This week, our consultant Peter has his pick of the tech pages, and takes control of Our Week in Digital. He has chosen to put our environment at the heart of his choices look to the world of environmental tech or ‘Envirotech’. A regular on Our Week in Digital (but not often associated with environmental tech) he leads with some of the tech giants are how they are working to address the issues our world faces.
Tech and the environment has a conflicted relationship. On the one hand, tech, especially big tech leaves a huge footprint on the environment, one which has had gross negative implications. On the other, a new wave of environmental tech is emerging. One that helps us deepen our understanding of these challenges and is providing the tools to address them. Indeed, the concept of environmental tech could help to save our planet.
Tech organisations, both large and small are recognising the threats they pose and are working hard to remedy, and in some cases, even reverse their carbon footprint.
Microsoft pledge to become Carbon negative by 2030.
As promised, our first environmental tech story comes from tech giant, Microsoft. Microsoft has pledged their intention to become carbon negative by 2030. The company aim to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. Staggeringly, they hope to have removed enough carbon to account for all the direct emissions the company has EVER made by 2050.
This promise is one of many climate goals made by private companies since Donald Trump removed the United States from the Paris climate agreement back in 2017.
Microsoft explores this in their latest blog post. Within it, Microsoft explains that it wants to reach its goal to cut its carbon emissions for its supply and value chain by more than half by 2030. They intend to do this by its growing portfolio of negative emission technologies. These include afforestation (the creation of new forests), alongside soil carbon sequestration, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and direct air capture.
These efforts will not come cheap though. Microsoft has revealed that they will fund their projects by expanding its internal carbon fee. A fee the company has charged to its business groups to account for their carbon emissions. Since 2012, Microsoft has assessed its fee based on direct emissions, electricity use, air travel, and other activities. Now, it will expand the fee to cover all Microsoft-related emissions.
The company’s plan also includes the creation of a climate innovation fund. One which will invest $1bn over the next four years to speed up the development of carbon removal technology.
Who is leading this?
These efforts are led from the very top. Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates was an early backer of the British Columbia-based Carbon Engineering. One of a handful of companies developing direct air capture technology.
Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella has noted his support and added;
“We [technology] must begin to offset the damaging effects of climate change.” Indeed, “technology built without these principles can do more harm than good”.
Microsoft’s announcement comes as big investors pay more attention to how companies will tackle climate change, and as big-tech employees are adding weight to the debate.
The environmental tech race with other big tech companies
In November, more than 1000 Google employees signed a public letter, calling for their employer to commit to a “company-wide climate plan”. This includes the cancellation of contracts with the fossil fuel industry and halting its donations to climate change deniers. Additionally, several Amazon employees have come together to call for climate action. In perhaps the biggest show of solidarity, thousands of tech workers from Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Square participated in the September 2019 global climate strike.
Microsoft and Amazon have been held to account by activist tech workers who have demanded that these companies stop supplying technology to oil and gas companies because of the polluting nature of fossil-fuel extraction.
In 2017, Microsoft announced a multi-year deal to sell cloud services to US energy giant Chevron Corp.
Microsoft has since reiterated its commitment to working with oil and gas companies. They defend this decision in its blog post. They state that;
“It’s imperative that we enable energy companies to transition, including to renewable energy and to the development and use of negative emission technologies like carbon capture and storage and direct air capture”.
Elizabeth V Sturcken of the Environmental Defense Fund has come out in support of Microsoft’s latest pledge. She remarks that the tech giant is at “the helm” of what could be a pioneering movement across the industry. She believes that big business has a moral obligation to use their considerable weight and influence to affect change…
“A company’s most powerful tool for fighting climate change is its political influence, and we’re eager to see Microsoft use it,” she adds.
Our second environmental tech story comes from another tech giant, Google. While Google has been carbon neutral for 12 years, the search giant believes it needs to do more to affect climate change.
The company’s sustainability chief, Kate Brandt has revealed that Google needs to take further action. She has stated that its current practice of offsetting emissions from its data centers is not sufficient to address the issue.
Last year, for the second year on the bounce, Google had matched 100% of the electricity consumption of their global operations with renewable energy. This was achieved through buying wind and solar contracts unrelated to Google. In some cases not in the same grid that is providing the power.
Brandt says that Google has a specific goal in mind. It is working toward a goal of being a carbon-free company across its supply chain. Not solely through its own operations.
Google’s current environmental tech policy
Currently, Google’s carbon-neutral state only applies to the facilities it owns. It does not include those factories that manufacture products or any shipping of its products other than orders made directly through its website.
Google’s data center in the Netherlands is almost at the point of consuming renewable energy. However, in the most part, the company’s data centers rely on grids which do not have the capacity to offer constant renewable energy.
Of the plans, Brandt says;
“We don’t just want the state we have today, which is that we’re buying as much renewable energy as we’re consuming on an annual basis”. Instead, she aims that Google will run on carbon-free energy “24 hours a day, 7 days a week”.
Microsoft and Google are not alone. Amazon has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2040.
For our third environmental tech story we’re looking to the animal world. The Emporer Penguins of Antarctica have suffered such severe climate-related breeding issues that they are on the verge of extinction. Some studies predict that these beautiful creatures will have disappeared by 2100.
