Cover Story: Climate tech and the way forward

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 6, 2021 - December 12, 2021.
Cover Story: Climate tech and the way forward
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In the 18th century, technological advancement ushered in the Industrial Revolution with the introduction of coal as an energy source and a whole host of machines. Factories, automobiles and airplanes emerged over the years, radically transforming human lives. 

But these developments also increased the pollution of the air and water, a consequence of the combustion of fossil fuels and the release of toxins into the environment. The Great Smog of London in 1952, for instance, resulted in thousands of deaths and prompted the passing of the Clean Air Act, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. 

Fast forward to the 21st century, and people are now suffering from the impact of climate change due to uncontrolled greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

Already, global average temperatures are 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than in pre-industrial times, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This has resulted in more extreme weather events, droughts and flooding in different parts of the world and a rise in sea levels. 

Interestingly, technology, which contributed to the crisis due to its misuse or overuse, is now being employed to fix the problem. 

For instance, solar panels, smart grids, carbon capture and storage (CCUS) systems and hydrogen fuel cells have been touted as solutions. 

Advanced early warning systems for flooding, weather forecasting technologies and genetically engineered crops are being developed to help humans adapt to the changed environment.

But it is not that simple. Activists have criticised companies and governments for relying on technology to meet their climate targets when the said technology is still economically or technically unfeasible. They see it as a distraction from doing the real work of cutting emissions or transitioning. 

"I think technology is going to play a big role in reversing some of the damage done. For me, the key question is whether we are able to do it in time to avert a catastrophe. We don’t have a lot of time.” - Mwebaza

How then should we be thinking about technology in a time of climate change?

“I think one of the lessons of the 21st century is that while technology has allowed humanity to develop into a modern society, it has also contributed to climate change, environmental degradation, unsustainable patterns of consumption and the production of a lot of waste,” says Dr Rose Mwebaza, director of Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN), the implementation arm of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Technology Mechanism. 

“But humans are very innovative and responsive to the challenges we face. I think technology is going to play a big role in reversing some of the damage done. For me, the key question is whether we are able to do it in time to avert a catastrophe. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Instead of only citing far-fetched inventions, governments and companies should be considering the many low-hanging fruits and simple technologies that are already available. 

“The beauty of technology is that it offers us a variety of options, from the really advanced ones using artificial intelligence (AI) to the simple ones that can help communities adapt to climate change immediately. At CTCN, we’ve seen things like solar-based water pumps, solar-based desalination plants and solar-based drip technologies or drones for agriculture,” says Mwebaza. CTCN matches developing countries with technology service providers and provides the initial funding for adoption. 

Technology for mitigation of climate change, in particular, is already abundant, especially in developed countries, which have the resources to develop more advanced technologies such as CCUS. So, why has it not been adopted at scale yet? Cost and a lack of regulation are among the major reasons. 

Meanwhile, developing countries have long demanded greater access to these technologies, as was promised in the Paris Agreement. Again, cost and ownership of the technologies are barriers. 

“It’s not dissimilar to pharmaceutical companies not really wanting to share life-saving vaccines,” says Yin Shao Loong, Khazanah Research Institute senior research associate. He focuses on industrial policies, future technologies and climate change. 

Nevertheless, developing countries such as Malaysia should consider what technologies its companies already have, and perform a national assessment of where technology could be useful and how to access it, Yin adds. This includes not just acquiring the technology but also the knowledge of how to use it.

“Technologies like solar are cheap now. It’s just the issue of creating an enabling policy architecture to promote them. Advanced battery storage might be more difficult. Do you want it for mobility or for use in commercial and residential areas?” That will determine what kind of batteries the country should procure. 

"Optimistically, climate change is an innovation challenge for the business and tech sectors. You can either embrace it and reap some of the rewards or you can be frozen out.” - Yin

How can Malaysia plan for climate tech? 

One of the lowest-hanging fruits that Malaysia can immediately reach for is energy efficiency, suggests Yin. While it already has a National Energy Efficiency Action Plan, it mostly involves the promotion of energy efficiency labels and matching grants. The Minimum Energy Performance Standards cover five domestic electrical appliances.

“We will need regulation. It’s one of the most important measures to take that is relatively low in tech but high on scale,” says Yin.

Another low-hanging fruit that does not require technology adoption, he adds, is subsidy rationalisation. This means reallocating some subsidies for fossil fuel consumption to renewable energy and climate change initiatives. “People like me, who are middle class urban dwellers, don’t need electricity subsidies,” Yin says.

Promoting public transport and giving incentives to enable more widespread adoption of solar and wind power where it is viable in Malaysia are his other suggestions.

