The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its most comprehensive and concerning report to date. Climate scientists have been reticent to ascribe too much weight to single weather events, but the IPCC report marks a shift. It brings the recent heatwaves in North-Western North America, flooding in Europe and China, and ongoing droughts and wildfires in many parts of the world into sharper focus while sharpening the language ascribing these events to human activity. It says many of these events would be almost impossible without humanity’s effect on the climate.
The report is timely – coming shortly before the COP26 summit in Glasgow, UK, which is due to take place in November. COP26 is the point at which government representatives will come together to thrash out the wording of agreements that have been in discussion for many months.
The last 18 months, during which the world has battled COVID-19, have highlighted that much of what we previously took for granted, such as office working and long commutes, face-to-face meetings, frequent international travel and large trade shows, can be largely dispensed with thanks to the power of technology. While some of us may miss travelling across eight time zones to visit clients, colleagues and partners, COVID-19 has shown us that these things are not strictly necessary. And while some of the changes in working style may revert to pre-pandemic ways in the months to come, it is likely that more people than ever will work from home at least some of the time; hybrid working will become the norm for many (assuming their roles allow them to).
But the positive impacts on sustainability through COVID-enforced changes in working practices are a by-product of the pandemic. So, what more can the tech sector deliver if it specifically targets fighting climate change?
The answer is a lot. But it needs a long-term, concerted effort by companies of all types, to take responsibility in ways, both large and small, to tackling humanity’s greatest existential threat. Let us consider a few of the ways:
- Smart agriculture: One of the downsides of modern farming techniques that focus on large-scale, single-crop fields that require massive inputs of artificial fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, is that soil health suffers. Healthy soil is a rich ecosystem that is able to store carbon as well as support a massive abundance of microorganisms. However, most soil on modern farms is almost devoid of life and can do little to store carbon. The advent of small farm robots that have developed significantly in the last few years, can help in multiple ways. They can work almost on a single plant scale, like targeting only those weeds injurious to the crops’ health. This is likely to be a slow fix though. Despite the steady improvements in the technology, it is only just at farm-scale trials. And ‘Big Agri’ business has a massive vested interest in farmers continuing to buy tons of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and other costly inputs. Undoing the damage done by industrial farming will take decades, even if there is consensus that it is the right thing to do.
- Supporting reuse and recycling of smartphones and other devices: Counterpoint has been tracking the refurbished smartphone market for years. During this time, we have seen the refurb sector grow and develop substantially. But still only a small fraction of devices enjoy a second life. The energy and resource costs to build a smartphone are considerable. Phones collectively require substantial volumes of minerals and energy-intensive manufacturing processes. One way to measure impact is embodied energy. Estimates vary, but to manufacture all the smartphones that are likely to be consumed in 2021 will require approximately 375 Giga Joules of primary energy. Assuming a product life of 2.2 years, that represents more than 160 GJ per year. For comparison, cars require massively more primary energy to make, around 100GJ per car. But since cars have a much longer life, their annualized primary energy cost is only 4.6x that of a smartphone, despite weighing something like 7500x more than a typical smartphone. Cars, of course, consume massively more energy in use during their lifetime than smartphones, but for this comparison we are only concerned with the energy cost of initial manufacturing. In the same way that buying a second hand internal combustion engine car has less environmental cost than buying a brand new electric car, buying a second hand or refurbished smartphone has less environmental cost than buying a new one. For those smartphone makers that have embraced recovery, refurbishment and recycling of second hand devices, not only are they making a positive contribution to building their user base, they are also helping the environment by substantially reducing the embedded energy cost per year, per smartphone.
And humanity is likely to need every marginal gain available to achieve even the minimum targets to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
We will always be happy to talk to our clients and other companies about ways they can mitigate their impact on the earth’s resources.