it uses up to 83% of the available farmland. And meat and dairy production is responsible for 60% of the greenhouse emissions from agriculture. So, when it comes to efficiency, raising cattle is like golf — both activities take up more land than they can justify.

One solution to this inefficiency problem is taking beef from the pasture to the petri dish. Lab-grown meat is one way to stay carnivorous while minimizing land use. Food tech companies like Memphis Meats and Finless Foods are producing beef and seafood from animal cells, skipping the entire step of raising or harvesting animals and fish.

To grow meat and fish in a lab, food labs take cell samples from animals and extract stem cells, which have a high reproduction rate. Then they treat the cells with a protein that promotes tissue growth and places them into a type of artificial womb called a bioreactor. The bioreactor maintains the proper environmental conditions to support tissue growth. The new cell tissues are then attached to a “scaffold” mesh that helps them form into three-dimensional steaks and fillets.

Meat alternatives like those grown in a lab or made completely from plants are workable solutions for shrinking our carbon footprint. And they don’t require the millions of acreage, feed, and water that traditional animal production needs. Eliminating those resources also does away with the vast quantities of fertilizers, feed, and fuel it takes to raise and harvest animals.