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Game Changers in Tech: Tackling Climate Change with Data

Data is reality mapped by numbers. It is fundamentally the means by which humanity has any
semblance of self-awareness regarding its impact on the physical and natural world. We know,
for example, that it’s going to rain tomorrow, or that the world is burning, precisely thanks to
decades’ worth of data on global temperature shifts, freak weather events, CO2 emissions. Data
also plays an increasingly pivotal role in our economy, enabling traffic management, goods
distribution, and an effective means of mass communication and organisation.

Where is this all leading? Increasingly, advanced algorithm-based tech enables us to use data
not just to analyse our environment or the economy, but to make automated interventions into
those arenas.

The tech sector is all over this. Microsoft, who earlier this year pledged to become ‘carbon
negative’ by 2030, have created a number of initiatives that aim to produce novel use cases of
fifth wave technology for the environment.

Their ‘AI for Earth’ project, for example, provides grants to hundreds of green tech start-ups to
develop apps like Terrafuse, which promises ‘actionable climate intelligence’ for the Earth. This
takes the form of predictive analytics utilising in-depth readings of micro-climate factors such as
pollution or weather to provide accurate, up to the minute insights into climate-related risk at a
‘hyperlocal’ level.

There’s also OceanMind, which uses machine learning to regulate marine populations and
identify suspicious activity from poachers. It also aims to promote open-source tools and data to
‘accelerate’ tech development for sustainability.

Other startups outside of Microsoft’s reach have delivered some incredible tools for sustainable
development. Nnergix offers renewable energy forecasting that utilises machine learning and
weather satellites to produce hyper-accurate forecasting for solar and wind energy production.
This sort of application is vital to ‘smart grid’ efforts, particularly as renewable energy overtakes
fossil fuels in many parts of the world.

Some of these initiatives are very successful in demonstrating the potential scope for the role
automation technologies could play in tackling climate change and environmental destruction.
But structural barriers to adoption remain which tend to leave even the most novel applications
of green technology out of the hands of workers in the real economy.

It’s also unclear how much impact seed funding has on the real-world outcomes of these
startups, or if it amounts to a ‘green’ branding exercise for large corporations whose own
sustainability policies may be lacking in certain arenas.

One thing that is certain is that small companies and startups are ahead of the curve when it
comes to tackling specific environmental challenges with novel technology that would otherwise
not make commercial sense for a large tech firm.

Ultimately, though, piecemeal tech solutions can only affect so much change. It’s still up to
policymakers at both the national and global level to deliver sustainability at a society-wide,
strategic level – and businesses to be bold enough to follow them.

June 2020


June 2021