Can tech help us create a better earth? IBM's Arun Biswas weighs in
It’s ironic that on Earth Day – which fell on April 22 – the theme was “Invest in our Planet”. Ironic because the first Earth Day in 1970 changed its central theme from “environmental teach-in” to “environmental action”. And 52 years later, we’re still waiting to take bold collective action. The window to take that action in time to stave off a climate disaster is narrowing. Not only that, amidst rising geopolitical tensions and the looming food and energy crisis because of the war in Ukraine, there is a real chance that bold climate action will take a backseat.
Over the past year, the IPCC a UN body for assessing the science related to climate change has released a comprehensive set of reports that call out the enormity of the challenge and the need for urgent action by governments, businesses, and the civil society. The figures are staggering – up to 50 per cent of the world’s population (3.3 to 3.6 billion people) are living in settings that are “highly vulnerable” to climate change, as per the latest IPCC report.
The good news is that we already have many of the solutions needed and the scale of investment needed is large but not prohibitive. It is estimated that we will need to invest a few percentage points of the world’s GDP to get to net-zero by 2050. “Having the right policies, infrastructure and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behaviour can result in a 40-70 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” says IPCC co-chair Priyadarshi Shukla. “This offers significant untapped potential.”
The role of IT
It’s therefore pertinent to ask how tech, especially information tech (IT), can help us create a better Earth. Let’s look at a few examples:
Measuring and monitoring: First, we need to be able to measure and monitor the impact of our activities on the planet. This is a complex task that requires the gathering and processing of massive amounts of data in real-time. Technology solutions such as Envizi, a recent acquisition by IBM, enable leading companies such as Uber, Honeywell and Merck to analyze, manage, and report environmental goals, find efficiency opportunities, and assess sustainability risks. Another example is IBM’s collaboration with the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), to build a data platform on the cloud to track and monitor plastic waste.
Building sustainable operations and supply chains: Second, we need to use the insights from all the data and information gathered to decarbonize operations and supply chains and mitigate environmental impact. The IBM Food Trust is a great example of using emerging technologies such as IoT and blockchain to provide greater transparency and visibility in the food supply chain —so food can be fresher, safer, and more sustainable.
Climate innovation: Third, we need to continue to innovate and not only find new solutions but also continue to bring down the cost of existing technologies and solutions and help scale them. One of the areas where cost-effective and scalable solutions are needed is carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). IBM is using the latest advancements in quantum computing technology to discover new carbon-absorbing materials and more effective ways of storing carbon.
Singapore offers an excellent example of leveraging tech to benefit the planet.
“Singapore is one of the few countries to create a balance between urban development and environmental protection,” notes the US International Trade Administration. “Singapore offers multiple opportunities in smart AI-based environment technology, biomedical, and water and wastewater treatments.”
In February 2021, the country released the Singapore Green Plan 2030. It sets targets for sustainability in Singapore by 2030. The plan is spearheaded by five Ministries, including Education, National Development, Sustainability, Transport, and Trade and Industry. A S$50 million “SG Eco Fund” was set up in 2020 to support projects to boost environmental sustainability and partner with businesses and the community.
“Projects should have technological and/or social innovation and new ways of implementing solutions,” the Eco Fund states. “Projects should create sustained impact through building local expertise, creating resources, and/or developing scalable solutions.”
Singapore’s sustainability goals echo those set by IBM. On April 12, 2022, it launched IBM Impact, a new framework for the company's ESG (environmental, social, and governance) work. It comprises three pillars – environmental impact, equitable impact, and ethical impact. IBM aims to become the catalyst for a better world, and it aims to do so through investing in ecosystem-based initiatives such as the IBM Sustainability Accelerator. Launched in February, this is a pro bono social impact scheme that applies AI and hybrid cloud to assist non-profits and government organisations with climate change, extreme weather, and pollution-related vulnerabilities. The program provides support for two years to selected organisations. The first three to join are Heifer International, The Nature Conservancy India, and Plan21 Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.
Committing to act together
A healthy planet is a bottom line for everyone to strive towards. “For Earth Day 2022, we need to act boldly, innovate broadly, and implement equitably,” the Earth Day website notes. “It’s going to take all of us. All in. Businesses, governments, and citizens – everyone accounted for and accountable. A partnership for the planet.”