Top 10 Frontier Technologies for Climate Action

With wildfires raging from California to the Arctic, glaciers melting in the Hindu Kush, and millions of people around the world already on the move because of drought or flooding, climate change is not a distant reality. It is already here, and it is disproportionately affecting people in the countries that are in development. While the complex political work of reducing carbon emissions continues, we need action now.

Technology can help people around the world adapt to our changing world, as well as reducing the most harmful effects. What if we could electrify the steel industry, slashing energy and heat generation? Or create carbon neutral methods of fertilising farms? What if detailed weather forecasting was available to remote, rural communities? Or if comprehensive insurance could protect a small scale farmer in a drought?

One of the programmes run by the UK’s Department for International Development is Frontier Technology Livestreaming, where they fund technologies that have the potential to affect the lives of people around the world. As part of this project, DfID commissioned research by Cleantech Group from September to November 2019, looking specifically at the technologies with the greatest potential to create change in an international development context.

The work began with a consultation with DfID advisors and external experts who helped shape the Terms of Reference for this work. At the start of the research process, the list consisted of 159 technologies, which was shortened to the 10 main categories and 32 sub-categories you will see in this summary. They were arrived at based on the application of various criteria including technology readiness level, location, greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction potential, contribution to resilience, presence in emerging markets and how ready they are to be implemented in countries in development. The team also conducted an online external consultation on the final categories. Specifically, the technologies were categorised broadly by technology readiness level into 4 buckets:

  • Commercial in developing markets – available everywhere now
  • Early commercial in developed markets – could be deployed in developing contexts in 1-3 years and moving toward widespread commercial use
  • Emerging tech (5-10 years) – could be deployed commercially in 5-7 years, but still needs investment, pilots, funding etc.
  • Emerging tech (10+ years) – unlikely to have commercial potential in developing markets before next 10 years

Overall, Cleantech Group used a combination of desk research, a workshop with DfID, Cleantech’s proprietary database on clean energy companies globally, an external consultation, and one-hour deep-dive interviews with 15 shortlisted clean energy technology companies.

graph showing the average technology development stage vs the relative impact potential of emerging technologies

The places worst affected by climate change are often poorly equipped for technological solutions – beset by poor infrastructure and in need of fast economic growth. But this could also present an opportunity: to leapfrog the out-dated systems that dominate the developed world, going straight to solutions that harness 5G networks, building new systems around renewable energy and small-scale projects. It is an exciting prospect, and it is achievable.

Magdalena Banasiak, Senior Innovation Advisor, DFID

It's the poor living in slums prone to flooding, [or people] based on floodplains, or it's rural populations reliant on agricultural practices and rain fed agriculture that are all the most likely to be hit by climate change.

Magdalena Banasiak, Senior Innovation Advisor, DFID

Climate Resilient Agriculture

From flooding in Pakistan to drought in Ethiopia, the world’s least developed economies are most at risk from climate change. Extreme weather events in these countries can have a devastating effect on farming. This has massive implications. Around 500 million small-scale farms produce the food for a staggering 70% of the world’s population. Making sure that these farms can withstand a changing climate is vital to ensuring that hundreds of millions of people worldwide have enough to eat.

One way this can be done is increasing access to digital tools that help reduce waste and increase yield for farmers. There is certainly scope for improvement; at the moment, around 40% of food losses in countries in development happen between harvest and retail, compared to only 8% in developed economies. Increasing the use of digital tools in agriculture is more possible than ever because of the connectivity brought by mobile phones. The ubiquity of mobiles also makes it simpler to give farmers access to detailed weather information, to help them plan, to provide information about competitive market prices, and to increase their knowledge of different agricultural techniques.

Xpertsea’s aquaculture technology in use at a shrimp hatchery
Xpertsea’s aquaculture technology in use at a shrimp hatchery. Xpertsea

As well as helping farmers to withstand climate shocks, better farming practices could lower the emissions of agriculture – using plant science to reduce environmental impact and increase yield, improving livestock rearing practices to reduce methane emissions and soil degradation. This is not a simple proposition in areas where basic agricultural infrastructure such as irrigation might be lacking and where at least one growing cycle is required to prove a concept. But with the world population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, finding solutions is urgent.

Genetic Engineering

Crops are vulnerable to changes in the water, air, soil, sunlight and minerals, as well as to the effect of other plants, fungi and animals. Increased CO2 presence and volatile weather can affect not only yield but the nutritional value of the crops. One possible solution is editing crop genetics to give a plant desirable traits. What if drought resistant crops could be developed? Or specialised tropical crops? Or microbes that improve soil conditions to make nutrients more available?

Genetically engineered cereal crops are already grown around the world, with 19 countries in development accounting for 53% of the total. But new gene editing techniques are being developed all the time. Research is costly, and development cycles for new seeds are long, so it is rare that research specifically focuses on crops specific to economies in development. But in principle, if these new techniques were applied to crops essential to diets in these countries, it could make a huge difference to hunger.

