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2021: The year of environmental consciousness
by Prof. Mark K. Smith

First published on Business Cloud

The last 12 months have been remarkable for so many reasons – but in amongst the tragedy has also been an acceleration in developments that might just save the planet.

A paper published on the 11th December 2020 by an international team of experts has shown CO2 levels dropping at remarkable rates during the lockdown, 7% globally, but even more remarkable declines of 15% and 13% in France and the UK respectively. Combine that with the new normal being working from home – where keeping warm will become more of an individual concern than a company one – and I think that we will see a huge uptick in environmental consciousness, be that driven by wallet or conscience!

More recently in my country, the UK Government has, quite remarkably, brought forward mandatary electric vehicle sales to less than 10 years away – and pushed enough support to wind power generation to deliver power to 100% of UK homes by 2030. The tech challenges to harness this ‘free’ power and flatten out the peaks and troughs of availability will need the finest of minds and some of the most radical rethinking of how we produce and use power seen since the industrial revolution.

So the scene is set for seismic change – but what are the technical challenges to address this?  Well, they are massive. Think about power generation. What most countries do is take fossil fuels, set fire to them, heat water into steam which turns a big wheel called a turbine around which uses magic to make electrickery which is piped down a big wire into your house. How unbelievably silly. Something like 30,000 times the power we use every day hits our planet via that big yellow ball in the sky we call the sun. If we changed our planning laws tomorrow every house could be carbon positive – i.e. generate more than it uses every day. 

Wind power, solar, air, and ground source, triple glazing, insulation, putting a jumper on – all of this is here. Now. Easy and cheap(ish). So the real challenge is achieving joined-up thinking. Those electric cars have batteries, big ones, which will mostly sit about idle during daylight hours. So do not fit a storage battery to your house, fit your car to your house. Then distribute the surplus power to the batteries all over the country using the grid that already exists (see big wires above). Some AI magic and increasing intelligence in power consumption (light bulbs – remember everyone moaning about losing halogens? Well, my lovely glass candle bulbs (thank you China) cost little and consume 15x less power than the filament ones of not that long ago).

Now, why does this matter to me? Well, my company is carbon positive as well – we save millions of unnecessary truck rolls each year with a massive reduction in unnecessary fuel usage. We also all work from home and do not travel anymore, but when we do again we will plant a tree for all the CO2 created by making the trip. I also have not owned a printer for about 10 years.  

It has been 10 years since the irritating (and wrong actually) aphorism ‘software will eat the world’ was first penned in the Wall Street Journal – actually what needs to happen is AI needs to eat Software and then turn its attention to making us sustainable in our own homes. If that is accelerated by COVID-19 then, awful though it was/is/will be – maybe we just had some sense knocked into us, and we will start treating this world as our home, not as a massive landfill site.

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