Are Digital Technologies the Planet’s Last Best Hope? (If bananas are anything to go by the answer is yes.)

By John Bates

Humanity’s destructive ecological footprint is only getting bigger and effective solutions are needed more than ever. Below Dr. John Bates explains what a debate about bananas has to do with the effectiveness of climate change conferences, and why digitisation could be the answer we’re looking for.

It was described as “one of the most technically complex, politically sensitive and commercially meaningful legal disputes ever brought.” The Copenhagen Climate Conference of 2009? The Durban Climate Change Conference of 2011? Or the UN Climate Change Summit of 2014?

No, I am actually talking about bananas. The quote is from the World Trade Organisation chief Pascal Lamy, describing the sixteen years of negotiations between the European Union and Latin America over banana imports and tariffs that were concluded a week before the conference in Copenhagen. Actually, make that eighteen years as it took some time to tidy up the details.

The serious point is that if it took eighteen years to resolve a trade dispute over bananas, then our expectations at what could be achieved in any one week summit concerning climate change – an issue that that will have far reaching consequences for everyone’s way of life – might just be a bit too high.

Is there another, or parallel, way that we can take practical steps in addressing climate change, resource usage by industry and citizens, and cut costs for consumer and provider at the same time? The latter issue was dealt with in my article “Can Digitisation Save the Planet?” in the last issue.1 But what about the slightly trickier issue of climate change?


Finding a Solution to Climate Change

A summit can focus public and media attention on a global issue but it cannot design, plan and implement a solution to such a complex problem as climate change while nations are competing for resources and the right to use them. By that I mean that the western world consumes resources and produces global warming gases at a much higher rate than the developing world. According to the Living Planet Report 2012, a biennial report on the state of the planet, the Ecological Footprint of high-income countries is five times that of low-income countries.2 The top-ten are United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Denmark, Belgium, United States, Estonia, Canada, Australia, Kuwait and Ireland.

As global living standards are, hopefully, raised for over six billion of the world’s population (forecast to increase to over eight billion by 2050) so will their corresponding carbon and resource footprints increase. Unless, of course, the developing world chooses to stay where they are today. Not likely and not ethical either.

The report also focuses on the planet’s “biocapacity” – the rate at which natural resources are generated vs. the rate they are consumed by man and the land area available to produce renewable resources and absorb CO2 emissions.

Man’s carbon footprint is the largest component of the Ecological Footprint, more than 50%, and therefore reducing that would have the largest effect on the environment.

This can be quantified, which is a prerequisite for digitisation. If it can be quantified then it can be digitised, and theoretically then managed and controlled. The more we know the more we can analyse, manage and develop innovative solutions.

Digitisation delivers smarter, easier, self-financing and more bite-sized alternatives to the “big bang” summit approach to the environment.

The Living Planet Report 2012 uses the global hectare (gha, which is the average biologically productive hectare of land area needed to sustain human life). According to the report the total biocapacity on earth was 12.0 billion gha (1.8 gha per person) but man’s Ecological Footprint was 18.2 billion gha, or 2.7 gha per person. With over 50% of this representing carbon gas emissions, any technology that can reduce this 9.2 billion six gha would be helpful.

The question is how to reduce our carbon footprint while allowing the under developed world to increase theirs and the answer is, to a greater and larger extend, digitisation. Digitisation, through the Internet of Things (or the Industrial Internet), will offer governments, scientific institutes and enterprises the ability to measure continuously, make smart, informed decisions, adjust accordingly, and therefore optimally manage almost everything. Institutions could do so at a profit and at the same time respond to consumer pressure, the most potent force of all.


The Potential of Digitisation

Digitisation delivers smarter, easier, self-financing and more bite-sized alternatives to the “big bang” summit approach to the environment. We have seen this in the development of the hybrid-electric car – a development driven by industry, politics and most importantly, by the market. And we now have the opportunity for such an alliance to make an even more dramatic affect on green-house gasses in the largest, most far reaching, Green IT initiative we have seen: “smart grids”.

