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According to global scientists, we are in a race against time to lower greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). But there is a potential solution on the horizon. According to the UN’s Environmental Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen: “Only digital technologies move at the speed and scale necessary to achieve the kind of dramatic reduction in emissions that we need to see in the next 10 years.”

Experts have warned that we have entered a looming climate crisis and unless we dramatically reduce GHG emissions, we will face an increase in heat waves, extreme weather, food and water shortages along with mass migrations leading to both climate as well as human disasters. The climate crisis is a result of the human disregard of the environment generated by our urban settlements and by pollution of our natural environment. But with the right applications of technology, innovations and innovative policies, local solutions could be the basis for reimagining climate-ready communities around the world. 

The Climate Change crisis is due to trapping GHG emissions in the following sectors: transportation (29%), electricity production (25%), industry (23%), urbanisation (commercial and residential development) (13%) and agriculture (10%). Each of these sectors involves technology and innovation in some form but is responsible for only about 3% of global GHG emissions. This is largely due to extensive energy use to support a myriad of activities in cities, transport and industry including data centres that mine for cryptocurrency, charging of devices and electric vehicles and numerous other applications that use energy. 

Green cement is cement that is produced at lower temperatures, reducing carbon emissions by 70%

But, according to an International Telecommunications Union Report, digital technology is poised to actually help reduce the world’s carbon emissions by 17%. For instance, drones can help in producing more efficient agriculture; technology advancements will aid in traffic and delivery improvements; LED technologies will reduce energy use and cost of lighting on streets and highways; use of satellites can monitor environmental changes on land and in the oceans; blockchain technology could track corporate carbon emissions; and artificial intelligence could help make electric transmission grids more efficient. With technological transformation in mobility, production and built form, citizens may also shift in the way they live, work and move in our communities in a reimagined future, potentially further reducing the impact on our carbon footprints, especially at the local level. 

The climate crisis has had a massive impact on human settlements and affected the livelihoods and security of cultures the world over through increased heat, drought, pestilence, insect outbreaks, reduced agricultural yields, as well as increased wildfires, declined water supplies and led to health issues. This has caused mass migration, stimulated tensions with neighbouring regions and has even incited wars or acts of repression. 

Waterloo Water Pump still in use in India

Can innovative technologies and strategies be deployed to develop resilient solutions at the local level to keep the transforming urban, rural and remote locations relevant and vital for their people? Many scientists and environmentalists agree that unless we collaborate globally to meet agreed-upon metrics on the environment and accelerate investment in innovative digital solutions for the benefit of the globe’s sustainable future, we are on a path of inevitable instability from both an environmental uncertainty as well as human degradation through unbridled migration. 

Beyond the environmental challenges that Climate Change has already wrought on our towns, cities and regions with oppressive heat, floods, hurricanes and droughts, climate migration has become one of the many consequences of Climate Change. After the COVID-19 pandemic, it may become our next greatest toll on human lives around the world. According to Gulf News, 25 million people globally were newly displaced in 2019 as a result of natural disasters in 140 countries: 300% greater than the number of people leaving their homes due to violent conflicts. The New York Times also reported that while 1% of the world is currently deemed an unbearable hot zone, it could go as high as 19% by 2070, forcing the displacement of millions, if not billions, of people due to widespread crop failures, resulting in ‘a vast remapping of the world’s populations’. While many of these migrants are moving to nearby countries and coastal zones, others are moving internally and creating megacities around the globe. These movement patterns will impact the communities that these migrants will settle in, including changes and challenges to their social, political, economic and environmental systems around the world. It is critical for countries to plan and prepare for both internal and cross-border migration, especially solutions at the local level where critical transformations will be most felt. 

Grey is the new green. Concrete is sustainable and green because it is long-lasting, sustainable and energy efficient

In 2018, a World Bank study concluded that tens of millions of migrations could be reduced through reductions in GHG emissions. But there will still be many people who will be forced to migrate to other regions and into megacities due to global warming, political conflict and rising sea levels. It will be essential for communities to design local solutions that can mitigate or offer suitable adaptation for people in this transformation. Local technologies, innovation and empathy need to be nurtured to create opportunities for resiliency, promote economic development, entrepreneurship, reskilling and other support necessary to meet the needs of these migrants. At its most critical moments, digital technologies will be necessary for communications, coordination, mobility and training, among other support to help move large numbers of people. 

When it comes to technology and innovations, not every application needs to be digital in nature. Technology has been useful in the past to assist in reclaiming arid lands to become more productive. But to be resilient, they had to be able to be locally manufactured, inexpensive, corrosion-resistant, adaptable to a variety of local conditions, and easily repairable by the people who actually used it. For example, technology as simple as the Waterloo Pump, a decades old device that was developed by Canadian students at the University of Waterloo for developing countries is making a considerable impact in local regions. Realising that standard water pumps were often broken or abandoned because they were made of iron or steel, a different solution more in line with local needs was necessary. These standard pumps were expensive to manufacture, heavy to transport and beyond the ability of villagers in many developing regions to repair. The Waterloo Pump’s technological innovation was in a design that deployed a piston action reminiscent of an internal combustion engine, constructed by gluing together lightweight PVC plastic, which was readily available and highly affordable in the developing world, as well as being easily repaired and rust resistant. It has helped pump water to grow crops and create a livelihood in regions despite increased heat and extreme weather conditions. This is important as an example of getting to the source of the reasons why large populations migrate due to Climate Change and by extension, political pressure, famine and even war. Alternatively, imagine if local solutions can be designed to meet local needs and there was local political and financial support for its development. 

