This week we have used Our Week in Digital to focus on the issues surrounding tech and the environment, or envirotech. It is no secret that big tech in all its forms has a huge impact on the environment. With big tech comes big impact. The carbon footprint of large corporations is known to be damaging. Of late more and more questions have been raised about the working practices of these giants along with their business alliances and working partnerships.
It is not all bad, however. Advances in technology, particularly in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning have held positive consequences for farming and our abilities to harness the benefits of renewable energy. Envirotech is a rapidly growing and promising area.
In our news rundown, we investigate how government legislation here in the UK is encouraging big industry to cut emissions. We also look across the Atlantic to Silicon Valley where workers and big tech leaders are adding their weight to the wider debate surrounding how big tech can use their size to help right their environmental wrongs!
Our first envirotech story is that this week the British government has launched the Industrial Energy Transformation Fund. It is a new £315m tech fund to help find new technologies. The fund will allow the most polluting factories to cut down on their carbon footprint.
Over the next 5 years, the scheme will offer funds to energy-intensive firms, such as large scale manufacturers, and allow them to invest in new technology. As a result, they will be in a position to reduce their energy use. Energy minister Kwasi Kwarteng said the fund will bolster industry investment in clean growth, as these companies work towards its climate targets.
Over the summer, legislation was passed to cut government carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050. Talking tangible numbers, ministers hope the scheme will help save £1bn a year on industrial energy bills and cut carbon emissions by 2m tonnes. This is the equivalent of taking nearly 200,000 cars off the road each year.
This latest fund bolts on to a scheme launched in the summer to help clean up climate emissions produced by the UK’s steel manufacturing sector. The government proposed the £250m Clean Steel Fund in late August.
Companies will be able to compete for a share of up to £30m of funding from the Industrial Energy Transformation Fund next summer. The second funding round will be held in 2021.
Which industries will this impact the most?
Heavy industry, which makes up a quarter of the UK’s carbon footprint, is thought to be one of the most challenging areas to decarbonise if we don’t embrace investing in new envirotech. Such a step-change has been implemented across the manufacturing arena with success. For example, Ibstock Bricks has invested in robotics to help make repetitive manufacturing processes more efficient. This development has halved the emissions output for every brick produced.
Other factories are already trialling new software which uses algorithms to shut down non-essential machines when renewable energy is low and the demand on the national energy grid is high. Such developments hold significant benefits for both manufacturers and the environment. Bills are significantly reduced as electricity is only being used at cheaper times when renewable energy output is higher.
Through equipping energy-intensive businesses with the latest low-emission technologies, not only will the UK meet its climate targets but it could also help companies remain competitive and create skilled well-paid jobs.
Kwarteng has high hopes for the scheme and has stated that the UK is already blazing a trail. The UK is cutting emissions faster than any other major economy. It was also the first nation to use legislation to ensure the end of its contribution to climate change entirely.
Our second envirotech story is that workers at Google are once again demanding action from their board!! This week they have sent a letter to chief financial officer Ruth Porat, calling for the company to cut all of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
The employees also ask that Google terminate contracts with fossil fuel companies. In addition to this, they want Google to eliminate funding for think tanks, politicians, or lobbyists that impede action on climate change.
Workers at Google are not the only ones to use collective action to campaign for greener working practices and relationships from their big tech employers. Letters from the staff at both Amazon and Microsoft have also pushed for those three measures.
On this occasion though, Google workers go one step further. They write that they want no part in the “incarceration, surveillance, displacement, or oppression” of refugees or other communities affected by climate change.
Directed at Porat, the letter reads; “Google is a global company with billions of users across the world, many of whom are already bearing the brunt of climate disaster…..As Google workers, we are committed to putting our users first, and Google must do the same.”
These latest demands can be added to the movement that was ignited across the wider tech community in September. At this time, employees at Google, Amazon and Microsoft joined the Global Climate Strike. During the strike tens of thousands of people took to the streets of New York City ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit.
This new letter comes just weeks after The Guardian newspaper reported on the “substantial contributions” that Google makes to organisations that oppose policies on environmental protection and refute the mass of scientific evidence on climate change.
What actions have Google taken?