What is a smart grid? It is an intelligent power network, an “Internet of Energy” with two-way communication between the power supplier and the individual consumer through a smart meter in every house and business.

This means bringing all the advances we have made in technology, mobile communication, intelligent business process software and state of the art hardware to the national power network. A network that has remained virtually unchanged since the wicker man.

It will help consumers monitor, reduce and change their power consumption to get the best prices. It will help power companies identify problems in the network within seconds and to match their power generation more exactly to power consumption. And it will be the basis for alternative, renewable energy sources such as wind, water and solar.

The figures are staggering. Smart grids could recover the 10% of power that disappears in Europe and the US through theft or network breakages. Smarts grids and smart buildings could reduce global CO2 emissions by 15%, or 3.7 billion tons, annually by 2020. Smart grids could save UK consumers £12 billion annually by 2050 and lower costs by £6 billion for energy providers.

The last point is crucial for UK consumers. The rising energy costs of recent years, eight times faster than earnings increases, has pushed an increasing number of people below the “poverty line” to a record level of 7.5 million, or 14% of the population.

Digitisation allows for the analysis of huge amounts of data needed to facilitate the use of renewable energy sources.

The most recent “Annual Energy Statement” presented to the UK Parliament states that “The development of a smart grid will play an important role in the transition to a low carbon economy”. “The mass roll out of smart meters into homes across Great Britain from 2015 will put an end to estimated billing, help households manage their energy consumption, make switching between suppliers easier and drive a more vibrant and competitive market”.

The UK Government has got it right. Even in these recessionary times judicial investment in technology can increase the efficiency of any process, industry or government service. Increasing efficiency is the key to lowering the cost of services to the consumer and returning the economy to growth earlier.


The “Internet of Energy”

Smart grids, the “Internet of Energy”, have great potential for bringing benefits to the consumer, the power providers and the wider environment. Two major issues are critical to this smart success: linking the new “Internet of Energy” to the power company’s technical infrastructure and developing and ensuring total consumer choice in power provider, services and tariffs.

The UK has a target date of 2020 for 53 million smart meters to be installed in every household. The technology to implement this is available today and the UK can assume a global leading position in smart metering adoption.

Again the UK Government is spot on when it says that “reducing the amount of energy we use is the cheapest way of meeting our climate change and energy security objectives.”

Digitisation allows for the analysis of huge amounts of data needed to facilitate the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, through an intelligent energy distribution network, the basis for real-time matching of energy demand and supply and for dynamic, customer friendly energy pricing.

It doesn’t stop there: analysing and acting on streaming data – or data in motion – as it’s produced from people, applications and machines is opening hitherto unbelievable opportunities to reduce resource usage. The same technologies can be used to minimise fuel consumption in lean-carbon logistics or smart fleet management.

At the other end of the spectrum, dealing with the fallout of global warming can also be aided by digitisation. A recent report highlights that humanity is responsible for accelerating the natural rate of extinction for animal and plant species by up to 10,000 times, as the competition for space and resources mentioned above does not stop with humans. This puts the planet on the brink of a dinosaur-scale sixth mass extinction.3

Mobile digital technologies such as iNaturalist can help biologists find species in trouble and monitor and manage the environment to save habitats or use captive breeding and other techniques to save the relevant species.

Climate summits play their part, as do Governments, scientific institutes, industry and consumer pressure. As do the questions “Are digital technologies the planet’s last best hope?”

It is a big, big question with millions of small, positive digital answers.

About the Author

20090625_7172%20copy%20copyDr. John Bates was appointed CTO for Intelligent Business Operations and Big Data, and a member of the Software AG Group Executive Board, in October 2013. In June 2014 he took over responsibility as Chief Marketing Officer. Wall Street and Technology magazine named John one of the “10 innovators of the decade”. In 2011, 2012 & 2013 Institutional Investor named John in its “Tech 50” of disruptive technologists.



2. WWF:

3. The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection – Stuart Pimm – Science magazine



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