If there is one positive impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is the good news on the environment front. As human beings shut themselves up behind doors and governments, factories and offices remain closed, Mother Nature has healed herself, if only partially.
In parts of the world, such as Europe, air pollution has dramatically reduced since governments ordered citizens to stay at home to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. Main industries as well as other regular activities have ground to a halt. For instance, car use has reduced, which caused greenhouse gases to decrease. A sharp reduction in nitrogen dioxide concentrations has been observed in countries such as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, according to a recent report in Science Direct. There have been reports of the holes in the ozone layers above the Arctic also getting smaller.
Alas, these will be but short-term respites. The world cannot remain shut forever, as billions of lives depend on getting the wheels of the global economy turning again. We are already witnessing a return to work in almost all parts of the planet, and this will inevitably result in increase in emissions.
The technology sector has been an exception to the closure of other economic activities. Since almost all that you need is an internet connection, this sector has propelled ahead when the rest of the world had come to a halt.
Which brings us to the question — have we stopped to think of the environmental consequences of this rush towards a so-called ‘smart’ world, replete with driverless cars, talking refrigerators, virtual assistants and the like?
What do you need to get ‘smart’ in this sense? The answer that would first come to mind is a ‘smart’ device — a computer, smartphone or tablet. And along with that, you will need an internet connection. However, if you think deeply, that is not the case.
To begin the ‘smart’ journey, the first thing you need is something very basic — electricity. That is what powers the world, and all the smart objects in it. It may seem obvious to us living in cosmopolitan cities, but there are several parts of the world where electricity remains a luxury.
And it is also a no-brainer that the more smart technologies develop and their use penetrate every aspect of our lives, we will all be consuming more and more power. The computer, the phone, the tablet, the smartwatch, the electric cars — all need to be charged, and thus the constant demand for power will continue to rise exponentially.
Global energy consumption
And thereby hangs an ominous question. Where will all that electricity come from?
I was recently reading a report released by Ubiquity, a publication of the Association of Computing Machinery. It had some rather startling findings. Some excerpts will tell you where we stand on this —
In 2012, information and communication technologies (ICT) consumed 4.7 per cent of electricity worldwide, amounting to approximately 920 TWh (1 TWh is a terawatt-hour or 1012 watt-hours).
According to a Gartner Group report from 2007, the total energy consumption related to ICT was expected to grow at an alarming rate, and its carbon footprint would become comparable to that of airline transportation — at approximately 2 per cent of the total emissions of carbon dioxide. The 2020 forecast based on this predicted trend was that the share of the carbon dioxide footprint of data centres was expected to become smaller over the years (18 per cent), compared with telecommunications (25 per cent) and ICT devices (57 per cent). “If we assume an average value of 400g of carbon dioxide emissions for each electricity, the CO2 emissions that were predicted in 2007 by this Gartner Group report is equivalent to a total electricity consumption of 3270 TWh,” the report says. Thus it is evident that ICT will continue to expand its share of global energy consumption over the years.
Thus we come back to the all-important question of how this increased electricity demand is going to be met. As per the latest data available from the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), coal-based power plants, the biggest polluters, still remain the primary energy source for electricity generation worldwide, with a share of 36 per cent. That is more than a third of total generation capacity worldwide.
The main users of this traditional thermal generation are the up-and-coming Asian economies. Developed nations have managed to reduce their dependence on coal, increasingly turning to green energy sources like solar, wind and tidal power. But these are yet to achieve the cost-effectiveness that coal-based power plants still provide, at least in the developing nations, who are seeking a balancing act between developmental needs and environmental concerns.
What is to be done? It is not practical to advocate a slowdown in progress citing environment issues. Even data privacy plays a role, as app developers relentlessly track our usage, thereby using up the charge of the device.
The only way forward is to ensure greener energy generation, along with increased energy efficiency. The developed nations will have to help the less developed ones with technology transfer and soft loans to bridge the gap. But as it is, with the pandemic wreaking havoc, coffers are empty as the world stares at a global depression.
So will the green agenda again take a back seat to the march of human progress? Seems like it, at least for now.