Wales Tech Week has been designed to help organisations keep pace with rapid change, and showcase Welsh technology on a global stage. The summit features a ‘Net Zero’ stage, hosted by Sustainable Economics Adviser and former BBC Wales Economics Correspondent Sarah Dickins. Here, she discusses how technology can enable a sustainable future and solve some of our environmental challenges.
It’s generally acknowledged that we’re living beyond our planet’s means. We are consuming too much of the world’s resources, and eight years ago, the Governor of the Bank of England warned “climate change will threaten financial resilience and longer-term prosperity”. Put simply, this goes beyond just the environment and affects the prospects for the global economy.
It’s a massive challenge, however, there are many ways in which we can reduce our impact on the planet that will benefit us in the long run – and some also save money in the short-term.
Technology is already making a significant contribution to tackling the climate crisis, but it also has its limitations. The solution needs to be a combination of innovation and behaviour change.
New ways of designing products can also bring down the cost of materials and create goods with a longer life, reducing waste and cutting environmental impact.
For example, American-owned Orangebox set up in Hengoed more than 20 years ago making office chairs. From the very start, sustainability was at the core of its business. Most office chairs on the market have different materials moulded together – so if a wheel breaks the whole chair is replaced. In contrast, Orangebox furniture is designed to be repairable, and the company has set up a ‘Remade’ line, restoring furniture coming to the end of its life cycle.
Energy conservation and our approach to waste
There are numerous measures businesses can take to save energy – such as supermarkets switching from open chiller shelves to refrigerated cabinets – but technology can also help with energy conservation. Tech-enabled metering, adjustable radiators, machine sensors and smart timers are all small steps organisations can take to conserve energy use both at home and in the workplace.
The mindset that rubbish is a resource underpins the drive to circularity, which contributes to sustainability. Many companies are already working on innovative ways to convert food waste into other products – for example, using waste bread to produce beer, or using the water from cooking chickpeas as an egg alternative for vegan ice cream.
As consumers, we still find ourselves using large amounts of single-use plastics which traditionally have been made from polymers, often originating from fossil fuels. To combat this, researchers have developed polymers from carbon dioxide to create packaging.
A note of caution
There are many exciting advances – new clothing materials and sustainable ‘plastics’, as well as improved ways of powering vehicles and heating our homes.
However, the downside is there can be an environmental cost to manufacturing these new products. The long-term ecological, social and ethical implications of each innovation must also be calculated.
For example, electric vehicles are an important move away from fossil fuel-powered cars, but they are dependent on lithium batteries. Lithium is also a vital part of our phones and laptops, with much of what is in use having been extracted from hard rock mines in Australia and underground reservoirs in South America.
Plans for a lithium mine at St Austell in Cornwall have this summer secured an initial investment of £53.6m from the UK government’s UK Infrastructure Bank and private investment. However, mining lithium has an environmental impact, using a lot of energy and water.
Enabling behaviour change
Technology can also be used to enable behaviour change. The shift to hybrid working and remote healthcare, reducing carbon emissions from travel, are good examples (although cloud data storage, websites and online video calls all have a carbon footprint too).
Technology is also stepping up to help support day-to-day improvements in our lifestyles to reduce waste and emissions. And while we may take the rain for granted in Wales, water scarcity is a growing concern globally. In the UK, we waste water without even realising. Producing drinking water uses energy – and then is used to flush the toilet, clean our windows and wash our cars. Water conservation apps can help people track their use.
In terms of consumer goods, we need to buy fewer things, purchasing better quality, longer lasting clothes, and second hand, vintage or pre-loved clothes or tools. To eliminate fast fashion, apps are helping consumers buy and sell second-hand clothing, or borrow items instead.
Sustainability as the basis of the economy
As we try to slow the climate crisis and its effects, we need to resist the temptation to rely solely on technological breakthroughs to solve problems. However, we can harness the potential of innovation to help us become more sustainable.
In the long run, sustainability is key to a secure future – being able to meet our basic needs and still enjoy a good quality of life. There are also huge opportunities for innovators and tech start-ups to support this essential transition in how we live both now and in the future.
Wales Tech Week takes place 16-18 October at the International Convention Centre in Newport and will host an exhibition, expert panels, demonstration zones, “Start up Alley” and more. Find out more about the Net Zero Stage and other expert panels and register for a free ticket at Walestechweek.com.