Can Tech Undo the Harm it's Caused?
By Hana Sakr
Technology has evolved drastically over the course of the 21st Century. According to Our World Data, “The power and speed of computers increased exponentially; the doubling time of computational capacity for personal computers was 1.5 years between 1975 to 2009.” Additionally, the number of internet users also increased from 0.4% of the world's population in December of 1995, to a whopping 62% in June of 2020. This exponential technological progress also comes with a decrease in price for electronic devices, which leads to the purchasing of more devices, which leads to more progress.
Especially during the pandemic, technology has become more important than ever before. Every day, millions of people have been using their computers and phones for hours on end for school, work meetings, and just connecting with other people. It has helped the world continue to progress while still keeping people safe, but it also has a downside. With the entire country trapped inside all day, after these meetings that are necessary for our society to continue to function, it has become increasingly difficult to keep kids, especially teenagers, away from their devices. A report by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago found that 63% of kids are using social media more than they did pre-pandemic. This can be damaging to everybody’s mental health, and the increase in technology use may also have a negative effect on climate change. So how can we use it to help us combat it instead?
There are five main reasons why technology is bad for the environment:
Excess mining and production
Depletion of natural resources
E-waste has been around for many years, but only recently has it become a major global ecological problem. Electronics that had to be replaced went from 7% in 2004 to 13% in 2013. This is partly because of manufacturers who pressure customers to purchase new products using software updates that only work on certain devices, and companies that no longer support older models. When it comes to computers, sometimes it is actually in your economic interest to throw it away. The Atlantic shows a Financial Times report with evidence that “a gallon of ink for the typical printer costs the consumer around $8,000. But the prices of printers are so low that once their initial ink supply is spent, the consumer is tempted to buy a whole new machine.” According to Time magazine, only 19 states in the U.S. have laws that don’t allow people to throw electronics away in the regular trash, so about 6 million pounds of discarded electronics are processed monthly at just one recycling plant. And E-waste will only increase as more people upgrade to 5G.
E-waste also affects excess mining and pollution- more copper is mined to make new devices, and once those devices are thrown away, they need to be burned, which contributes to air pollution. Toxins from the E-waste can also enter the soil and water if it isn’t disposed of properly. This completely disrupts marine and forested ecosystems, but it also affects humans. In an international study called the Global Burden of Disease, over 40 health and environmental experts estimated that 16% of the world’s population died from pollution in 2015. And deaths from pollution-related diseases were more than “three times higher than deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined” according to Time.
As for the depletion of resources, we are currently using up two times more natural resources than the world has to offer, and by 2050 when our population will increase by 2 billion, that number will only get higher. Oil, which we need to power engines and machines, makes up 40% of our energy usage. The EIA’s International Energy Outlook shows we only have enough oil to last another 18 years.
Deforestation is a really big issue as well. The World Bank reported that the net loss of global forest between 1990 and 2015 was 1.3 million km2. The World Wildlife Fund found that the world has lost half of its forests, and continues to lose 18.3 million acres of forest each year. That’s 27 soccer fields worth of trees every minute. Besides that, deforestation contributes to 12-17% of greenhouse gases.
On the other hand, the use of electronics leads to less paper, and therefore more trees.
Technology also helps scientists to
Communicate quickly with one another. The ability to debate and collaborate with other scientists can be extremely helpful and can speed up the process of an experiment or project.
Efficiently share their efforts and studies with the public. If the public is aware of the extent of the damage they are making, they are more likely to make an effort to change their lifestyles to be more sustainable.
Store data in an organized way. This makes it easier to access and put into charts, graphs, and computer models.
Run computer models/simulations to predict the outcomes of certain events. Scientists can use this tool to limit the amount of people hurt in natural disasters, keep species from going extinct, see how fast a virus might spread and to where, etc.
Track wildlife- Where animals are and how they behave can tell us other things about their environment, and the world in general.
Monitor the environmental impact of large corporations and keep them in check. Now it is much less difficult to prove when a company is putting toxic chemicals into the ocean or too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. All scientists need to do is trace it back to them by seeing where it is the most concentrated.
It is also important to consider all the inventions that have been created specifically to combat climate change that we would not have been able to obtain without the tech advancements of the past few years.
For example, scientists are currently using genetic engineering to reproduce a crucial ingredient of a tropical red seaweed that has been found to reduce carbon emissions in cattle by up to 80% when fed to them as a supplement. This change could be significant if the supplement is mass-distributed into cattle feed; there are 1.5 million cattle globally and they contribute to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions.
BioCarbon also uses technology to combat CO2 in the atmosphere, but using a different approach. The UK-based company uses drones to spray tree seeds “so fast they get snugly impacted into the soil” and plant 1 billion trees each year, according to National Geographic.
A team of researchers in Japan accidentally developed an enzyme that breaks down plastic in days, when it takes years to do so naturally. Professor John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth said that “Fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic found in the environment.”
One group of engineers is trying to create a wind farm the size of Greenland in the middle of the Atlantic after researchers said it could generate enough energy to power all of humanity, eliminating the need for fossil fuels. They are using turbines twice the size of the largest ones on the planet, with blades as long as 650 feet.
Another group of scientists is hoping to launch a satellite into space that will be able to identify methane leaks, which trap 80% more heat than carbon. By doing this, they might be able to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by up to 50%.
Finally, an article by the Global Citizen describes an engineer named Mo Ehsani who “wants to provide relief to coral with an underwater pipe that can pump cold water onto reefs, cooling them down and preventing a process known as coral bleaching.”
And these are only a few of the things scientists are coming up with using the technology we already have. There are many other ideas that researchers have proposed that would help the environment, including using solar geoengineering to send particles into air that would block the sun and cool the planet’s temperatures. These ideas can be made into a reality as even more technology is developed that would make it possible. That is the reason why people continue innovating new technologies, even though technology was, one of the main reasons climate change became such an existential threat. If they continue to focus on these environmental developments in technology and consider sustainability as a main priority in all other inventions, then we just might be able to reverse the damage we have made to our environment- using the very thing we used to destroy it.