What role must technology play in our transition to a Net Zero carbon world?

COP26 meets in Glasgow over the next two weeks and the future of life on our planet is on the line. To mark the occasion, the Grant McGregor team ask: could technology hold the answer to reaching our net zero carbon goals?

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, is the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference. It is being held in Glasgow, Scotland, between 31 October and 12 November 2021.

We are already three years into the ten years we have to make the transition to net zero and keep global warming to 1.5˚C. It’s not long. Action is urgent. More so, since the climate chaos of the last year – wildfires, 50˚C heat, flooding and flash storms – have made it feel that dangerous climate change is already here.

The world is looking to its leaders for answers. What role does technology play in their solutions? What role can technology play?

Carbon capture technology

The UK Prime Minister is fond of big gesture politics, so it’s little wonder he regularly touts carbon capture and hydrogen technologies as the solutions that will help us achieve net zero.

However, researchers have warned(1) that neither of these technologies can be relied upon to help the world meet its net zero targets. Neither carbon capture nor hydrogen will be running at scale by 2050.

In fact, the best carbon capture technology we have is to be found in the natural world. We need to be protecting the world’s forests, peat bogs and artic tundra. And planting more trees.

The UK is far behind its European counterparts when it comes to tree planting. Woodland(2) today covers 13.2% of the UK. This compares to a European average of over 45%.

Little wonder then that the UK is so far behind on biodiversity too(3). The UK only has half of its natural biodiversity left. When compared to the G7 countries, this puts the UK is at the very bottom in terms of how much biodiversity still survives.

We must focus on tree planting and rewilding the UK(4) if we are to meet our targets and restore the natural balance and biodiversity of our islands.

Renewables

Renewables is one area where technology excels. As we make the transition to electric vehicles and electric home heating, we’ll need a greater supply of electricity from carbon-neutral sources. For some campaigners, this means nuclear – but that comes with its own environmental problems.

Renewables are the best way to deliver carbon-neutral power. The natural assets of Scotland and the rest of the UK mean we are rich in potential. As well as increasing onshore and offshore wind provision, we’ll need to take advantage of technological advances in mobile wind, broad spectrum solar and new storage solutions to meet national demand.

Tidal power is another untapped resource, but the technology is expensive. This has led to a hesitancy to provision tidal installations. However, compared to nuclear, tidal is a cost-effective power source. Given the UK’s island nation status, the potential for tidal demands to be explored, especially since it is a more predictable and reliable source of energy.

Reduce and reuse

Arguably, the simplest way to reduce our carbon footprint is to reduce our consumption. While this sounds simple in theory, since our economies are built on a system that is based on ever-increasing consumption, achieving it is less easy in practice.

It would be a brave government that rationed air travel, for example. And it’s hard to imagine any government telling us to shop less and consume less.

The onus is on consumers and businesses, then, to reduce their own consumption. Here, technology can help. With modelling available to help us calculate our individual carbon footprints, information technology puts the power in our hands to make the necessary changes.

Technology must also play a role in creating more energy efficient versions of our everyday products. By streamlining production, continually reducing energy consumption across business and public sector operations, and optimising our use of resources, technology can help reduce our national carbon footprint.

Augment this with initiatives to buy local, avoid high-carbon products by sensible switching, work from home more and cut back on unnecessary travel and we can help to tilt the dial in the right direction and make a just transition(5).

The first step is to measure and monitor your carbon footprint. Understanding is the first step to reduction. Measurement is also important to monitor the effects of any changes you make. The carbon trust(6) offers advice for small businesses to do this. And the CBI is encouraging all UK businesses to join the UN’s Race to Zero campaign(7).

Next steps?

If you’re interested in this topic, read our blog about how moving to the cloud could lower your carbon footprint.

Or, for some practical advice about the small, incremental and continual improvements you can make to achieve net zero, the Federation of Small Businesses has created a ten-point plan(8).

Sources:

1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-51389404

2. https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/state-of-uk-woods-and-trees/#:~:text=Woodland%20today%20covers%2013.2%25%20(3.2,non%2Dnative%20commercial%20conifer%20plantation.&text=Credit%3A%20WTML-,Just%207%25%20of%20Britain's%20native%20woodlands,currently%20in%20good%20ecological%20condition.

3. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2020/september/uk-has-led-the-world-in-destroying-the-natural-environment.html

4. https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/

5. https://www.cbi.org.uk/media/5912/a-just-transition-to-net-zero-the-fairness-principles-final.pdf

6. https://www.carbontrust.com/resources/the-journey-to-net-zero-for-smes

7. https://unfccc.int/climate-action/race-to-zero-campaign

8. https://firstvoice.fsb.org.uk/static/f5c2af8e-a4dc-40ed-a7f9b6083c9cbebc/Ten-Positive-Things.pdf

 

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