Technology can help us tackle the seemingly insurmountable climate challenge – here’s how

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

It should serve as the global wake-up call we need, a meticulously researched report from the world’s top climate scientists that suggests the world is driving towards a cliff with our foot planted firmly on the accelerator.

But the 4,000-page climate science update delivered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this month also seems to present us with an insurmountable problem. We have a shorter window than we thought we had in which to lower emissions to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

We effectively need to halve global CO2 emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 levels to achieve that, a big ask indeed given our limited ability to phase out coal and gas and move to cleaner energy production quickly.

But the silver lining in the IPCC report is that we do have a chance to right the ship. If we can substantially reduce emissions, we’ll still experience the ‘baked in’  impacts of climate change in the next couple of decades – droughts, wildfires and floods, but have a chance of temperatures stabilising at around 1.5 degrees of warming by the middle of the decade. 

Achieving that is a mammoth task and will need to be broken down into numerous actions and behaviour changes. For instance, few people realise that refrigeration and air conditioning alone contributes around 10% of global CO2 emissions – more than aviation and shipping combined. 

It starts with people

Cooling food and cooling ourselves is ripe for disruption and efficiency gains, as are manufacturing, agriculture and virtually every other industry.

“We know the things we have to do now to be in better shape in 2050,” says Rik De Smet, an Auckland-based digital transformation consultant at Schneider Electric, the French multinational that specialises in energy and automation digital solutions.

“We have to do them now. It starts with people.”

De Smet, an engineer by training, says the awareness and behaviour change that has come to health and safety and cybersecurity now needs to happen in the area of sustainability.  

“It’s creating that awareness that you and I can make a difference, even if it’s small. If we do a lot of small things, it will have a major impact,” says De Smet.

Gathering relevant sources of data can offer a holistic view of a manufacturing operation and improve decision making.

He admits convincing customers to go on that journey, to think long term, has been difficult. But the impetus for change is now coming from the investment community, which is increasingly only willing to put its dollars into ventures that have credibility in the area of sustainability.

“They are saying, what are your [emissions reduction] targets, what’s your sustainability programme?” De Smet says.

“Before it was push, now it’s pull. Companies are saying to us, hey come and help me.”

For many of Schneider’s customers, which range from data centre operators to automobile makers, it starts with process optimisation and energy efficiency. Automation has a big role to play there.

“Digital transformation is less about automation, but looking more holistically at data,” he says.

“How can you make the invisible visible?”

Precision irrigation

As an example, he points to the large pivot irrigation systems used on South Island farms. A producer of irrigation systems came to Schneider with a problem.

“The customer said to us, I’m basically competing on selling steel.”

How could a supplier of irrigation systems gain a competitive edge?

Schneider started with applying basic industry 4.0 principles, automating the pivots and digitally connecting them so data could be gathered from them in real-time. The automation allowed each individual nozzle on the pivot to be controlled to maximise efficiency in water use. 

Then external sources of data – soil moisture, fertiliser usage, weather forecasts, were added to the system. 

“What we see is that the farmers use around 50% less water,” says De Smet of the precision irrigation systems. 

“Now they are optimised, they don’t just say, I’m going to let the pivot run for two days.”

Center pivot irrigator watering a field at sunset in summer. mid Canterbury, New Zealand

Farmers are saving energy and water, but also freeing up their time to focus on other aspects of running their farms. De Smet says the principles can be applied to any industry and will ultimately result in lots of incremental gains that will add up to widespread emissions reductions.

“Technology in the physical world is transactional. In the digital world you can use it to get that holistic view,” he says.

But he also has a warning.

“Do not copy your old problems into the cloud. creating a data lake won’t necessarily help, It can just lead to recreating your problem in the physical world in the digital world.”

True digital transformation can require a whole new way of looking at things.

“Einstein said we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” De Smet points out.

“If you are setting out to do something new, realise it is going to be new.”

Four ways technology can be used to save energy and cut emissions

Lower energy use

Energy consumption reduction strategies can range from implementing new ways to buy energy (e.g., leveraging renewable power purchase agreements to better control the cost of clean energy sources to run operations), to new ways of physically sourcing energy (looking to microgrids that enable higher resilience as well as greener use of energy supply), to more practical ways of consuming energy (high-efficiency heaters, compressors, pumps, motors, drives). 

A Schneider Electric facility in Singapore, for example, which has deployed similar energy consumption reduction strategies, is consuming seven times less energy than a nearby comparable customer facility that is just now beginning to launch digitized energy-saving initiatives.

Improved process sustainability

Over the last 40 years, many industrial organizations did not pay close attention to how much energy their individual internal manufacturing processes were consuming. In many of today’s plants, the current high carbon footprint processes in place reflect that reality. Now, each of these processes must be examined from a sustainability perspective.

Questions such as

– Is waste being decreased?

– Are product movements minimized?

– Are the right quantities of goods being produced to address demand?

must be asked and addressed. Several years ago, these questions were difficult to answer because of a lack of visibility across the various operational silos. Now digitization makes it both affordable and possible to find answers and to apply fixes.

The World Economic Forum expects that a more sustainable, circular economy could be worth US$1 trillion worldwide by 2025. As green products continue to gain steam, manufacturers will more closely embrace approaches such as “embedded sustainability” – the incorporation of environmental, health, and social value into core business activities with no trade-off in price or quality.

Achieving such a goal will require discipline and deliberate actions in both Scope 1 (direct emissions from sources the organization owns or has control over), Scope 2 (indirect GHG emissions associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat, or cooling, and Scope 3 (emissions related to supply chains) types of emissions.

To execute such an evolution, the organizational mindset has to change. For example, instead of an operator asking a manager for more budget to fix an existing process, that request for budget should instead focus on testing new “out of the box” approaches for creating a more holistic, sustainable process.

More visibility through data and analysis

Examining an industrial organisation through the lens of sustainability requires a closer look, not at the plant assets themselves, but at the function of those assets. Digital transformation allows a deeper view of how core assets are behaving.  Rather than determining whether a motor is working or not, the deeper layer of data capture and analysis allows for a close look at how performance is optimized. 

By knowing how often a particular motor stops or starts or why a certain valve opens and closes, an operator can execute more detailed adjustments. For example, instead of having a motor run 100% of the time because that’s how it has always been done, perhaps the data justifies running that motor only 50% of the time, without significantly reducing process output and quality.

Data and analysis also become a critical cornerstone for exchanging information between manufacturers and their suppliers. In the case of our business, suppliers are required to provide information that helps manufacturing to be more efficient in planning, in waste reduction, and in energy efficiency. We also provide suppliers with the information they need to better control their own inventories. These types of digitized exchanges help assure that all parts of the supply chain are working together in a fashion that bolsters sustainability on each side.

Accelerated situational awareness and engagement of people

New technology, greater efficiency, smarter alarms, and energy management are all key elements to improving sustainability. 

However, the question we’re left asking is what can we (the people) do? As we have seen with safety awareness and cybersecurity, the breakthrough really happened once organizational awareness campaigns were launched. The result of these campaigns meant that people took a vested interest in the betterment of their organization and became part of the solution. 

This concurrently meant that organizational impact was much greater. The more people are part of the solution, the closer we become to balancing organizational alignment between technology, processes, and people.

Read Schneider Electric’s Digital Transformation Benefit Report, 2021

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin has been a journalist for over 20 years, covering the latest trends in technology and science for leading NZ media. He has also founded Science Media Centre and established Australasia's largest science blogging platform, Sciblogs.co.nz.

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