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Unleashing the power of emerging technologies – Building a smarter sustainable environment

The objective of this series of articles is to highlight how emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, quantum computing, extended reality, blockchain, big data analytics, e-networks, drones, digital twins, and 5G networks can be leveraged to meet the Sustainable Development Goals-SDGs 2030, while impacting various domains. Another objective of this series of articles is to highlight how leveraging all these technologies can help create business opportunities in various domains, and enablement of ESG (environmental, social, and governance) adoption by these technologies. This time we talk about smart sustainable environment.

Environment is not only a challenge for the developing nations, but for the developed ones as well. Climate change is a reality. We need to ensure that we leave this planet habitable for our future generations. Over the last couple of centuries since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a race toward consumerism. Environment, which used to be the hub, around which all the human activities used to revolve, became a victim of human greed. This slide kept going on till the humanity realized that things are becoming unsustainable, and climate change too has become a reality. Currently, a lot of efforts are going on at the international level toward sustainability. While the final solution lies in adopting Indic ethos toward environment, which is a holistic approach that our ancestors used to follow since ages, at the same time in the short run, as a stop gap arrangement, the immediate challenges can be mitigated, leveraging emerging technologies. This write-up would focus on how some of these technologies would help in meeting the SDG 2030 goals pertaining to environment, and finally making the world a better place to live in.

Quantum computing
Quantum computers have the potential to perform complex simulations, which can aid in more accurate climate modeling, which is crucial for understanding climate change patterns, predicting extreme weather events, and designing effective mitigation and adaptation strategies. It can also aid in simulating and optimizing carbon capture and sequestration processes, which are essential for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change, thus pushing toward SDG 13 – Climate Action. Besides this, quantum computing can accelerate the discovery of novel materials and catalysts for sustainable technologies, such as advanced batteries, fuel cells, and carbon capture systems. These materials could enable more efficient and environmentally friendly energy storage and conversion processes, and in the process leading to SDG 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy.

Quantum computing can analyze large datasets related to water quality, availability, and pollution. This information can help design more effective water management strategies and pollution control measures, ensuring access to clean water and healthier ecosystems. This should help SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation.

Quantum computing can process large datasets to predict agricultural trends, optimize crop yields, and develop sustainable land use practices. This can help reduce deforestation, soil degradation, and overuse of resources, thus contributing to SDG 15 – Life on Land.

Internet of Things (IoT)
IoT technologies can enable efficient monitoring and management of resources contributing to SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities. Smart grids, intelligent transportation systems, and connected infrastructure can optimize energy usage, reduce waste, and enhance overall urban sustainability.

Chemical transducers (IoT) installed on all the STPs (sewage treatment plants) and ETPs (effluent treatment plants) on the output side, before directing the water back into the rivers and other water bodies ensures that an alarm is raised whenever the treated water from COD (chemical oxygen demand)/BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) levels cross the permissible threshold. The owners of the defaulting industry receive a warning SMS. This would help in meeting the objectives of SDG6 – Clean Water and Sanitation.

It is also possible to monitor the exhaust from every vehicle. In case, it is beyond the permissible threshold, in terms of CO/NO emissions, an automated message can get generated, warning the owner to take immediate corrective action, or face penalties. These measures would ensure contribution toward SDG 13 – Climate Action.

IoT sensors can track animal movements, monitor habitats, and detect poaching activities, contributing to protect biodiversity and to SDG 15 – Life on Land. Monitoring ocean temperature, acidity, and pollution levels can aid in marine conservation efforts and supporting SDG 14 – Life below Water.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics
AI and big data analytics can help analyze vast amounts of environmental data to gain insights and informed decision making. They can aid in monitoring and managing water resources as a part of SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation, predicting and mitigating the impacts of climate change – SDG13 – Climate Action, and supporting biodiversity conservation SDG 15 – Life on Land, and SDG 14 – Life below Water.

AI can optimize energy consumption in buildings, industries, and transportation systems. Machine learning algorithms can analyze energy usage patterns, and recommend strategies to reduce waste and improve efficiency, contributing to SDG 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy. Waste sorting and recycling processes can be enhanced, leveraging AI, by identifying materials, sorting contaminants, and optimizing recycling workflows, thus supporting SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production by reducing landfill waste and promoting recycling.

