Sustainable or Unstoppable? The IoT and the Environment

Polar Bear on melting ice

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” – Not this bear

Despite the anti-science sentiment popping up in certain corners of the world recently, it is almost universally accepted that the earth is round, and that it is getting warmer and less full of dead dinosaur juice by the day. To counter the impending energy crisis, and avoid a Mad-Max style clash over our dwindling resources, governments and NGOs all over the planet have been embracing renewable energy, with a 46% increase in solar power use and 24% increase in wind power since 1990. These technologies are arguably the pinnacle of innovation – humanity’s last stand in the battle to overcome nature that has been raging since the Renaissance – but is our will to thrive in the face of adversity actually contributing to that adversity? In other words, are we making it worse by trying to make it better?

The Internet of Efficiency

In 2015 The Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and Accenture Strategy conducted a study which found that we can maintain global carbon emissions to 2015 levels, but only through the use of IoT technologies, which could lead to a reduction of 12.1 Gigatons in carbon emissions by 2030. This is no mean feat, and if these figures are accurate the widespread adoption of sustainable IoT devices could even forestall global temperature rises, which are expected to grow by 2.6 – 4.8 degrees celsius if we do nothing.

IoT enabled factories create efficiencies for the climate and CEOs alike

This is very encouraging in terms of industry, as efficiencies in raw materials, energy use, machine wear, and operational processes are not only good for business but also benefit the environment, a rare win-win for tycoons and tree-huggers. In fact, according to the IDC, 58% of businesses see the IoT as strategic, and 33% will be disrupted by digitised competitors by 2018, meaning that not only will dawdlers be pushed out by more energy efficient IoT adopters, but those without IoT capabilities will be firmly in the minority.
Although this move is clearly business-focused, the reason the IoT is so successful is because it makes everything more efficient – including transport and logistics (savings of 1.5 Gts carbon emissions by 2030), manufacturing (0.7 Gts), agriculture (a whopping 1.6 Gts) and utilities (2.2 Gts).

Timing and Mining

With the predicted 1000x increase in mobile consumer traffic, and (at least) 20.8 Billion connected devices by 2020, a fully implemented and integrated IoT ecosystem had better catch up to the pace of climate change, or the lovely efficiencies expected to revolutionise industry (with the added bonus of a cleaner, cooler planet) may come too late to be of any use to us.
The issue is this: with the pace of innovation at an all time high, the price of hardware at an all time low, and consumer giants churning out faster, more feature-packed mobile devices quicker than you can join the queue, can big business fully embrace the IoT and upend traditional business models in time to curb the effects this increase could have on our planet?

Friends of the Earth (image credit) – The devastating environmental effects of tin mining

In terms of raw materials, we may have to find alternatives fairly soon, as experts predict that demand for copper (an essential component to smartphones) will have outstripped supply by 2050, and in 2013 Friends of the Earth found that tin mining (used in circuit boards) can devastate the local environment, replacing lush forests with acidic craters – let alone the disturbing allegations of child slavery in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the Minerals Education Coalition, a single baby born in the US today will use up 539 lbs of zinc, 903 lbs of lead and 985 lbs of copper during their lifetime. Our obsession with the latest tech, and our transmission of that on to our kids, cannot last – once these minerals are gone, they are gone, and any new gadgets with them.

Brute Figuring-Out

But it’s not all bad – according to The Digitalist’s calculations, if development and innovation in IoT-enabling technology continues at the same meteoric rate as today, then the total savings created by these devices could be upto 3.5 Gts, with only 0.2 Gts emitted by their creation and operation. This is encouraging, as it means that implementing a full IoT ecosystem does in fact help more than it will hinder, and that we most likely will not destroy the planet because of our unending quest for efficiency.

Although smart device sales are not expected to drop or even plateau soon, investment in renewable energy seems to be becoming the new space race, with China and the US together contributing two-thirds of the 75 Gigawatt solar capacity increase in 2016 – a 33% increase on the year before. The political capital of being green seems as if it is gaining traction – despite or even because of a yoogely famous billionaire now in charge of the world’s largest economy – and this could seriously help the cause of sustainable energy worldwide.

Developing Sustainably

Companies such as The Trans-African HydroMeteorological Observatory (TAHMO) are also using the IoT for research and humanitarian aid. This project helps to educate local communities, map out untapped weather systems and monitor changes in the climate to contribute to the ascent of sustainable development in the IoT, and the all important data bank. The IoT goes hand in hand with the renewable energy sector, which is also experiencing a huge wave of innovation, a move towards start-ups over corporations as digital nativism becomes invaluable, and of course the backing of Elon Musk – a factor which should never be left out of consideration.

With the pace of innovation in the renewable sector approaching that of the IoT, it surely cannot be long before emerging players in both markets decide to embrace the inevitable: Some form of IoT enabled, crowdfunded, open-source network of renewable energy devices, that is completely self-servicing, can redistribute energy exactly where it is needed, and can optimise energy harvesting to store energy for future need.
Seems unlikely? What year are you living in?

If you think this can never be more than an artist’s representation, you need to wake up and smell the soy protein.

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