Written by Joanna Hughes

Climate change is a massive threat to the people and places of the planet. It has also been identified by the United Nations as the biggest threat to the global economy. While the situation is serious, there is good news: technology can be used to reverse the phenomenon. Here’s a closer look at climate change technology advancements across five major sectors.  

1. Food

The food industry is a major driver of climate change. The New York Times explains, “The world’s food system is responsible for about one-quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases that humans generate each year. That includes raising and harvesting all the plants, animals and animal products we eat -- beef, chicken, fish, milk, lentils, kale, corn and more -- as well as processing, packaging and shipping food to markets all over the world.”

The worst offenders are meat and dairy, while plant-based foods usually have a much lower impact. Lab-grown meat, or 'clean meat', is emerging as an environmentally-friendly alternative. Not only does this practice have the potential to trim the environmental costs of meat production, but it could also eliminate the unethical treatment of animals which are raised for food. According to a recent Scientific American article on the topic, many start-ups are working on manufacturing these products, which they hope will hit the market within a few years.

Another area in need of attention is food waste. Many companies are working to address this issue, including Greenbelt Resources Corporation, which developed a solution which recycles and converts solid agricultural waste into sellable products, including everything from fuel and feed to filtered water and fertilizer.

2. Transportation

At the Climate Action 2016 Summit, senior leaders came together to call for more concerted action against the climate impact of transport, which at the time represented 23 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions and has continued to grow since due to increasing demand from developing countries.

While electric-powered vehicles are a start and gaining momentum, there’s a need for more efficient batteries and battery-charging technology. The World Economic Forum recently highlighted a scientific breakthrough in this area from the UK’s University of Surrey: the discovery of new materials proven to be as much as 10,000 times more powerful than the current battery alternative. The university said, “The new technology is believed to have the potential for electric cars to travel to similar distances as petrol cars without the need to stop for lengthy recharging breaks of between 6 and 8 hours, and instead recharge fully in the time it takes to fill a regular car with petrol.”

In Germany, meanwhile, overhead power lines are now being used to power hybrid trucks thereby allowing them to charge up while traveling. While it’s currently limited to a six-mile stretch of the autobahn, insiders say widespread adoption could support the carbon neutral transportation of goods.

3. Energy

“Energy demand is increasing globally, causing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the energy sector also to increase. The trend is set to continue, driven primarily by economic growth and the rising population,” says a briefing from the World Energy Council (WEC), the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and the Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS).

Cutting GHG emissions from emissions is a critical imperative with solar power, wind, hydropower, and modern bioenergy -- hailed as “the overlooked giant within renewable energy” -- and this is forecasted to play a vital role in renewable energy consumption growth. A leader in the area of renewable energy? Costa Rica, which produced a staggering 95 percent of its electricity from renewable sources over the past four years, and is aiming to be entirely carbon-neutral by 2021. It’s joined by Sweden, Nicaragua, Scotland, Germany, Uruguay, Denmark, China, Morocco, the US, and Kenya -- all countries making names for themselves on renewable energy due in no small part to technology innovation and adoption.

Speaking of innovation, today’s PhDs can shine in this area -- with the right support systems in place, that is. Ilan Gur, founding director of energy technology fellowship program Cyclotron Road, proposes, “Right now, if there are 20 people graduating with a Ph.D. who could go on to change the world in energy, chances are there are 20 people scratching their heads wondering where to get started.” Enter university-based incubators, which can help them move from idea to implementation. Co-founder and executive director of the clean-tech startup WattTime, Gavin McCormick, adds, “Most researchers aren’t looking to start a business -- many don’t even know that they can. They’re often not even aware how valuable their ideas are. Someone has to give them that first nudge.”

4. Architecture and planning

Buildings, which require power, lighting, heating and cooling, to operate. This takes a toll with combined emissions from these sources contributing nearly 20 percent of greenhouse gases to the environment. The mandate is clear. According to Breakthrough Energy, “If we want to create a zero-carbon world, we must find ways to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions impact of our buildings. Part of the way to do this is to design the next generation of buildings that not only reduce harmful emissions but are also more efficient, smarter, and cheaper than those we use today.”

Green architecture is just the start. According to the World Economic Forum, smart cities will also be part of the solution. For example, a company called Sidewalk Labs is looking at how traffic flows through cities in order to determine “hotspots of congestion.” Eliminating these could lead to a dramatic reduction in air pollution.

5. Waste and Recycling

The waste and recycling industry comprises six key areas that are ripe for innovation, including recycling; collection and disposal; route efficiency and density; landfills modernization; safety; and customer tools. From automated sensors that provide alerts when containers are full and route optimization software to carbon sequestration in landfills and mobile apps for easier serving, all of these add up to improved efficiency and reduced environmental impact.

A 2016 BBC article, meanwhile, took a look at how technology is helping to address the world’s waste crisis with inventions including methane mulching, smart bins, infrared sorting technology, dissolvable circuit boards, and more.

While there’s no denying that the world has its work cut out for it in terms of combating climate change, it also has an invaluable resource at its disposal: universities. Not only are more universities integrating climate change awareness into their curricula, but they have also established climate change as a priority through initiatives like the University Climate Change Coalition, AKA UC3, which unites them toward helping “accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future.” Last fall, meanwhile, 130 national academies of sciences and medicine joined together to urge policymakers to take action on climate change by improving the sustainability of global food systems.

So if you are looking to make a difference in the fight against climate change, your graduate student status -- combined with the promise of technology -- means you may be uniquely qualified to do so!

ArticleEducationStudent TipsInternational News
Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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