Whether it’s AI or Alexa, innovations in technology are helping to solve our planet’s most pressing problems, says Rae Ritchie
The UK’s climate is changing,” reported the Royal Meteorological Society in July 2020, with 2020 being one of the warmest, wettest and sunniest on record – the first time one year has been in the top ten for all three categories.
Three months earlier, journal Science Advances featured research showing that the world’s top 1,000 rivers emit the same as 20 million garbage bins per year.
A 2020 survey by WWF and ZSL (Zoological Society of London) stated that global populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish declined by an average of 68 per cent between 1970 and 2016.
You probably didn’t need to read these statistics to know that our planet is facing a range of environmental crises, including climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. Each of these inter related issues has its own challenges, but many of the solutions share a common theme: technology.
Science fiction to fact
Ever picked up a compostable bag when you’ve forgotten your reusable ones, eaten a Beyond Meat or Impossible burger or switched to a renewable energy supplier? Then you’ve already used one of the new technologies making a positive difference to the planet by reducing the lifespan of plastic, the resource intensity of agriculture and the reliance on fossil fuels respectively.
Some of technology’s potential lies in the development of existing products and systems, such as improving the capability of batteries, while some comes from more novel innovations. Carbon capture, for instance, could counter rising temperatures by removing carbon dioxide from the air and depositing it deep below ground. Sounds like science fiction but researchers are working on making it science fact.
Repairing the damage and halting it
Amazing projects that use tech for environmental good can be found around the world. Engineers with The Ocean Cleanup, for instance, have developed floating barriers to gather up plastic pollution on a mass scale, while in Peru, smartphones are helping indigenous communities to prevent illegal logging. This ground-breaking experiment involved satellites detecting suspicious activity, the details of which were transferred onto USB drives and couriered up the Amazon before being downloaded onto specialised mobile apps that provided images and GPS co-ordinates to guide local patrols to the exact location. The results? Levels of deforestation fell by more than half in the first year.
Contributing to conservation
Elsewhere, technology is playing an important role in wildlife protection. Justine Shanti is a regional ecologist with the Snow Leopard Trust who has witnessed the benefits. “One of the ways technology has supported snow leopard conservation over the last ten years has been the development and more widespread use of camera trap technology,” she says. “Camera trapping has been particularly powerful for surveying snow leopard population numbers over large areas (thousands of square kilometres).
“Snow leopards have unique rosette patterns on their fur – that allows us to identify individuals through automatic camera trap lenses. Setting up camera traps over large areas combined with advances in statistical methods is revolutionising not only how we assess population numbers or threats, but is giving us a much more rigorous and granular understanding of key elements of snow leopard ecology (i.e. survival and reproduction rates).”
Artificial intelligence is creating new possibilities too. Wild Me is a team of experts who build software for the conservation community, and the Marine Megafauna Foundation is one of the bodies using
its offerings to great effect.
“We work on the conservation of whale sharks, the world’s largest fish and an endangered species,” explains the foundation’s co-founder and principal scientist, Simon Pierce. “A big part of our job is monitoring their populations using photos of individually recognisable animals.
“Wild Me’s artificial intelligences helps us manage and make sense of this onslaught of data by automating photo matching, but it doesn’t stop there – the ‘intelligent agent’ they’ve created now searches the internet to find public photos that can be added to the global whale shark database. That has turbocharged our research efforts, with us now tracking over 13,000 individual sharks all around the world.”
New technology is also enabling individual action on environmental issues, particularly when it comes to lowering carbon emissions through energy saving. The SwitchBot, for example, is a wireless robot that reduces energy consumption by opening and closing curtains to keep rooms cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
Digitally enabled devices, such as smart plugs that allow you to switch off inaccessible sockets via your
phone and smart thermostats that make energy-saving suggestions based on your routines, can also help. In a challenge run by sustainability organisation Hubbub, participants cut household carbon emissions by an average of 1.7 tonnes, with smart technology playing an important role in helping them to visualise energy use, identify ways to cut waste and introduce new systems.
Hubbub recommend the tech that you already own to make positive changes. “Use smart speakers or phones,” says a spokesperson. “Set reminders and prompts such as to turn the heating off or set the timer, keep shopping lists or play a four-minute song to keep your shower under four minutes to save both water and energy.”
Responsibility remains with us
The potential applications of technology are so vast and diverse that it inevitably has a role to play in tackling environmental issues. That said, we cannot give it the responsibility of solving all the problems that we’ve created in today’s world. Why? Because our actions are significant as well.
We cannot carry on consuming single-use plastic and simply rely on plastic-eating enzymes to deal with it or continue burning fossil fuels and assume carbon capture will offset the damage. On the contrary, technology is best used to help us change our behaviour rather than absolve us from doing so.
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