Jim Kohlenberger:
Mobilizing a Connected Technology Moonshot To Accelerate Climate Progress

This op-ed was originally published in Newsweek.

At a time when surging temperatures led to the hottest year on record, leaders around the globe are searching for new and innovative ways to accelerate climate progress further. One of the most promising, but often overlooked tools, involves accelerating the revolutionary potential of emerging connected devices and the digital transformation they enable — creating new smarter, cleaner, and greener ways to tackle our climate challenges.

By infusing intelligent technologies deeper into our physical world, we can cut energy and climate impacts in our homes, buildings, cars, farms, and factories by enabling almost everything to operate more efficiently. They can radically improve our ability to solve climate challenges in ways that were previously simply impossible. It’s why the United Nations Environment Program estimates that accelerating this digital transformation can potentially reduce global carbon emissions by up to 20%.

But to make these gains, we need to fully leverage today’s cutting-edge technologies, fire up tomorrow’s innovation engines, infuse trust into the heart of our technologies to boost adoption, and drive these solutions throughout global supply chains.

Accelerate Today’s Technologies

Just think about how smartphones are already advancing climate progress. We now use our phones to control smart thermostats, grid-enabled appliances, and smart lighting in ways that cut energy use by as much as 15%. Using FaceTime or Zoom instead of driving or flying to in-person meetings reduces our carbon footprint by as much as 90%. And smart apps like Grid Forecast help us run our homes on cleaner renewable energy sources.

Add these and the thousands of other ways our smartphones make us more efficient and Accenture projects 5G technologies could help us save as much as 330 million metric tons of CO2 by 2025 — the equivalent of taking 72 million cars off the road. In fact, increasing smartphone adoption globally is such a game-changer that researchers now estimate that a mere 10% increase in mobile broadband adoption can lead to a 7% reduction in per capita CO2 emissions. That’s huge!

It points to an enormous policymaker opportunity to achieve significant climate gains by spurring mobile adoption. This is especially important in Europe where their lagging 7.4% 5G adoption rate means it must significantly boost 5G adoption to achieve its climate targets.

Foster Moonshot Innovation

Despite this enormous potential, we’ve only seen a fraction of what the smart revolution can achieve. With connectivity becoming more ubiquitous, increasingly sophisticated digital sensors proliferating, spatial computing around the corner, and AI opportunities almost everywhere, we are on the verge of another wave of technological advancements that promise to help us tackle our climate challenges in bigger, smarter and more pervasive ways.

Fortunately, some government leaders have launched pioneering efforts to advance new technologies.The US Department of Energy (DOE) is developing entirely new classes of connected sensor systems to make smart buildings even smarter, and equipping 7,000 buildings with smart technologies — improvements that have the potential to cut 80 million tons of annual carbon emissions, the equivalent of eliminating more than 50 coal-fired power plants. Likewise, smart cities are deploying connected traffic lights that boost traffic flow and cut emissions by 21%. In the factory, because smart manufacturing technologies can increase energy efficiency by as much as 25%, a DOE strategy aims to speed the rapid adoption of smart manufacturing technologies everywhere.

These are valiant and laudable efforts. But given the breadth and depth of our climate challenges, they can’t yet comprehensively meet the scale and scope of the solutions we need. To up our game, it’s critical leaders launch an innovation moonshot (as experts called for more than a decade ago) to advance and accelerate smarter solutions everywhere — delivering smarter cities, buildings, transportation, infrastructure, factories, and farms.

Boost Adoption

While the transformative potential of these technologies is immense, so too are the barriers that can slow adoption — like a simple lack of trust. In fact, we risk delaying, or even missing out on, transformational climate opportunities if companies and consumers lack the foundational trust in the technologies needed to deliver them.

Research shows that trust in disruptive green technologies is essential for enabling their broad adoption. For example, a small factory owner may choose not to adopt cleaner and smarter manufacturing technologies if they fear that greater reliance on digital technologies increases the risk the factory could be shut down by ransomware — which is already surging throughout manufacturing.

As technologies are used in more mission-critical ways, we must infuse these technologies with robust privacy, safety and security protections from the start — at the design stage — and vigorously ensure global technology policies also embrace these trustworthy safeguards. In practical terms, we need to boost baseline privacy protections and reject the kind of risky approach being taken in Europe’s Digital Markets Act and replicated elsewhere that, while well-intentioned, would nonetheless blow a hole in existing privacy, safety and security protections that underlie the mobile ecosystem.

To better protect data, policymakers also need to harness the powers of strong encryption, reject misguided efforts that would fundamentally weaken encryption, and support efforts like those in the US to further strengthen encryption for the quantum era. These smarter policies are essential for enabling trusted climate technology adoption.

Think Globally

Companies must step up too. They not only need to accelerate their digital transformation strategies, but also adopt net-zero goals, better leverage recycled materials throughout their products, and where possible, make digital devices that are themselves carbon neutral. More companies also need to drive decarbonization throughout their global supply chains by joining pioneering efforts — like the Clean Energy Procurement Academy — which is boosting renewable energy adoption around the world.

It’s now clearer than ever. To meet our ambitious climate goals, it’s essential we accelerate mobile adoption, crank up our innovation engine, infuse trust into the policies that support them, and drive green solutions throughout global supply chains. Catalyzing this change isn’t just an opportunity accelerator, but now a climate imperative.