Can AI, Blockchain, IOT, and drones help us fight climate change?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) encompasses clusters of transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, additive manufacturing (or 3D printing), internet of things (IoT), drones, and autonomous vehicles, biotechnologies, virtual and augmented reality, and blockchain, along with technologies and capabilities that haven’t yet been created. All of these could offer profound implications for innovative approaches to managing environmental footprints.
The 4IR has the potential to radically transform the management of our environmental surroundings. For instance, the IoT offers great potential for innovation in environmental management. There are already approximately 8.3 billion connected industrial devices covering products from cars, homes, appliances and industrial equipment. Analysts suggest this will reach more than 20 billion by 2020. When combined with rapid advances in data processing and technology innovation, IoT could help drive countless localized initiatives. These could include smart street lighting and energy efficient buildings, or even real-time city-wide “urban dashboards” of interconnected environmental information across buildings, transport systems and industry enabling optimized energy, emissions, and environmental footprint management.
The 4IR is also providing an opportunity — and a need — to pre-emptively rethink governance structures and to innovate to ensure they are updated and purpose-built for the 21st century, comprising the policies and protocols that societies feel their governments and the markets should have in place. These will include policies to minimize the risks and maximize the opportunities to society of the technology transformation. This is particularly important for society’s poorest and weakest, who will require policies to support the transformation in jobs or to ensure access to information. It is also pertinent for protecting and managing the health of the environment, which is a public good upon which everyone depends. For example, if wearable technologies start to capture personal data on exposure to air and water quality levels, then questions will arise as to who should own this aggregate personal information, who should be able to access it and how might society best use it? The challenge is to find the balance between exploring the innovations that technology offers for improving the environment while developing ways and means to ensure that risks are minimized and opportunities are maximized.
These are the sectors that are well positioned to benefit from emerging technologies:
Intelligent Transportation Systems
The transport sector accounts for nearly 14% of global GHG emissions and just over 50% of current global oil demand. Smart transport systems can be realized by employing a number of 4IR technologies working in conjunction. 3D printing and advanced materials enable lighter, more efficient vehicles and local production, with the potential to reduce further energy needs and emissions. 4IR solutions within advanced materials also play a key role in enabling low and zero emissions vehicles (electric vehicles, fuel cells, and hydrogen) to compete with and ultimately replace the carbon-intensive internal combustion engine.
Exploiting 4IR technologies could transform not only the daily commute but also delivery logistics, inclusion, and productivity. Autonomous vehicles providing on-demand mobility services are one, much-debated, option. Deploying AI and sensors also offer options. These are based on IoT, for predictive and real-time traffic flow and pollution management, advanced materials for low-carbon and clean fuel options, drones for deliveries, and virtual reality (VR) for remote meetings.
Geospatial data monitoring platforms
Geospatial data monitoring platforms such as the Global Forest Watch, Global Fishing Watch, and Eyes on the Sea use advanced sensors and satellite imagery, combined with big data analytics, to enable anyone with a smartphone to track and monitor activity within important environmental systems. These are just the first releases — future iterations could leverage AI, such as machine learning to forecast where illegal fishing or logging is likely to occur. When complemented by other innovations, such as the ability to rapidly undertake DNA sequencing of seafood products and bilge water from ships, there is the potential to create greater transparency and accountability from “ocean to plate”, giving consumers and regulators confidence in the sustainability and legality of products.
The potential of blockchain provides another illustrative example of what might be possible in terms of a wholesale transformation in our approach to global environmental commons management. Many governments around the globe are exploring the potential of blockchain to help with land rights management, while entrepreneurs are exploring similar applications in Ghana, Georgia, and Honduras. Could blockchain play a role in managing global greenhouse gas emissions? By 2030, when most of the world’s households will have a least one 3G cell phone and the global emissions trajectory is expected to have stabilized, perhaps there could be a worldwide blockchain for mobile carbon trading. The technology would ensure a transparent system where algorithms will assign every person on the planet a science-based carbon budget, which people could then trade. Such a system could potentially spur the next generation of a global climate framework, removing the political and institutional challenges that governments and international regimes, frameworks, and systems currently face. It would also facilitate market-driven financial flows to people in poorer nations who typically produce fewer greenhouse emissions. Perhaps a blockchain-style distributed ledger could also be used for managing water allocations and deforestation.
Recording our biodiverse inheritance
An unprecedented acceleration in science and technology innovation is now helping researchers to map, sequence and replicate biology on Earth in new ways. This uncharted period of analysis may change society’s perception of nature from a commodity to be exploited to a unique endowment that contains wholly new levels of value for society in the future.
The Earth Bio-Genome Project, a moonshot for biology, aims to sequence all plants, animals and single-celled organisms (the eukaryotic species) on Earth within 10 years, to help unlock the vast potential of our biodiversity inheritance. The project relies on innovative, multi-stakeholder collaborations drawing on the science, research and ethics community, governments and the private-sector. The EBP has the potential to help redraw several components of the Convention on Biodiversity by the COP in 2020, when new targets need to be agreed.
The Earth Bank of Code is an undertaking aimed at mapping the DNA of the Amazon Basin (creating an “Amazon Bank of Codes”). The Amazon Bank of Codes will be an open, global digital platform, which registers and maps the genetic sequences of Amazon biodiversity. It will also register biological and biomimetic intellectual property assets on the blockchain, providing a regulatory platform to help implement the fair sharing of benefits as intended by the 2017 Nagoya Protocol, which governs access to genetic resources.