Today is the 50th Earth Day, an annual international event intended to raise awareness and take action on a range of environmental issues.
Inevitably, this year’s Earth Day will likely be overshadowed by the current Covid-19 pandemic, with events to mark the occasion taking place online and the theme changed to “digital mobilisations”, with participants encouraged to raise awareness through digital actions when it is not possible to participate in person.
However, what no one could have predicted last year is that this year’s Earth Day comes at a time when carbon dioxide emissions are on track to fall by over 5% for the year, eight in ten flights globally have been cancelled and air pollution levels have fallen dramatically.
Although this is not to say that the environmental consequences of lockdown measures will have a lasting impact on the ongoing climate crisis, it highlights how the decisions on how we move forward will impact the environment once the coronavirus pandemic is over.
While restrictive lockdown measures are not a solution to tackling the climate crisis, it is clear that widespread behavioural changes are still urgently needed as industries look to rebuild themselves once the current situation has subsided.
This Earth Day, what solutions can technology offer to tackle environmental issues in the wake of the pandemic?
Earth Day: “We’ve proven that we can work in a more eco-friendly way”
One of the immediate environmental impacts of lockdown measures imposed in many countries around the world has been a drop in carbon emissions from commuters. According to research from the AA, the number of weekday car journeys in the UK has fallen by around 60%, as many now work from home.
50% of those surveyed by LogMeIn and OnePoll said that reducing pollution was the most important benefit of working from home, suggesting that by embracing remote working technologies such as video conferencing where possible, it may be possible to have an impact on emission levels linked to commuting.
“Physical distancing has forced organisations of all sizes to adapt to remote and virtual ways of working – we’ve seen a spike in requests for web designers as more and more businesses make the journey from offline to online. Entrepreneurs are now more geographically dispersed than ever, increasingly setting up their own businesses from rural areas,” says Kai Feller, CEO and founder of Bark.com.
“This global migration to digital has created a significant drop in the amount of people commuting and travelling for business, it’s opened up a lot of opportunity to demonstrate how we effectively manage remote/virtual working.
“We’ve proven that we can work in a more eco-friendly way and showcased how quickly we can cut down our carbon footprint when push comes to shove. If there’s one thing that businesses should take from this otherwise disruptive situation – it is the ability to work more sustainably and help prevent climate change.”
Research, investment and innovation
Despite the challenges presented by the ongoing global pandemic, advancements from the enviro-tech industry are still occuring.
Earlier this month it was announced that scientists at green chemistry company Carbios have created an enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles in a matter of hours.
ClearFlame Engine Technologies, a company that is developing clean combustion engine technology also announced it had raised $3m in initial financing.
Furthermore, non-profit Climate Neutral announced that it has certified more than 70 companies as carbon neutral.
The Ayming Institute, a think tank from business consultancy firm Ayming, has said that “industrial-scale business research and innovation is required to turn the tide of global environmental damage”, with funding from the private sector key to making this happen.
With oil prices plunging as demand drops significantly, this could create an opportunity for a renewed focus on alternative energy sources. However, there are concerns that business uncertainties could cause investors to hold off on investing in environmental technology, at least in the near future.
Earth Challenge 2020: “The key to effective change is data”
As has also been the case when it comes to predicting the spread of coronavirus, robust data plays a key role in monitoring environmental changes. Part of this year’s Earth Day initiatives is “Earth Challenge 2020”. Using mobile technology, data will be collected on collect local air quality and plastic pollution around the world, with the aim of collecting one billion data points to be used in future climate research.
“The key to effective change is data – by harnessing and utilising data efficiently, we can for example understand and optimise travel to reduce its footprint. Collating, combining and analysing all possible datasets, now more than ever, is fundamental to tackling climate change,” says Richard Baker, CEO of GeoSpock.
“The automotive and shipping industries, in particular, are making great strides in pulling and analysing their data. However, this information remains siloed within countries, industries and companies. If we are to move forward efficiently, these barriers must come down and we must enter a new era of collaboration.
“There is a better, cleaner future for us and the planet. But to make it a reality we need to fight climate change collectively through the power of data.”
Earlier this week, the The Alan Turing Institute announced a collaboration with UK startup Cervest to use AI to help predict climatic events in regions of the world where data is scarce.
Dr Nick Jewell, Director of Product Strategy at computer software company Alteryx explains that data will be key to understand long-term changes in the world’s climate.
“COVID-19 has given us a glimpse of what life would be like with less planes in the air and cars on the road. This data, as well as the data that came before it, will prove vital as the world recovers and takes on the enormity of adapting for climate crisis,” he says.
“Over the past five years, Alteryx has been the data and analytics engine a global warming study, completing trillions of calculations through 70 workflows to analyse and comprehend spatial and temporal changes in daily temperatures across the world. To do this, a detailed examination of spatial and temporal temperature changes over 5,200 monitoring stations across the world was conducted every day for a year. During last year alone, 100 million temperature data points were examined, almost 2 million trend models were computed, and trillions of calculations made to be able to present quantifiable changes in temperature across 60 years. The results allow researchers to identify the world’s most affected areas and understand long-term changes at a daily level.
“As we stride towards an environmentally-friendly future, data and analytics will play a vital role in extinguishing any ambiguity around how our societal behaviour is afflicting our planet. Presented with the evidence, this will – we hope – move citizens, governments and businesses forward in collectively support the preservation of our world.”