What about the manufacturing industry in Malaysia? The industrial sector is the second-biggest source of GHG emissions in Malaysia, according to the Biennial Update Report submitted to UNFCCC. 

“There are lower-emissions approaches to produce cement. A Swedish company managed to produce zero-emissions steel. Optimistically, climate change is an innovation challenge for the business and tech sectors. You can either embrace it and reap some of the rewards or you can be frozen out,” says Yin.

It could be harder for oil and gas companies to transition, but he believes they could invest in things such as green hydrogen, which is more achievable than CCUS at this point.

Malaysia actually has several road maps and incentives to promote green technology. Under climate change mitigation, there are strategies to promote renewable energy, energy efficiency, green buildings, energy-efficient vehicles and biogas capture from palm oil mills. 

Three green technology financing and tax allowance schemes are also available. These initiatives are listed in Malaysia’s third BUR in 2018, and also mentioned in the Green Technology Masterplan 2017-2030. 

To ensure that the plans are effective, a mixture of well-implemented regulations and incentives is needed to prevent inaction. After all, if a solution doesn’t make economic sense, businesses are unlikely to adopt it, unless they are required to do so by law. 

Less information is available on adaptation technology. However, the government has stated that a national adaptation plan is due next year. 

“I think a lot of tech for adaptation is available, it’s just a policy issue. The costs that the government is paying for flood damage have already increased by over 100%, adjusted for inflation, since the 1970s. We need to understand where flooding is going to get worse and prepare flood map projections so we know who is vulnerable and what needs to be done,” says Yin.

“We also need to stop things that make floods worse. For instance, we could deploy drones to monitor for illegal logging in watersheds and build better drainage systems.” 

All infrastructure will have to be built to withstand climate change. 

Urban dwellers can expect hotter temperatures — due to the urban heat island effect — and flooding, since many cities do not have enough green areas to absorb water. “You could mitigate this by greening urban spaces,” says Yin.

Ultimately, an overarching climate action plan for the country would be useful to guide all this planning in the country, he believes. 

“Until we do, any kind of climate action would be what it has been so far, which is piecemeal and potentially incoherent. There are promising signs because climate is one of the four headline targets of the 12th Malaysia Plan.”

The action plan needs to have a robust connection to science, Yin goes on to say, and it must estimate Malaysia’s share of the carbon budget. “We also need a timeline so there is a sense of urgency to it.”

 

Examples of tech for mitigation and adaptation

MITIGATION: REDUCING GREENHOUSE GAS (GHG) EMISSIONS 

Energy — electricity 

• Energy efficiency

• Renewable energy (solar, wind, biomass, micro-hydro)

• Battery storage for renewable energy

• Smart grid

• Green hydrogen 

• Carbon capture and storage

Energy — transportation 

• Public transportation (electric buses, trains and so on)

• Car-sharing or mobility-as-a-service

• Electric vehicles

Industrial processes and product use

• Low-carbon cement

• Low-carbon steel 

Agriculture 

• Biogas capture for electricity generation at palm oil mills

Land-use change

• Drones and artificial intelligence (AI) powered monitoring of deforestation 

Waste 

• Wastewater treatment and recycling

• AI and robotics-powered waste sorting 

• Chemical recycling for plastic

• Waste-to-energy plants

• Advanced composting technologies

source: Various 

 

ADAPTATION: ADAPTING TO CLIMATE-CHANGE IMPACT

• Drought-resistant seeds or salt-resistant crops and new irrigation methods to overcome drought or flooding

• Accurate weather forecasts

• Early warning and evacuation systems for flooding

• Restoring coral reefs using “biorock”, which is created by passing a low-voltage electric current through seawater

• Desalination or water purification technology to cope with droughts and increase of salt in groundwater due to rising sea levels

• Water recycling and rainwater harvesting

• Minimise paved surfaces and plant trees in cities to moderate urban heat island effect 

• Better data to inform the public of natural disasters, weather and health risks

• Tree planting, with the type of trees identified using AI to maximise carbon sequestration

Source: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Climate Action

 

A look at Japanese technology

At the COP26 (26th United Nations Climate Change Conference) exhibition, Japan’s pavilion was the only one that displayed climate-related technologies that its companies had produced. 

The technologies on display included chemical recycling to enable closed loop recycling of contaminated plastic, carbon capture and storage (CCUS), carbon dioxide-absorbing bricks and artificial intelligence (AI) for forest monitoring.

Digital Edge chatted with a few of the Japanese representatives on site. The same themes of cost and regulation for tech adoption emerged in the conversations. 

The CCUS, for instance, uses chemicals to capture carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and industrial facilities. The technology was developed more than 30 years ago. 