The climate crisis has had a massive impact on human settlements and affected the livelihoods and security of cultures the world over

On March 19, 2021, dozens of major technology companies signed a pledge to develop ‘green digital solutions’ to help rid the world of CO2 emissions and help to digitally transform key economic sectors in developing countries under threat of massive transformation due to Climate Change as well as encourage politicians, business leaders and consumers to embrace sustainable consumption and production techniques. To do this, major investments would be needed in building 5G and future 6G networks, supporting quantum computing, artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies, all of which could help to become game-changers in the battle against planetary warming.

Technologies and innovative solutions also need to be considered to help offset the degradation of coastal and marine ecosystems threatening the physical, economic and food security of coastal communities, which represent 40% of the world population. Digital technologies that monitor and analyse the impacts are essential for scientific research and accelerated local solutions. Innovative strategies include both advanced and adaptation of traditional coastal and marine solutions such as retrofitting mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses, which play vital roles in carbon storage and can sequester carbon more efficiently than terrestrial forests. 

Helsinki’s Energy and Climate Atlas
Helsinki’s Energy and Climate Atlas

While affordable, market-ready solutions like solar, wind and hydropower already exist, the built form and mobility systems of the towns, cities and regions that the migrants will move into will also need additional localised solutions to meet changing global demographics. Many of these new solutions will require innovative technologies such as green cement, artificial intelligence for assistance in autonomous decision-making systems, tidal-power energy generation, electric and hydrogen-based mobility systems, floating solar applications utilising lakes and reservoirs, technologies that reduce livestock-produced methane and extensive planting of trees and strategic greenery as part of buildings and other infrastructure, among many other innovations. 

As megacities will likely emerge to absorb many of these migrants, the economies of scale that go along with the likelihood of densities that may be achieved will offer opportunities to pilot many of these new green solutions, potentially delivering best practices to an eager world seeking solutions for their local conditions. For example, the construction industry is a major contributor to global warming. Currently it produces four gigatons of cement annually in construction around the world, representing 8% of the overall CO2 produced globally. Typical cement heats limestone in a chemical reaction in excess of 2,700 degrees that releases significant amounts of CO2. Green cement is a term coined for cement that is produced at lower temperatures, reducing carbon emissions by 70%. This will have significant implications as we can build our cities to accommodate global migration. 

Smart pole technology monitors air quality along traffic routes

Another local solution is to find new ways to incorporate large scale solar installations in regions, such as floating solar panels on water bodies. This local solution incorporates innovative public policy, uses affordable existing technologies and combines them into a new approach that can help meet local green energy solutions. For instance, floating solar installations have been developed throughout Taiwan on underutilised drainage ponds and water reservoirs. In South Korea, floating solar panels on one of the world’s largest hydroelectric dams will provide 41MW of power for 60,000 people. According to the World Bank, there are hundreds of thousands of square miles of man-made reservoirs globally, which could be used to float solar installations to generate clean, green energy on a terawatt scale. 

Technologies and innovative solutions also need to be considered to help offset the degradation of coastal and marine ecosystems

Using digital technologies, cities can be digitally twinned to create scenarios that can be tested in advance of their construction to deliver the most effective solutions. For example, in Helsinki, their Energy and Climate Atlas supports their efforts to be carbon-neutral by 2035 by using semantic models of data on solar energy and heat in addition to modeling their entire ecosystem for measuring their investments for city efficiencies. Similarly, Amsterdam’s digital twins focus on mobility data, air quality, data from solar panels, wind turbines and monitoring systems on building efficiency. In Copenhagen, collaborative efforts among government and the private sector share high-definition maps, traffic and incident information, detailed parking information and construction and event information in real time. In Chiayi City, Taiwan, traffic and air quality monitors along smart pole technologies analyse the air quality along traffic routes and intersections, diverting traffic when traffic congestion is too great or when the air quality is unacceptable. A Microsoft-led partnership is providing organisations working on Climate Change access to their artificial intelligence and cloud-based tools to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 4% including reducing the risk of wildfires through deploying fire data, physical simulations and real-time satellite observations to forecast wildfire risk.

The climate crisis is upon us. We see the results in the news every day. Deadly floods in Germany. Excessive heat in northern Canada. Fires in Australia. Coastal regions under threat. Mass exodus of migrants into the USA from Central America. Water wars in India. These are independent actions but are globally connected as part of the climate crisis. It is urgent for countries to harness the power of technology and encourage and embrace innovative solutions at the local level to begin to eradicate the threat of global warming.

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