Although the company have refused to comment on the workers’ latest letter, they have made some substantial pledges when it comes to environmental responsibility. Google became carbon neutral back in 2007. Additionally, last year it beat its target of buying more renewable energy than it uses. Indeed in September, it promised to make “the biggest corporate purchase of renewable energy in history”. As part of this, Google grew its wind and solar portfolio by 40%. The company also said in 2018 that its long-term goal is to source carbon-free energy on a 24-7 basis. However, on this occasion, they failed to provide a deadline.
Although these actions have shrunk (and offset) the tech giant’s carbon footprint, Google’s operations still run on fossil fuels. Last year, the company produced 4.9 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases; an equivalent amount of carbon to more than 1 million on the road passenger vehicles. Shockingly, according to one industry researcher, Google searches account for 40% of the entire internet’s carbon footprint.
Maybe this explains the concern over the climate and provides the fuel behind the workers’ agenda. It is being required that the company take action and do all it can to end greenhouse gas emissions completely…particularly considering the “gravity and urgency of the global climate crisis and its disproportionate harm to marginalized people.”
Ecobee roles out Eco+; AI for your thermostat.
Our third envirotech story is the smarthome thermostat company, Ecobee have launched Eco+. Eco+ is a free suite of machine learning features to its thermostats with voice control. Eco+ uses machine learning to tailor temperature settings and cut electricity costs. It also helps users further reduce energy consumption and move more proactively toward clean energy.
This isn’t the first initiative employed by Ecobee to these ends. In July 2018, Ecobee launched a pilot called Peak Relief intended to save both energy and money. This product automatically heats or cools your home when electricity is less expensive.
With Eco+, Ecobee has extended this offering. By placing AI inside the thermostat itself, the Eco+ suite can predict future energy needs based on weather forecasting, occupancy patterns, humidity, and electricity costs.
How does it work?
Comprising 5 major features, Eco+ analyses factors such as your location, schedule and occupancy patterns as well as the humidity levels in your home. Eco+ can then make recommendations to optimise electricity use and limit energy usage. There is also a time of use feature which preheats or precools your home. It does this by monitoring when renewable energy is plentiful and/or when electricity is cheaper. Finally, Community Energy Savings is for customers with participating utility providers. The feature makes small adjustments during times of peak energy demand in a community, with the goal being to use cleaner energy and reduce strain on the energy grid. This is revolutionary for the field of envirotech, and shows how AI could become commonplace in our homes.
In terms of scale, Ecobee rolled out Eco+ to 95,000 thermostats; 75,000 of which enabled the feature during Q3 2019. Early results seem favourable. It is estimated that during those three months alone, those 75,000 thermostats saved enough energy to power nearly 1,200 homes for a year.
Elon Musk pledges 1 million trees to TeamTree campaign.
Elon Musk has donated $1million towards a tree-planting campaign set up by YouTube favourite, Jimmy Donaldson aka MrBeast. No stranger to the world of envirotech, Elon Musk co-founded Tesla in 2003.
The #teamtrees initiative was set up earlier this year with the aim being to raise $20 million to plant 20 million trees across the globe. Over the last couple of weeks, the campaign has picked up momentum. It has succeeded in adding several other prominent YouTube stars to its list of supporters.
Adding his weight to the project, Elon Musk tweeted MrBeast, writing “Sounds cool. Where are the trees being planted and what kind of trees?”. Following an explanation, he promptly responded with his pledge to donate $1m trees.
The Tesla boss also changed his Twitter name to Treelon in a nod to the project!
‘Treelon’ is not the only big tech name to support the campaign. Other notable supporters from the world of tech include Twitter boss, Jack Dorsey who pledged 150,000 trees. Various prominent YouTube channels have also backed the initiative.
So far, enough money has been donated to plant more than 8 million trees. The end goal is to plant trees on every continent.
Hopefully, this enthusiasm from industry leaders to address these environmental issues is indicative of a wider social consciousness amongst the big tech community. These large companies having such huge carbon footprints from their products, practices, alliances and business relationships. It is refreshing that they are acknowledging this and going someway to “right the wrongs”.
That’s all from us!
As always, we would love to hear which envirotech stories caught your eye this week! Leave us a comment below.