3D printing
Advanced manufacturing technologies like 3D printing can enable localized production, reducing transportation-related emissions and waste. Traditional manufacturing processes often generate significant amounts of material waste due to subtractive methods. 3D printing, on the other hand, is an additive process where material is deposited layer by layer, minimizing waste and optimizing material usage. Combined with circular economy principles, these technologies support SDG12 – Responsible Consumption and Production – by promoting resource efficiency, recycling, and waste reduction.

3D printing is being used for constructing affordable and sustainable housing, using locally available materials. This can address SDGs pertaining to affordable and clean energy, sustainable cities, and responsible consumption.

3D printing has been practically used by Bahrain in reviving the damaged coral reefs, which are fundamental to restoring the ecosystem under water, thus contributing to SDG14 – Life below Water.

Blockchain technology
Blockchain has the potential to improve transparency and accountability in environmental governance, such as tracking supply chains, verifying carbon credits, and monitoring the sustainable sourcing of natural resources. This can contribute to SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production, SDG14 – Life below Water, and SDG15 – Life on Land – by combating illegal practices and promoting sustainable business practices. However, we have to ensure that adding too many activities to the list does not make blockchain non-sustainable in terms of its own carbon footprints

Digital twins
Digital twins can aid in planning and monitoring ecosystem restoration projects, such as reforestation and wetland rehabilitation, ensuring optimal biodiversity conservation and habitat restoration, contributing to SDG 15 – Life on Land.

Digital twins can model waste streams and recycling processes, optimizing waste management systems and promoting circular economy practices, which align with SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production.

Renewable energy technologies
The development and adoption of renewable energy technologies, such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, green hydrogen can help achieve SDG 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy – by providing sustainable and clean energy sources. Advancements in energy storage systems can also support the integration of renewable energy into the existing grids.

Sustainable agriculture technologies
Emerging technologies, such as precision agriculture, remote sensing, and vertical farming, can enhance agricultural productivity while minimizing environmental impacts. These measures gain importance, particularly in those geographies where there are perennial water shortages, and agriculture activity becomes a challenge, like West Rajasthan, Kachh in Gujarat, etc. These innovations contribute to SDG 2 – Zero Hunger – and SDG15 – Life on Land – by promoting sustainable food production and reducing deforestation.

Extended reality
Educating people about environment is of prime importance in developing awareness. Extended reality can provide immersive and interactive experiences to educate people about environmental issues, such as deforestation, climate change, and wildlife conservation. This increased awareness can lead to more informed and environmentally conscious decision-making.

Extended reality can transform complex environmental data into visual, interactive representations. Stakeholders and policymakers can better understand data related to climate patterns, pollution levels, and habitat changes, aiding in evidence-based decision-making.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering
Advances in biotechnology can contribute to SDG14 – Life below Water – and SDG15 – Life on Land – by supporting conservation efforts, restoring ecosystems, and developing sustainable alternatives to harmful practices. For example, bioremediation techniques can help clean up polluted environments, while genetic engineering can support the development of resilient crop varieties.

Enablement of ESG (environment, social, and governance)
There are a lot of business opportunities in various applications of the emerging technologies in the smart sustainable environment. Organizations that work on those are cognizant that investors in their project would also expect them to adopt ESG principles and thus consider, measure, report, and work to improve the environmental, social, and governance aspects of their business alongside the financial considerations. It is about creating sustained outcomes, and fuel growth, while strengthening the environment and our societies.

It is important to note that while these emerging technologies offer immense potential, their deployment should be guided by ethical considerations, including governance, and ensuring equitable access to their benefits to avoid exacerbating existing inequalities or creating new ones.

Technologies like artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, quantum computing, extended reality, blockchain, big data analytics, etc., can be leveraged toward SDGs 2030, which in turn can meet the economic, environmental, and social and cultural objectives in various domains, including the smart environment. Organizations involved in these smart environment projects, have reasons to focus on the ESG aspects as well, thus having a positive impact on the society on the whole.

Whatever technologies we deploy can solve problems in the short run, but we need to address the core issue of sustainability for a long-term solution. And it is here that Indic ethos can act as a beacon light.

This article is authored by Vimal Wakhlu, Former Chairman & Managing Director, Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd. Views expressed are personal.

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