Earth Day, which is celebrated annually on 22 April, aims to drive transformative change by educating people about what they can do to help. The day reminds us of the need to protect our planet and its ecosystems against the worsening climate crisis.
Our planet is no longer the same as it was even just a decade ago. The climate crisis is threatening people across the world, as well as every species of animal and plant life. We need to address the crisis now in a sustainable way. Fortunately, we still have a narrow window of opportunity to alter the Earth’s climate path, and I believe we can do it.
Climate change is a global societal crisis that is causing devastating consequences. Its costs have been projected as high as US $23 trillion in reduced annual global economic output, according to Swiss Re, a reinsurance company. Multifaceted collective efforts are necessary to address the crisis.
Engineers and technologists can and should play major roles in creating a greener planet, creating tools that address environmental degradation.
HOW THE CRISIS AFFECTS US
In the past few years, we’ve witnessed devastating cases of extreme weather all over the world, including deadly floods, massive forest fires, and severe droughts. Lives and businesses are being severely affected, and the cost of recovering after each event continues to mount.
The climate crisis is also having a severe effect on the planet, which is being battered by pollution, deforestation, and soil degradation.
About 7 million people every year die from diseases caused by air pollution, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections, according to the World Health Organization. Ninety-nine percent of the global population breathes in air that exceeds WHO-guideline limits on pollutants, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures. More than half the world’s people live in urban areas, yet only 12 percent of cities achieve WHO guidelines for air quality. To create a sustainable environment, we need to contain air pollution.
Deforestation is contributing to climate change. Trees capture and store atmospheric carbon and help cool the globe’s temperature. Deforestation has caused the Amazon rainforest and similar areas to lose their ability to recover from disturbances such as drought, wildfires, and human development, according to a recent article published in Scientific American. The loss of the Amazon rainforest would cause large-scale drying across the region. In response, the circulation of the atmosphere could change—which would alter weather patterns around the world, the article says.
About 95 percent of food production relies on topsoil. The soil also helps to address the climate crisis, as it stores more carbon than the world’s plants combined. The microbes and minerals in soil systems regulate water, cycle nutrients, filter pollutants, physically support plants, and sequester greenhouse gasses.
But Earth’s soil is being spoiled and degraded, presenting us with several risks. According to a 2017 United Nations–supported study, a third of the planet’s land is severely degraded, and fertile soil is being lost at an alarming rate.
The climate crisis has serious health consequences, the WHO warned in its recent COP24 report. Direct health impacts include an increase in respiratory and cardiovascular disease and injuries or death due to extreme weather events. Climate change also causes indirect effects on health, such as food and water insecurity, the spread of climate-sensitive infectious diseases, and population displacement.
There are many ways that IEEE members from the technical and scientific community can help. Engineers and computer professionals can use information technologies such as cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS), Earth’s digital twin, and the Internet of Things (IoT) to help make buildings, energy production, farms, health care, and manufacturing greener.
SaaS platforms, such as Project Canary of Denver, help energy companies track, measure, and score the impact of methane and other volatile organic compounds on the environment across the energy supply chain. Canary uses high-fidelity spectroscopy-based methane detection and emissions quantification for the oil and gas sectors. The SaaS platform also uses laser-based gas analyzers to detect methane, formaldehyde, and more.
The IoT has vast potential to address sustainability by making energy systems more connected, improving their operational efficiency, and reducing the carbon intensity of buildings, manufacturing, and transportation. It also can lower energy consumption through smart operations and improve resource utilization. By using IoT-equipped sensors, deforestation and poaching can be monitored. IoT food container tags can reduce food and water waste.
Engineers and technologists can and should play major roles in creating a greener planet with technology that addresses environmental degradation.
Using a digital model of the Earth—or digital twin—environmental impacts can be studied. A new model developed by the European Commission’s Destination Earth initiative is designed to track the impact of humans on water, food, and energy management. Data collected through the digital twin can help predict environmental impacts and enable remedial measures to be taken.
Artificial intelligence, data science, and distributed ledger technology can play major roles as well.
Researchers are developing smart materials, next-generation batteries, autonomous vehicles, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen-powered fuel cells, precision agriculture, and 4D printing that might help solve environmental problems.
Although information technologies and similar tools leave their own environmental footprint, they are often small compared with their positive contribution toward creating a greener planet. And efforts are underway to make the technologies greener.
CALL TO ACTION
Undoubtedly, environmental degradation is a complex, global problem and the defining challenge of our time. Our inaction could jeopardize the well-being of current and future generations.
We must envision and ensure a sustainable future through responsible planning, development of effective solutions leveraging technological advances, actionable regulations, and sound practices. We need an environmental mindset as well as systemic transformation and individual behavioral changes.
Let’s be optimistic in what we do. Optimism can drive us to achievement. As German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said: “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”
If we don’t care about our environment and the future of our planet, then who will? Let’s treat every day as Earth Day. Let’s invest in creating and sustaining a better environment than the one we inherited.
Let’s pledge—and act now—to create a cleaner, greener planet. If not now, when?
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