From smart agriculture to 3D-printed houses, 4IR tech can help combat the climate crisis

Date: Sep 16, 2022 | Opinion Pieces


By Mduduzi Mbiza and Saurabh Sinha

Economic growth and climate action can be pursued concomitantly through innovative thinking, the convergence of technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the mindset that goes with them.

With COP27 approaching, countries will engage again on climate change matters and how best to tackle them. African countries are looking to make their voices heard in conversations about the financial aid that has been promised to them.

The increase in global temperatures caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is trapping heat and causing rapid climate change. This has significant implications for our planet, including more extreme weather events, rising sea levels and extinction of plant and animal species.

Through Sustainable Development Goal 13 (Climate Action), all countries are encouraged to take immediate action in the fight against climate change.

The climate crisis, however, is a global problem; it is also closely related to other Sustainable Development Goals; these latter relationships will ultimately affect how humanity can function and at the same time make it more challenging to tackle the issue.

For example, Sustainable Development Goal 2 aims to end hunger, but most agricultural products require specific environmental conditions to succeed; farmers cannot produce food when environmental conditions are not conducive. Wheat farmers in Nineveh, Iraq, are being forced to settle for lower prices because their harvest has been of poor quality due to the drought caused by climate change. Iraq has experienced extreme temperatures and droughts for at least the past two years.

Without any wheat to sell, most farmers in Nineveh are being forced to abandon agriculture in search of something that will put food on the table.

During the First Industrial Revolution, increased steam engine use and fossil fuel burning was already leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions, negatively affecting our environment. This increase was due to the sudden rise in production and consumption.

Over the past century there has been an exponential rise in production and consumption, which is not sustainable in the long run. SDG 12 (Consumption and Production that is Responsible) and SDG 13 (Action to Combat Climate Change) stand in a negative relationship because as one decreases, so does the other.

On the other hand, intense droughts and heatwaves can destroy animal habitats, directly harming animals and endangering their lives. Recently in Zimbabwe, thousands of animals were moved from a reserve in the southern region to one in the north due to a lack of water.

People worldwide are witnessing how climate change can wreak havoc on the planet and are starting to realise the dangers of global warming.

In December 2015, more than 190 parties concluded the Paris Agreement on climate change, each agreeing to set plans to help the world reduce global warming to the 1.5°C threshold – this was COP21 (21st Conference of the Parties). As per the agreement, a 45% reduction in emissions must be achieved by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

With this agreement, countries are required to take increasingly ambitious climate actions and submit updated national climate action plans every five years.

During COP26 in Glasgow on 13 November 2021, 197 countries adopted the Glasgow Climate Pact, a new deal that reaffirms the Paris Agreement and puts an emphasis on the reduction of coal use.

Renewables and economic growth – finding a balance

The increased awareness of and concern about climate change and its effects have pushed many countries and businesses to invest in renewable energy. However, this shift has led to a debate around the relationship between renewable energy and economic growth.

Some believe a rapid transition to renewable energy is essential to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Others argue that such a transition would be too disruptive and hurt the economy. The reality is that both sides have valid points.

A sudden shift to renewable energy would undoubtedly impact the economy. Still, we argue that these impacts would be outweighed by the long-term benefits of transitioning to renewable energy. We also argue that there are ways to attain SDG 13 and economic growth simultaneously.

For instance, with its rapid advancement of digital technologies, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is creating new opportunities to tackle climate change.

Climate models and machine learning can predict weather and climate patterns in specific locations and across the globe. Climate models predict extreme precipitation based on temperature, humidity and surface pressure. And to determine how often a particular area will experience heavy rainfall or snowfall, machine-learning technology uses historical weather data and data on greenhouse gas emissions.

Smart agriculture, on the other hand, uses data from various sensors for diagnostics and decision-making. With smart agriculture, farmers can reduce resource use and increase crop production.

Ember, a think tank that uses data on the global power sector, wants to help countries transition from coal to clean electricity by 2040. “Clean coal” can capture carbon emissions from burning coal and store them underground.

The aim here is to keep coal and simultaneously reduce the negative impact on the environment.

3D printing, on the other hand, helps with the waste created by the construction industry, from packaging materials to bricks and other materials left behind after construction. The University of Johannesburg has piloted a research project for 3D-printed houses that could disrupt the future housing sector by offering affordable housing.

In June 2021, Malawi opened its first 3D-printed school, and around the same time, the capital Lilongwe witnessed a 3D-printed house being built in just 12 hours. Mexico, India, the US and Europe have also used this 4IR technology to revolutionise the housing sector while tackling climate change.

Other use cases being explored include robotic trees in Mexico, carbon-sucking drones in Hong Kong and air-cleaning buses in the UK.

Economic growth and climate action can be pursued concomitantly through innovative thinking, the convergence of technologies of the 4IR, and the mindset that goes with them. Further, given the recent implications of climate change, such as the floods in KwaZulu-Natal and fires in Australia, we have renewed our call for this pursuit; this is a way forward that humanity must consider.

The First Industrial Revolution revolutionised economies and created new jobs along the way; there’s an opportunity for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to achieve that too.

  • Mduduzi Mbiza is a research associate at the University of Johannesburg. Profesor Saurabh Sinha is an electronic engineer and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg. The authors write in their personal capacities.
*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.
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