Big Data

10 ways technology is fighting climate change

People are starting to heed the warnings of climate scientists by harnessing technology to slow the rate of rising seas and warming temperatures. Here are 10 ways tech is doing its part.

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Image: Christine Zenino/Flickr

A startling new report on climate change was released in early 2014. It didn't mention exact dates or specific forecasts for the future, but it did foreshadow consequences of climate change that are getting increasingly difficult for the world to ignore.

Some of the highlights included a prediction of violent conflicts and civil wars, extreme poverty and the loss of several points of gross domestic product in some developing nations, mass extinctions, and an intense, regular pattern of natural disasters.

The report was done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that summarizes the effects of climate change every so often. The year 2013 is tied with 2003 as the fourth warmest year on record for planet earth, and the top 10 have all been since 1998.

From automobiles to factories, technology has played its part in climate change. But, tech can also change the course we're on, if it's harnessed in effective ways. Here are 10 creative ways humans are using technology to fight climate change.

1. Big data

Big data has big implications in creating awareness about the consequences of climate change. The UN just announced a global competition — the Big Data Climate Challenge — to spur the use of big data to tackle the issue. It seeks recently published projects that show the economic impact of climate change patterns. The contest is part of the Climate Summit in September.

2. Mobile apps

It takes some digging to find apps that will help you create real change on a daily basis, but they're out there. Here are some examples of apps that can help you monitor and reduce your carbon footprint and waste.

  • Oroeco is an app that tracks your carbon footprint by placing a carbon value on everything you buy, eat, and do, and then shows you how you compare with your neighbors.
  • PaperKarma is an easy way to cut paper waste. Take a photo of your junk mail, send it through the app, and PaperKarma will figure out what it is and take you off the mailing list.
  • GiveO2 tracks your carbon footprint as you travel. Turn on the tracker when you start a new trip, and it will automatically calculate a timeline of your carbon usage. At the end, you can "offset" it by supporting a sustainable project of your choice.

3. Hackathons

Hackathons are powerful tools, and they're becoming more mainstream. Companies, organizations, and governments are all using the events to generate fresh ideas. Crowdsourcing for environmental solutions by gathering journalists, scientists, technologists, and people passionate about sustainability is creating a new wave of environmentalism. The White House is now hosting green hackathons of their own.

4. Clean energy

Clean energy is perhaps the biggest issue to tackle, but also the most important. In 2013, renewable energy accounted for 10% of total US energy usage and 13% of electricity generation, according to the US Energy and Information Administration. Solar power accounted for only 0.3% of the US energy supply in 2013. Wind energy accounted for 4%.

Some of the biggest challenges for clean energy are storage and transmission of the energy once it's captured. That's where tech comes in to help build a smarter energy grid, which can have nearly as big of an impact on the use of renewable energy sources as new breakthroughs in science.

5. IoT

Monitoring our energy usage makes it possible to be smarter about it. Take Nest for instance. While an unprogrammed thermostat can waste 20% of heating and cooling, Nest tackles the issue with a smart thermostat that learns your patterns and automatically adjusts to save energy. The Internet of Things can save energy and carbon footprints with things as simple as using an app to turn off the lights or with apps like IFTTT, which hooks up to many different types of systems. The IoT can also involve monitoring your sprinkler system to save water, or use sensors to tell you to take a different route when driving to avoid idling in traffic and wasting gas.

6. Meat replacements

The livestock industry is a massive contributor to climate change. It takes more power to make one burger than to fully power seven iPads. Beef alone requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and has five times more climate-warming emissions, which estimates to a fifth of total emissions, according to a new paper published by Bard College, the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Yale University.

Technology is making it easier to cut out the animal-based foods. Startups are trying to tackle these issues. Hampton Creek is making egg-free substitutes for cookie dough and mayonnaise, with plans to do much more in the future. Beyond Meat is a plant protein that looks and tastes like meat. Modern Meadow uses tissue engineering to make leather and meat products.

7. Open source movement

Open data and open source technologies are a huge way to accelerate environmental research and innovation. Take Tesla, for example. By opening the company's patents to everyone, Elon Musk wanted to make sure electric vehicles succeed faster. The US government just opened all their climate data to the public to make it easier to access and digest. There's even been talks of open source GMO development, to take the decisions out of the hands of companies like Monsanto and give power to smaller biotech companies with smart ideas to feed the world.

8. Mapping

It's a simple technology, but interactive maps really drive home the point of climate change. If people can see how vast the world is and how differently certain areas are affected by sea level rise and a warming climate through maps, the science behind it makes more sense. Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey launched a $13 million 3D Elevation Program to develop advanced mapping to better update flood maps and find out where the best areas for solar and wind farms.

9. Geoengineering

Geoengineering is a controversial method, sometimes called "planet hacking" because it uses literal hacking of the planet's resources to find new solutions. It's based on the belief climate change can be halted using man-made means. It usually takes the form of two things: carbon dioxide reduction, like building algae farms, planting trees, capturing emissions from power stations for fuel; or, solar radiation management, like releasing volcanic ash as a coolant, arranging mirrors in space to redirect solar rays, or painting roofs white instead of black. It's controversial because we don't know the environmental or health effects of most of these ideas.

10. Data centers

Apple now boasts that it uses 100% renewable energy in their data centers — especially aided by the largest private solar array in the United States. Google is moving toward that goal as well, though they use 34% right now. It's a good move, because much of the energy used in data centers is not from the actual technology, but from cooling the servers. One study said data centers contributed 1.5% of overall energy usage, so using renewables instead could make a dent.

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About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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