Europe, 2050. Your day starts with a glance at the morning’s pollution data as displayed on your augmented reality device. Before you log on for your day’s work from your home office, you sit down to breakfast, chosen for the environmental credentials displayed digitally when you purchased it.
During the day, as you go about your chores, you’ll check the real-time electricity price before doing a load of washing. To encourage usage during peak production times for renewable energy, prices can fluctuate and gamification is a fun way to find the best rate. You both consume and produce electricity thanks to the solar panels on your roof which are connected to a meshed micro-grid.
Such is the picture painted in 2022 by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, in its ‘Towards a Green and Digital Future – Key requirements for successful twin transitions in the European Union Science’.
According to a McKinsey report, in 2017 the 27 countries that comprise the European Union were responsible for seven percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. “The European Union achieving climate neutrality could serve as a blueprint for other regions and encourage other countries to take bolder action,” the report’s authors wrote.
The report examines the role digital tech can play in the European Union reaching climate neutrality by 2050 – a commitment the European Commission made in 2019.
Known as the European Green Deal, the bold ambition is set to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent. And the current climate of geopolitical instability, including Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine and the implications across food, energy, economy and security, has only reinforced the need for as speedy a transition as possible.
AI, the IoT, 5G and blockchain are among the digital technologies capable of restoring biodiversity, easing pollution and reaching climate neutrality.
For example, distributed ledger technology, such as blockchain-based digital product passports, can be used in materials traceability and to encourage a maintenance and recycling loop for the circular economy.
Digital twins – or a virtual copy of a real-life environment – can be harnessed to optimize traffic, ease congestion, curb emissions and model the life cycle of products and processes or the sustainable design of buildings.
Data and data analysis will be crucial to this transition, and tech such as sensors, as well as open source platforms, will gather and share the information with a wide audience.
Gamification will encourage public participation and adoption: The JRC cites “openness to change” as one of the main requirements for the continent to achieve carbon neutrality.
“Sustainability and digitalization must become a perfect marriage,” tweeted Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission’s Vice-President for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight.
This was said at the launch of the European Commission’s ‘2022 Strategic Foresight Report: Twinning the Green and Digital Transitions in the New Geopolitical Context’, a strategic document born out of the JRC’s report on the same topic. And the “twinning” of green and digital transitions is how the European bloc is now approaching it. In other words, one can’t happen without the other.
But, Šefčovič added, current technologies may only get us through to 2030. “It’s tech currently at the experimental, demonstration or prototype phase that is vital for our 2050 climate neutrality,” he cautioned.
Energy, transport, industry, buildings and agriculture emit the most greenhouse gasses in the European Union, and depending on the sector, digital technologies can play different roles in Europe’s climate neutrality goals.
Some of the predictions for the future that the reports have outlined include:
Next-generation batteries will power electric aircraft serving smaller regional airports within Europe. Two-way charging for electric cars helps power smart electricity grids.
Digitalization and AI will foster solutions for autonomous vehicles and vessels and will also promote the rise of “mobility-as-a-service” or “transport-as-a-service” models that could increase the usage of public transport as well as the prominence of pooling and sharing platforms.
Drones are a low-emission, digital and AI-powered solution for services and applications such as delivery and medical assistance.
Digital technologies, novel sensors (advanced monitoring and sensing technologies), satellite data and blockchain boost forecasting of energy production and demand.
Such tech also enables smart grids to regulate consumption depending on weather conditions that impact the generation of variable renewable energies to prevent disruption to supply.
Digitalization will allow consumers — whether individuals or businesses — to trade energy. The energy network could operate in a bottom-up fashion thanks to meshed, or connected, microgrids and self-organized grids, with households able to sell excess electricity to their neighbors.
Energy management tools, fed real-time consumption data from smart meters and sensors, increase efficiency. Digital twins are harnessed to test products, refine system designs, choose the best materials and flag preventative maintenance.
The contribution of advanced technologies such as robotics and 3D and 4D printing will increase in importance. Thanks to data-driven materials optimization, when new materials are developed, the complete lifecycle is just as important a consideration as key performance characteristics.
Materials tracing sees repair centers for home appliances become increasingly common in the urban landscape.
Quantum computing, combined with plant genomics and bioinformatics (methods and tools to study biological data) together increase our understanding of the biological and chemical processes that can lessen our reliance on pesticides and fertilizers.
This could also be reduced with digital sensing in-situ and European Union space-based services.
Hyperlocal digital platforms promote close-range distribution to avoid food waste. Blockchain, sensors and satellite data boost traceability and transparency. Food in general is produced much more efficiently since open-source platforms now offer farmers big data insights to help decide what crop to plant and when.
Buildings are refitted with 100 percent renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels. Digital twins could change the way urban spaces are planned, monitored and managed.
This could translate into reduced urban emissions, increased resource efficiencies and quality of life, better use of building space, and could make buildings more resilient to hazardous events.
For sustainability and digitalization to become the perfect marriage that the European Commission’s Šefčovič speaks of, there’s a tension that needs to be addressed.
“Digital solutions have vast potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but they can also lead to a higher environmental burden,” the JRC cautions.
Technologies such as data centers, AI and blockchain bring their own demands for electricity, materials and water. And with their dependence on rare earth materials that are difficult to recycle, e-waste, or discarded electrics and electronic devices, is the fastest growing waste category, the JRC adds.
To ensure that the twin transitions are net positive, further research and innovation is necessary – and that comes at a cost.
McKinsey estimates an investment of US$30.3 trillion in clean technologies and techniques is needed between 2020 and 2050. Although when you consider that US$30.3 trillion could come from funneling funds otherwise destined for carbon-intensive technologies, maybe the green continent it not quite the impossible dream.
McKinsey estimates that Europe’s net zero ambitions would create 11 million jobs and eliminate six million. Renewable energy, agriculture and buildings are the sectors that would see the greatest proliferation of new jobs. “In the buildings sector, the EU would need 1.1 million skilled workers to retrofit homes with higher insulation and install green heating and cooking systems,” the report’s authors write.