“We developed the solvent to reduce energy consumption of the system,” says Yoshiki Sorimachi, deputy general manager of the decarbonisation business at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries EMEA Ltd. 

But this technology is expensive and without subsidies from the government, can be economically unfeasible. In the US, “the captured carbon dioxide is injected into oil fields (to improve extraction yield). If oil prices are high, then (the investment in CCUS makes sense). Otherwise, it’s very costly”, says Sorimachi.

Many governments and companies are hoping to capture carbon dioxide and store it underground. But that means the cost of installing the system cannot be recouped, compared with capturing the carbon dioxide and selling it as a raw material to industries. Storing it underground also requires environmental impact assessments. 

Expanding the number of industries that will utilise this captured carbon dioxide, then, is a solution to lowering the costs of CCUS installation. Interestingly, right next to Sorimachi was Akifumi Takigawa, who was introducing a carbon dioxide-absorbing concrete called CO2-SUICOM.

Concrete is made of cement, and the process of making cement produces a lot of carbon dioxide. CO2-SUICOM was designed to use a special additive to replace most of the cement. 

“One cubic metre of concrete emits around 300kg of carbon dioxide. When we replace the cement in CO2-SUICOM, it results in a 200kg reduction of carbon dioxide,” says Takigawa, head of project sourcing, next generation carbon removal purchase facility, at Mitsubishi Corp. The additive is made from by-products of the chemicals industry and reacts to carbon dioxide. 

The company injects carbon dioxide to strengthen the concrete. The gas binds with the additive and is stored permanently. That results in another 100kg reduction of carbon dioxide, says Takigawa.

This technology has been in use for a decade and is owned by four corporations involved in the construction, energy and chemicals industries. The resulting concrete is as strong as normal concrete, Takigawa says. 

The downside is that it is slightly acidic and could corrode steel, so it is not currently utilised for buildings, which require steel reinforcement. It is mostly used for road blocks and pavement blocks now. 

For a thin block of concrete, it is also 1.5 times more expensive than typical concrete, Takigawa estimates. This price tag has slowed down the uptake of the technology. 

“But I think the situation has changed in the last few years. There has been more demand for green technologies due to regulations on infrastructure projects,” he says. 

 

Solving the cost problem

If it is not obvious by now, cost is one of the biggest hurdles in the way of climate tech adoption. If a technology is too expensive, nobody wants to buy it; if there is no demand, the cost will not go down.

This is a problem that the First Movers Coalition, launched by the World Economic Forum (WEF) at the recent COP26 (26th United Nations Climate Change Conference), wants to tackle. A group of large companies has committed to purchasing sustainable alternatives and emerging solutions. 

"The members are aware that there will be higher premiums now, but it does not compare with the cost of polluting in the future.” - Gawel

“This sends a clear signal to entrepreneurs and suppliers that there is demand for their technology and products. The companies in the First Movers Coalition have a combined market cap of over US$8 trillion (RM33.9 trillion),” says Antonia Gawel, head of climate action at WEF.

“The challenge companies and countries are facing is that this technology is in the early stages of development. There is limited supply and prices are high. We hope that the First Movers Coalition will help accelerate the development of these technologies and make them more accessible to a wider audience. It will also help lower prices as the technology advances.”

For the first phase, the Coalition will focus on the steel, trucking, shipping and aviation sectors. The member companies will each make one commitment for 2030. In the aviation sector, this means committing to use emerging technologies such as sustainable aviation fuels, which could be made from used cooking oil or animal fat waste. 

Similarly, shipping companies pledge to use zero-emission fuels, while trucking companies commit to purchasing or contracting electric vehicles and incorporating renewable sources of electricity and hydrogen for charging. The preferable green hydrogen is generated from renewable sources, while grey hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels. 

Meanwhile, steel companies commit to purchasing near-zero emission steel, which could be made using hydrogen direct reduction, carbon capture and electrolysis-based production processes.

“The members are aware that there will be higher premiums now, but it does not compare with the cost of polluting in the future. Additionally, these companies could bring these technologies to a commercial tipping point … If they can demonstrate success from deployment of these technologies, they will have an additional competitive advantage,” says Gawel. 

The members currently include Apple, Amazon.com, Mahindra Group, Volvo Group and Western Digital. Experts will assist these companies to look for suitable solutions. The second phase of the movement will involve the cement, aluminium and chemicals industries.

Gawel points to the decline in prices of solar panels and electric vehicles as an example of how market demand can make a difference. 

“About half of the world’s GDP is dependent on nature, and that’s about US$44 trillion in economic value. Therefore, for businesses to succeed in the long term, we need to protect our climate,” she adds. 

