Three innovations that will accelerate climate action, according to Google’s ‘captain of moonshots’

The head of advanced technology firm 'X' - formerly called 'Google X' - has stressed that climate change is one of the biggest problems facing the planet, but one that offers businesses a key opportunity to scale-up clean technologies and green innovations to transition to a low-carbon economy.

The X research lab, owned by American multinational conglomerate Alphabet (established by the two founders of Google) signified the firm’s first foray away from software into other technological spheres when it was launched in 2010.

While recent innovative concepts such as Google Glass haven’t taken off, the firm is still accelerating research into various other projects, which it calls “moonshots”.

The man charged with spearheading X, Astro Teller, prefers to go by the title of ‘captain of moonshots’ instead of a more formal title such as ‘chief executive’. The captain also made an appearance at this week’s launch of Mission 2020 – Christiana Figueres’ bold new campaign to reach ‘peak emissions’ by 2020.

While the Mission 2020 project focuses on six key areas including transport, infrastructure and finance, Figueres has acknowledged the need for innovation and technology to drive the transition.

Sustainability megatrends: Technological innovations for the Earth

For Teller, who has managed X since 2014, technology can transform climate change from a global problem into a business opportunity to lower emissions and create new business methods in the process.

“I appreciate the sober and serious conversation that climate change is one of the biggest issues in the world and that everyone is committed to tackling it,” Teller said via video link at the Mission 2020 launch. “We feel that climate change is one of the biggest problems in the world, but also one of the biggest opportunities in the world from a business perspective.

“For every story out there saying that technology is going to ruin our lives, I see an enormous set of opportunities for technology to save lives. We need to be thinking more broadly about the situation.”

Specifically, Teller noted three innovations that he felt could lower emissions and drive a more convenient and resilient way of doing business, which are listed below.

1) Artificial Intelligence (AI)

In July last year, Google announced that it had slashed energy consumption in its data centres by 40%. This was achieved by using the ‘DeepMind’ research company to live test a system of neural networks – computer systems modelled on the human brain – that have led to a more efficient and adaptive framework for data centre management.

The AI system not only delivered 40% cuts to energy consumption, but also reduced Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) – the ratio of total building energy use to IT energy use – by as much as 15%. Google claims that the system established the lowest PUE the site had ever seen.

According to Teller, machine learning will “make the world more intelligent” and is “going to save more carbon in the next four years than anything we do with energy generation”.

2) Autonomous Vehicles

The current trend in the automotive market is one of electrification, whereby fossil fuels are replaced by batteries and, ideally, electricity derived from renewables. The next step on this evolutionary process appears to be autonomous, self-driving vehicles, which combine the low-emissions of electric vehicles with intelligent systems.

For Teller, autonomous vehicles can also create a huge impact on the embodied carbon footprint of a vehicle because new designs specifications would be introduced due to the assumed drop in vehicle collisions.

“The standard right now is that you build a car to primarily keep the people inside it safe,” Teller said. “You put enough steel around the person so they survive. You can embed enough intelligence into a vehicle so that it didn’t hit brick walls at 50mph, then you could put less steel in the car. There would be less carbon footprint in the production of the cars, there would be less carbon footprint in the lifetime of the vehicle because you’re dragging less weight around.”

3) Drone deliveries

Logistics and delivery firms have made efforts to cut vehicle fleet emissions through a variety of measures including route optimisation to cut empty miles, big data and even packaging innovations. However, issues over last mile deliveries remain.

UPS, which has established a sustainability agenda combining data management and alternative fuels is exploring the use of autonomous drones to streamline deliveries and cut down on emissions. For Teller, drones are a technology which can be, and are, rolled out immediately

“How does it make sense for us to use a 4,000-pound vehicle, burning dinosaur juice, to move a three-pound pizza across town? The math doesn’t make any sense at all,” Teller said. “Why can’t we use drones to move package across town to people? the carbon and noise savings here are huge.”

Matt Mace

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