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Connected technology is accelerating the green revolution

December 21, 2020

Senior Advisor to Pollination Group and SYSTEMIQ, and Friend of COP26


Solar panels on roof with mountain and valley landscape in background
Photo: Andre Nery/Shutterstock

Alignment between policy, finance, and technology is spurring a rapid shift to a new kind of economic development

We can resolve the major impact that our energy and transport systems make on the climate. A really big shift is on its way as the expansions of renewable energy, storage, electric vehicles, and the management of demand converge. The way they all connect is very encouraging. You can generate power from any roof with solar photovoltaics, store it in the building and even manage it digitally and remotely, using something that looks very like your mobile phone. This means your home does not merely generate its own power, but can store it overnight. Charging the battery of your electric car can have the same effect.

Every building represents a surface that can generate and store energy, and every roof can be used to manage heat and rain run-off. Obviously those surfaces were not built with climate change in mind – but we must now think of them positively. They can create and store power, regulate air quality, manage water run-off, and take pressure off wastewater systems.

It all begins by visualizing – and then re-imagining – how to run an urban system. Once you have done that, there are solutions all over the place. Lightening road surfaces and roofs will reflect solar radiation back into space, reducing both global warming and the build-up of heat in cities.

Similarly, green spaces really matter for mental health, and can regulate local climates, as well as managing water and air pollution. We should value and restore nature, making it part of our set of solutions for man-made climate change.

The really interesting space in dealing with climate change and biodiversity loss is between disciplines that have not yet been joined up – such as law, policy, finance, and technology. That is where there is scope for doing valuable connecting work. It is also where the greatest creativity lies and where innovation is found. 

So as the technology revolution accelerates, it actively encourages further intervention from governments. Sometimes these just catch up with the technology, but sometimes they learn from the first indications of its acceleration that they could go further, faster.

Of course policymakers, financiers, technologists, and business leaders often speak different languages, so need interpretation. We also need to adopt the simple solution of putting people together to listen to different points. Citizens assemblies have done a good job, and the same approach to talking about how a problem can be resolved – sharing concerns and discussing ways out – can be transformative in the business world as well.

Alignment between public policy, finance, and technology can spur a rapid shift toward a new kind of economic development. Then the capital and financial markets – which are mostly full of followers, rather than leaders – accept the new reality and drop the old one fast. This is already happening with renewable energy and fossil fuels, presaging a big realignment of financial investors behind shifting energy policies.

The US, China, and the EU now all have very substantial commitments to decarbonizing their economies, and these will become mutually supportive. And the exponential growth in this area (both in individual technologies and in the way they converge) works in our favor.

Solutions are now emerging even in the most difficult sectors. We can now, for example, make steel in a very different way from previously, using hydrogen as the catalytic element. Steel production, already one of the largest carbon-emitting industries, is set to increase as the global population – and the urbanization of that population – grows. 

But last September three Swedish companies started a pilot plan to produce ‘fossil-free’ steel in the northern coastal city of Luleå, using hydrogen produced by renewable or nuclear energy. If it succeeds, they believe this cleaner process could be 20 to 30 percent cheaper than the present carbon-intensive one based on coke and blast furnaces.

‘Green’ hydrogen, produced with renewable energy, is very attractive. We have the capacity to make it at scale. We would be creating a new industry through electrolysis, which is not a complex technology, to produce a fuel that can store energy and move heavy goods efficiently.

A European public policy commitment to this could have a similar effect to its commitment to renewables. It would transform the economy and make it both greener and more secure, because it would be less dependent on the import of fossil fuels from dangerous and difficult places.

Similarly, the aviation industry is experiencing its own technological revolution. Many start-ups are working with electrical propulsion and also with combinations of electricity and hydrogen. The first test flights have been approved, albeit with small aircraft.

Electric and hybrid electric and hydrogen aircraft move in a very different way and they do not need long runways. They free up more airspace, and can be flown closer to the ground because they make very little noise. You get many more options. Research on ammonia as an energy source for transport also looks promising.

These innovations look like making life better, not worse. They are things to aspire to, showing that there is no need to be downhearted about the changes that will have to be made as we move away from fossil fuels and safeguard the global commons. They act for the public good, which is ultimately deliverable through law.

A legal system represents our best aspirations for ourselves; that is why constitutions are often inspiring documents. Our highest aspirations now involve dealing with climate change, and prospering when we have done so. We are not casting ourselves into lives of punishment for the sins of our fathers, but tackling the problem head-on, with total conviction, and emerging – when we are done – with a better life for ourselves and for future generations.

This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.