Using technological innovation to ensure a more sustainable future
Our precious planet is at a “tipping point”, acknowledged HRH Prince of Wales in 2023. The Prince of Wales is a passionate advocate of climate action and of the urgent need to create a more sustainable world. The 2023 Earthshot Prize (awarded by The Royal Foundation and Prince William) again saw £1 million being awarded to five innovators based on their work towards five environmental goals. The 2023 winners included GRST, a company focusing on a safer way to develop and recycle lithium batteries for Electric Vehicles (EVs).
Scientists are predicting that 2023 will be the warmest year ever recorded. The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) reported that October 2023 was the warmest October on record (records date back to 1940). The chances of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C since pre-industrial times (a crucial goal under the 2015 Paris Agreement) are now even less likely than previously estimated, warned Jim Skea, Chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2023.
The planet’s ever-rising temperatures have worsened the effects of this year’s devastating floods and raging wildfires. Thousands of people have again lost their lives, livelihoods have been destroyed and millions of people are now displaced as the result of climate change.
Unsurprisingly in September 2023 there was widespread criticism of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to push back on the country’s net zero goals (including delaying the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars). The International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that diluting green policies aggravates climate change and hampers economies.
Our planet is in a perilous state. What is the solution? Less rhetoric and more action.
It’s imperative that people remain optimistic that progress to tackle climate change (arguably humanity’s most significant challenge) can be made. Whilst scientists record unprecedented temperatures and client deniers bury their heads in the sand, we have also been fortunate to witness many examples of bright minds and skilled innovators developing radical ways in which to tackle the climate change crisis.
Our sustainability-related series continues with the critical role that technology and innovation can play in combating the effects of climate change.
We’ve already witnessed incredible advancements in sustainable innovation. For example, using the power of AI to help to reduce food waste, optimise energy efficiency and predict and monitor weather patterns (Google’s DeepMind claims to surpass existing weather forecasting models up to 99.7% of the time by using AI to identify patterns in weather data).
COP28 again featured a Climate Action Innovation Zone. Thousands of leaders and practitioners responsible for driving climate action were brought together to facilitate cross-sector collaboration.
Let's take a look at some examples of sustainable innovation that made the headlines in 2023:
- Accelerating the decarbonisation of consumer goods: CarbonBright is leveraging generative AI to automate the Life Cycle Assessment process in the highly complex consumer goods space. The start-up’s mission is to accelerate the decarbonisation of supply chains via its software that helps calculate and communicate the carbon footprint of packaged goods. The operating system maps out supply chains and identifies how and where companies could reduce their emissions (and - critically those of their suppliers).
Unilever made a green hydrogen breakthrough in 2023 in its efforts to produce fossil-free laundry products. The consumer goods giant aims to eliminate all fossil fuels from its laundry and household cleaning products by 2030. Unilever signed an agreement to procure low-carbon soda ash to reduce the footprint of its laundry powder and reduce associated greenhouse gas emissions by over 60%.
- Balancing the energy grid
Renewable energy giant Octopus Energy (the UK's largest investor in solar generation) uses innovative AI and data-based platforms to balance loads around the energy grid. In addition to providing its customers with 100% renewable electricity, Octopus also partners with Charity World to offset the carbon emissions of any gas its customers use by supporting various carbon offsetting projects.
- Mapping the world's waste
Current resources to detect and monitor land-based waste sites (and, especially those affecting the world’s rivers and oceans) are limited. To help solve this critical issue, Global Plastic Watch (GPW) uses a combination of satellite imagery and AI platforms to detect land-based plastic waste sites (a major aggravating factor in the amount of plastic pollution in waterways). GPW’s systems can even identify sites as small as 5 x 5 metres. This enables an interactive “living” map of plastic pollution to be created in near real time. Consequently, these maps could help inform future waste-management policies and significantly improve decision-making.
- Extracting plastic pollution from our oceans
Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit uses AI to help clean oceans and the organisation aims to have removed 90% of floating ocean plastic by 2040. Plastic pollution in the world's oceans is one of the biggest environmental issues of our time. Not only does it impact nearly 700 marine species, it also carries toxic pollutants into the food chain and affects people’s health. As a result, Ocean Cleanup has developed and scaled technologies to rid the oceans of plastic pollution. Its innovative cleaning systems are deployed worldwide and the organisation has helped to extract millions of KGs of plastic pollution to-date.
- Informing cleaner air solutions
Air pollution monitoring plays an invaluable role in fostering healthier communities. In response to London’s ongoing efforts to battle air pollution, Breathe London pioneered a revolutionary air quality sensing model (which aims to serve as a model for cities worldwide). The community air pollution sensor network for Londoners is partnered by the London Mayor and Bloomberg. The network's pioneers felt that air quality monitoring excluded most citizens and consumer groups (the very people who need to be engaged and informed) due to cost and infrastructure implications. This has meant that air quality monitoring has been out of reach for most citizens and community groups - until now. Breathe London offers affordable, easy-to-install air quality sensors known as “nodes”. As small sensors are not as accurate as reference-grade analysers, Breathe London’s data is combined with the London Air reference network in order to provide users with the best possible data set from their nodes. The real-time data allows users to monitor current air quality levels in their streets and how this varies throughout the day.
- Making agriculture more sustainable
Pastoral is a pioneering agri-tech company that is committed to transforming the agricultural industry. Innovators in this space are now using nature-based climate technology and sustainable farming practices to pave the way for a greener future. Pastoral has devised cutting-edge solar-powered animal trackers and health sensors to enable farmers to easily monitor and safeguard their livestock. The low cost grazing platform enhances productivity and improves animal welfare.
UNDO is a world-leading carbon dioxide removal project developer and the company specialises in enhanced rock weathering. Part of Microsoft and Stripe’s Carbon Portfolios, UNDO is scaling operations in the UK, Australia and Canada. The rock (a by-product of the aggregate and mining industry) is given to local farmers for free and spread on agricultural land using existing infrastructure. In addition to permanent, rapid and scalable carbon removals, UNDO’s holistic partnership model delivers significant additional benefits, such as improved soil health and increased profits for farming communities. In November 2023, UNDO featured on the popular BBC show Countryfile.
- Empowering the fashion industry to achieve true circularity
Refiberd (winner of the H&M Foundation's 2023 Global Change Award) aims to disrupt the cycle of textile waste by ensuring the efficient and accurate sorting of textiles for recycling applications. Refibred has found a solution to recyclers not being able to process unsorted textile waste (historically less than 1% of this waste was recycled into new clothing). Refiberd’s innovative sorting technology helps divert up to 70% of the textile waste stream to high value recyclers. In turn, this unlocks new opportunities across the fashion industry to dramatically improve sustainability.
UP is proud to work with many companies that embrace sustainability. Learn more how we can collaborate to make lasting and impactful change:
Read more of our sustainability-related blogs here.