A skeptical attitude toward technology’s ability to save the planet is reasonable. After all, the internal combustion engine brought us smog, while plastics formed the Great Pacific garbage patch. But other technologies actually benefit the planet. While the jury’s still out on technology’s ability to solve the problems it creates, there are encouraging signs it’s helping preserve our planet. Here are seven of them
1. Artificial Intelligence
The challenges that global warming and climate change present are immense. Analyzing the terabytes of climate data collected every day takes massive computation power. But even harder is predicting the outcomes of our actions or inactions. Artificial intelligence's ability to compute, analyze, and predict far surpasses that of humans. Simple smart home devices like thermostats and light bulbs are cutting down on household energy use and saving families money. And machine learning is being deployed to every corner of climate research and response — from creating better climate models to genetically engineering crops that thrive in warmer climates.
AI is even helping with practical problems in the renewable energy sector. Today’s machine learning technology can detect malfunctions and inefficiencies in wind turbines by “listening” to sound changes in their operation. AI can also help maximize solar energy output by making more accurate weather predictions
2. Smart Electric Grids
Today, utility companies use an antiquated electrical grid system. Companies deliver the same amount of energy to every corner of the grid even though demand fluctuates based on time and location. It’s a one-way system that’s costly and inefficient. But smart grids are changing this model. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, these systems customize energy delivery — using automation and computer technology to communicate with homes and offices. Unused electricity can then flow from households back to the utility.
The smart grid “talks” to smart meters to determine the home’s energy needs in real time. Within this integrated system, smart appliances can shut themselves off to save electricity. Smart grids make integrating less-reliable renewable energy easy. When the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, the grid shifts energy production away from fossil fuels and towards solar and wind.
3. Plant-based Plastics
Plastics pose a major hazard for the environment. Marine life suffers injuries from entanglements and ingestion of plastic, and plastics leach chemicals into our oceans and rivers. But thanks to innovations in plant-based polymers, plastic pollution may be a thing of the past.
The company Skipping Rocks Lab manufactures a plastic bottle made from seaweed that breaks down within weeks. It's also edible and costs less to produce than petroleum-based plastic bottles. Other companies are making eco-friendly plastic bags from cassava root and natural starches. Plastic is ubiquitous to modern life, so completely replacing plastics won’t be easy or even possible. And there’s still the human factor — getting people to separate compostables from non-compostables. But innovations like these provide hope of striking a balance between functionality and eco-friendliness. Finding that balance will move us beyond petroleum-based plastics
4. Direct Air Carbon Capture
While carbon was trapped inside the earth and rain forests for millennia, the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation has released it into the atmosphere. Many of our natural carbon “sinks” are now gone or reduced, and we must replace them to achieve a carbon-negative output. Traditional carbon capture technologies focus on producing things like “clean coal” or capturing CO after combustion. But these methods only work to reduce CO emissions; they don’t remove it from the atmosphere and hold it.
Climate engineers, like Harvard physicist David Keith, are developing direct air capture (DAC) methods to remove CO from the atmosphere — not only coal stacks. The goal is to find a DAC method that can scale to remove enough greenhouse gases to halt or reverse global warming. Captured carbon can then be converted to products and liquid fuels (i.e., sequestered). Already, some companies are using captured carbon to build new carbon-negative materials to make products like phone covers and chairs.
Drones often bring up images of military strikes or package deliveries. But climate scientists and conservationists are using these autonomous airborne vehicles to help the planet. Japanese researchers are developing insect-sized drones capable of pollinating plants in the event the honeybee goes extinct. It’s a realistic concern, given that the U.S. lost 44 percent of its honey bee population in 2016. And animal conservationists are using drones to track endangered animals and combat poaching. Other organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration use drones to monitor the health of marine animals like sperm whales. Equipped with high resolution and infrared cameras, drones protect animals day or night.
Crowdsourcing is about harnessing collective ideas and actions to fast-track solutions. It's the collective engine that brought us Wikipedia and Airbnb — and it's also helping save the planet. While crowdsourcing can be simple concepts like forums to promote workable ideas on climate, it’s also a practical way to gather data about the planet. For example, the Eyes on the Forest project is an online crowdsourcing program that serves as a clearinghouse for Indonesian citizens to report illegal logging in Sumatra. The World Wildlife Fund and other organizations use the data to protect and report on the country’s rainforests.
The app iNaturalist works like Google Maps for nature lovers. Developed by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, the app helps users identify, report, and share observations about their natural surroundings. Biologists and researchers use the data to track changes to habitats and species.
7. Video Camera Technology
Nature documentaries are essential to educating, entertaining, and inspiring the world to value and protect our planet. From sweeping shots that track breaching humpbacks whales to time-lapse sequences of ant colonies, their images reveal nature in new ways. It’s a perspective that would be impossible without innovative camera technology.
Today’s cameras are cheaper, lighter, and smaller. These features let documentarians travel to the remotest parts of the planet and capture species and events never witnessed before. Higher image resolutions allow filmmakers to capture the smallest details. Viewers of docu-series like Our Planet can view a rare scene of a jungle ant being possed by Cordyceps, the killer “zombie fungus.” Or they can take in the awe-inspiring colors displayed during the mating dance of the Bird of Paradise. Both experiences help inspire a better understanding of nature and appreciation for our planet that can translate into collective action and policy changes.