In an attempt to remedy this trend, an Intel – led group of tech companies have developed a computer vision solution. One that will help researchers and ecologists track penguin numbers faster and more accurately than ever before.
The coalition consists of Intel’s AI Builders along with Microsoft’s AI for Earth initiative and data science consultancy, Gramener.
The consultancy sourced a corpus containing photos of Antarctica’s penguin colonies from Oxford University’s Penguin Watch Project. Over the last 10 years, the project has sourced millions of time-lapse images from camera traps in over 40 locations and recruited online volunteers to annotate them. It then fed the data through a convolutional neural network that preserved the spatial information while localising penguin counts and estimating overall tallies.
Intel processors were then used to train the model within a virtual environment on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. The platform was then benchmarked using Intel’s Optimization for PyTorch toolkit. Following this exercise and through using other open-source tools and libraries, Gramener reveals that it was able to reduce training time from days to hours.
It has been quite a project, and certainly not without its challenges. Some images exhibited perspective distortion. Where penguin faces in the foreground appeared larger than those in the background. Additionally, some penguins in the background were hidden from view by objects or other penguins in the foreground.
It also had other obstacles to overcome. Harsh weather conditions and the sheer volume of animals within some images posed a challenge. These variables often meant that there were differences within the same picture.
Lead data scientist Soumya Ranjan Mohanty remarked that:
“Almost 70% of images were unusable, as either the lighting wasn’t good or it was foggy, and penguins weren’t visible”. These anomalies are “easy for the human eye to perceive but difficult for an algorithm”.
This is not Gramener’s first AI project of an ecological nature. The consultancy has previously teamed up with Microsoft and the Nisqually River Foundation to classify flora & fauna species and fish respectively. Separately, it has worked alongside local researchers in Kenya to build a model that can distinguish elephants from other livestock in aerial photographs.
AI uses in animal conservation
Of course, Gramener is not alone in using AI to tackle these sorts of issues. At the end of last year, Google teamed up with Conservation International and other organisations to process one of the world’s largest and most diverse databases of photographs taken from motion-activated cameras. Additionally, DeepMind is developing AI systems that will help study the behaviour of animal species in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
Microsoft too has recently funded a San Francisco based startup which uses AI to track African elephants by their calls alone. Not only this, Microsoft are working separately on a project with a research group to develop an algorithm that can identify, count and describe wildlife with 96.6% accuracy.
Lightyear One; a solar-powered car with a 440-mile range.
Our third environmental tech story sounds like something from the future: solar-powered cars. They may seem like a fantasy. Not even the big-hitting electric car companies are building them yet.
That hasn’t stopped pioneering Dutch company, Lightyear, however.
Lightyear has developed a solar-powered, electric vehicle that can drive up to 440 miles on a single charge. Its founders are optimistic that their model can match whatever gas-powered and electric vehicles can do.
The car itself is futuristic in design, and would not look out of place being driven in a Hollywood blockbuster. It is sleek and streamlined, with 1000 solar tiles that covering the entire curved roof – including the back window.
Customers may question visibility, but CTO Arjo van der Ham has an answer for that. The vehicle has two side mirror cameras that show up on VDUs near the door handles. It also has a rearview mirror with a camera view of what is behind your car. The cameras will use AI to detect risks and deliver visual alerts.
These 1000 tiles soak up the sun and convert it to electricity. During a 4 hour drive, the Lightyear One should accumulate nearly 50 kilometres’ worth of extra travel time from the solar charging.
Initially, the company plan to make just shy of one thousand vehicles. They plan to start the project in the Netherlands in 2021. It will then progress onto creating larger volumes in partnership with a European content manufacturer.
How are they better for the environment?
One of the reasons solar cars are more sustainable is their efficiency. Omitting the petrol tank and redesigning the engine to become smaller means that the car has more range on the battery charge.
The first wave of Lightyear One are expected to ship at the close of 2021 and will be priced at around $135,000. The goal is to reach sales of 100,000 models by 2023. They plan to drop the price significantly (to $55,000) within that time.
So far, Lightyear has raised $30 million to fund the project, with these efforts still ongoing. It currently has 120 employees but may need to scale up to hit these numbers.
It is undeniable that the automotive market is changing. There has been a marked shift toward environmentally sustainable vehicles, as consumers have become more enlightened regarding their choices.
Bloomberg has reported that it took around five years to sell the first million electronic vehicles, and 18 months to sell the second million. More sales swiftly followed. After-sales passed 3 million, it took only 6 months to pass 4 million electric vehicles sold at the end of 2018.
With Lightyear paving the way, it is likely that this solar-powered concept will force more car-makers to bring their vehicles into a more sustainable era.
Where will environmental tech head?
We hope you enjoyed this week’s edition of Our Week in Digital looking at environmental tech. It will definitely be interesting to keep revisiting this topic throughout the years to come. Environmental tech seems to be developing at a very fast rate. Who knows what inventions we will see at this time in 5 years!
Have any environmental tech stories caught your eye this week? Let us know by leaving a comment!