Can data solve the climate crisis?

February 16, 2022 09:17
Scotland's Environment Web uses data visualisation tools to create a picture of the country’s environment and interact more deeply with the data. Image: Scotland's Environment Web

We don’t need to be climatologists to notice the extreme temperatures and frequent natural disasters in the news. With more extreme weathers on the rise, there is no surprise why the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued “Code Red for humanity” in their recent report, which warns of increasingly extreme heatwaves, droughts and flooding, and a key temperature limit being broken in just over a decade. The findings of Glasgow’s COP26 Summit last year echoed these alarming forecasts.

The IPCC report and the COP26 outcome present the most stark warning to date of the threat posed by climate change. A report compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) also showed that in 2020 the impact of climate change continued to accelerate, but the IPCC has really drawn a line in the sand. They warn that we only have until 2030 to prevent irreversible damage caused by climate change.

Rising data demands are a contributing factor

At the granular level, the specific causes of climate change are complex. However, we can discern one cause which may also offer a solution – and that is data.

The rapid digitalisation of the global economy and the resulting rise in the number of energy-intensive data centres is a major cause for concern. Data centres and data transmission networks each accounted for around 1% of global electricity use in 2019, and global internet traffic surged by almost 40% between February and mid-April 2020 . This explosion in both demand and capacity was due to increasing reliance on technology during pandemic-related lockdowns.

The conundrum is how to continue to expand the essential use of data, but do so in a sustainable way? The issue is serious enough that solutions must be identified to develop “green” data centres. Around the world, industry players are hard at work to make this happen. One thing is for sure – the exponential rise in the generation and use of data is not going to stop.

Putting data to good use

Data, however, is not exclusively a villain. Leaving aside the question of sustainable hardware, the integration of big data with data science is making an essential, positive contribution to the fight against climate change. Only highly sophisticated data analytics can handle the vast and complex amounts of data generated by variables such as changing sea levels, rainforest destruction, glacier loss and macro weather patterns. Analysing this data facilitates climate modelling and which can reveal hidden insights and thereby recommendations for action.

Incorporating historical data helps map current trends and patterns and extrapolate into future conditions through complex modelling. Analytics distil the intelligence and understanding that leads to more viable solutions and adaptive policymaking on climate change.

Leveraging AI and machine learning

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning (ML) technology will be crucial in this battle. Climate researchers and innovators are already using AI / ML to test their climate theories and solutions and develop beneficial products and services, for individual citizens as well as businesses.

At a major AI conference in 2019, attending researchers and experts discussed a paper recently published by AI industry leaders called “Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning.” The paper covered 13 areas where machine learning can be deployed, including energy production, CO2 removal, education, solar geoengineering, and finance.

Taking a leaf out of Scotland’s Environment Web (SEWeb)

Scotland's Environment Web (SEWeb) is already putting these techniques to work. SEWeb uses data visualisation tools to create a picture of the country’s environment and interact more deeply with the data. These tools save users time and effort, letting them more easily analyse and view multiple layers of data, with filters for their areas of interest (air, water, ground) and the contributing factors.

The pertinent information is more readily available and visible, allowing users to absorb it faster and more completely. Applied more broadly, these tools can help governments and policymakers grasp the reality of the global situation, and work towards potential solutions.

Hong Kong’s response

The IPCC report makes it abundantly clear – we are drinking in the “Last chance climate saloon” – lots of talk but very little action. Southeast Asia will not be spared. According to research firm McKinsey, the region potentially will face more severe consequences of climate change than other parts of the world.

Hong Kong is taking serious action and in 2021 launched “Hong Kong's Climate Action Plan 2050 ”, setting out the vision and outlining the strategies and targets for combating climate change and achieving carbon neutrality. The government has also pledged about $240 billion over the next 15 to 20 years to take forward various measures, initiatives and programmes on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

This is all very commendable, but the question remains - will the world’s nations have the political will to collaborate and share data on a truly global scale, or will they continue to blindly march down a lonely path towards doomsday?

It is not too late. Major decisions need to be made that could up-end the global economic model. But whatever the outcome, it will be data and data analytics that deliver the insights to make those decisions both possible and effective in solving the climate crisis.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Senior vice president, APJ and EMEA, TIBCO