 

AI for climate change

In 2017, David Dao, an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher, won the first prize at a hack4climate event and got to pitch his AI project at the United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP23. 

His project, GainForest, is a blockchain-powered smart contract platform that distributes money from donors to local farmers in developing countries who conserve the forest. It uses machine learning (ML) to monitor the conservation efforts and predict where deforestation is likely to occur. 

“After our presentation at COP23, a Canadian non-governmental organisation working with the Kayapo tribe in the Amazon Rainforest contacted us and said, ‘we really love your idea, can we use it for our project?’ I told them that this was just for a hackathon, and they responded with ‘can you make it real?’ We have been working for the last five years to do so,” says Dao. 

Dao, now a PhD candidate at ETH Zurich DS3Lab, was later given the Microsoft AI for Earth grant to implement the project. Currently, he has project sites in Brazil, Costa Rica, Namibia and the Philippines. 

Remote sensing, satellite monitoring and AI can be used to detect deforestation

“Tropical deforestation causes a lot of emissions. If it’s a country, it’s the third-largest source of emissions, right after the US and China. To reverse deforestation, we need to have indigenous people and local communities owning and protecting their land,” says Dao.

“For instance, a tribe in Brazil with indigenous territory twice the size of the UK managed to store nine billion tonnes of carbon in the soil, which is more than the annual emission of the US. They do it by installing guideposts at strategic locations to prevent illegal loggers from running their operations.”

But the problem is money. International organisations have promised to financially support these tribes’ efforts to fight deforestation. However, the funding has not been forthcoming, he says.

“There is not enough trust from the funders to send money to the local communities. Because of that, the money takes a long time to arrive. The communities cannot rely on [the money coming]. Why would they give up agriculture or their livelihood if they’re not sure whether the payment will come?”

To generate trust, a solution that can show the funders how the forest is being protected in real time is needed. That is why Dao created GainForest. “We use satellite monitoring, remote sensing and AI to understand where trees are being cut down illegally and the impact the community has in protecting the forest,” he says.

The AI is also used to count the number of trees, identify their species and calculate how much biomass is stored in the forest. This is useful for calculating the value of carbon stored in the forest and determining the payment to local communities. 

It can be used to project where deforestation could occur as well. Deforestation, Dao explains, follows a predictable pattern. It is more likely to happen at forest frontiers and where there is human development. “We can identify zones that are at risk, which rangers can focus on and develop guideposts there,” he says.

GainForest works with science-based open data platform Restor to offer this free service to the public. Those who are interested can use the maps to understand how much biomass is stored in the forest.

At the recent COP26, Dao launched NFTrees, which are digital assets that track the ownership of virtual sites of a conservation or restoration project using blockchain. Each token is linked to recent drone and satellite data of the protected site. Users can find out the amount of tree cover and how much carbon is currently stored there. 

AI as a solution 

Dao is also part of the Climate Change AI group, which is formed by volunteers from academia and the industry, in hopes of promoting the use of ML to counter climate change.

The group released a paper in 2019 with recommendations on how ML can be used for this purpose. They tackle use cases in electricity systems, transportation, buildings, industry, farms and forests and climate prediction, among others.

“AI is suitable for addressing many problems. We’re saying that we should also use it to tackle climate change. We need to make a concerted effort to use it for good. AI is very good at sifting through large amounts of data, and there are more and more data sources coming online and sensors deployed,” says Lynn H Kaack, chair of the group and assistant professor of computer science and public policy at the Hertie School in Berlin.

AI can generate information from previously unused data such as large bodies of images or data sets from satellites. It can also be used to analyse the carbon footprint of buildings, crop health, disaster response and sustainability reports submitted by companies. 

“One of the scientists in our group (uses the technology) to predict where crops are going to fail (because of climate change) and result in widespread hunger,” says Kaack.

The paper does emphasise that technology alone is not enough to address climate change. A lot of these technologies have existed for ages but have not been adopted at scale. The group hopes that ML can help reduce the cost of adoption, and calls for people across disciplines to collaborate on this effort. 

One application highlighted in the paper is the use of ML to forecast electricity supply and demand, which is needed as more renewable energy is added to the grid. This is because energy sources such as solar and wind are not constant. 

Another example is the use of ML to improve charge scheduling, in congestion management and vehicle-to-grid algorithms of electric vehicles; and ML to process large amounts of data collected from sensor networks in smart cities. 

This story was produced as part of the 2021 Climate Change Media Partnership, which brought journalists from developing countries to attend and report on the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference. Twenty journalists received fellowships from the Earth Journalism Network, a project by Internews and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security, to cover the event.