Grazing Management

The grazing of cattle, sheep and other animals is essential in agriculture, essentially converting grass and other forage into meat, milk or wool. In many countries in development, this grazing is fairly unstructured, with livestock left to wander where they choose. This can cause damage to the soil, which prevents more feed from growing, which in turn ends up forcing livestock owners to buy feed for their animals. This is a problem for two reasons: it takes that food out of the human food chain, and purchased feed can be bad for animals’ digestive systems, leading to more methane. The best solution is to organise livestock to use the pasture better and allow grass to regenerate. Tech can help – through livestock monitoring, data analytics and knowledge sharing. Research into the methane produced by cows and sheep is at an advanced stage, but user-friendly tech to track grazing is at a very early stage and more work is needed.

Aquaculture

Aquaculture is the controlled process of cultivating fish or aquatic plants for human consumption. It happens in coastal ocean waters, freshwater ponds and rivers, and has been actively promoted as a way of alleviating poverty in countries that are in development. In many places, aquaculture and the fish it provides is people’s main source of protein. But often, fish farming is done in an inefficient and environmentally harmful way.

The Xpertsea XpertCount device in use at a shrimp hatchery
The Xpertsea XpertCount device in use at a shrimp hatchery. Xpertsea

Tech solutions like automatic feeders, monitoring systems, data analytics and insight platforms can help to alleviate these harmful effects. There is no single solution – the market is fragmented and varies by species, country, and region. At the moment, development is a lot more advanced for high value species like salmon, and much less so for shrimp farming or seaweed cultivation.

Watch how Xpertsea’s AI-powered data management platform helps shrimp farmers in countries like India.

Xpertsea is a Canadian startup that uses Artificial Intelligence to give seafood farmers the data they need at their fingertips. But it’s not always easy to convince farmers, who’ve been using their own traditional farming methods for years, to trust in data. Xpertsea acknowledge the importance of investing in farmer education, and their goal is to get traction in countries that are in development quickly because of the outsized impact they can have.

François Robitaille, Co-Founder, Xpertsea

The population is increasing in developing countries where seafood is their most important protein. This industry needs to be shifted to a more data-driven, sustainable and efficient industry. That's the core of our business - to bring this industry forward with data.

François Robitaille, Co-Founder, Xpertsea

Food Loss

A bag of grain goes through many stages between harvest and being purchased in a market. In countries in development where there are limited options for storage, packaging and transportation, 40% of food loss happens before the food even reaches the consumer. If these processes could be improved so that less food is lost as it moves through the supply chain, it would mean that more food gets to consumers.

One big problem is a lack of electricity and other basic infrastructure – if you don’t have consistent power, it is hard to control the temperature of food. In recent years, there has been more investment in cold chain technologies that work off-grid, like solar-powered refrigeration. To pinpoint where loss is occurring, data is needed, and this is often lacking in developing contexts. Low-cost sensors could be one solution that might work despite a lack of basic infrastructure.

Responsible Consumption

From single use plastic bags that end up in the oceans, to gas emissions from the concrete that builds our office blocks, the way we extract, produce and use resources has a climate impact. But even more important are the hidden processes in industries and supply chains. There is scope to reduce waste and emissions at all stages.

Further, the way we extract and use resources is not equal around the globe. A significant proportion of the world’s population still consumes far too little to meet even their basic needs, while others produce vast amounts of waste. At the moment, many communities are locked in to certain consumption patterns as there is no viable, cost-effective alternative available. But with good financing and training, that could change.

The developed world has made mistakes, especially with high reliance on single-use plastic and high-carbon construction materials. There is potential for the developing world to avoid repeating these mistakes, instead moving straight to more sustainable environmental practices. This could mean food supply chains that have been improved to reduce waste, helping to shore up food security. Or using machine learning for better resource extraction. It might mean using low-carbon concrete, or alternatives to plastic.

ECOncrete’s eco-friendly concrete solution in use in the sea in Israel
ECOncrete’s eco-friendly concrete solution in use in the sea in Israel. ECOncrete

At the moment, these methods are still being worked out, and in many cases they are expensive. In order to become viable, costs must be reduced. Many tech solutions are being worked on in the developed world, and must be transferred to the places that could benefit most.

Plastic Alternatives

Single use plastic can be discarded in an instant but remains in the environment for hundreds of years. Plastic production is also dependent on fossil fuels – most of which is made using petroleum. Both the greenhouse gases of the plastic industry and the pollution of the world’s oceans could be countered by using plastic that is biobased, biodegradable, or both. This could revitalise and protect the oceans, and improve the livelihoods of coastal communities, which suffer as a result of plastic pollution. At the moment, bioplastic only accounts for 1% of the 335 million tons of plastic produced annually – and all of it is produced in the developed world. More work is needed to reduce the cost and the time it takes to produce these more sustainable plastic alternatives.

Low-GHG Construction Materials

Concrete is the most widely used man-made material in existence – second only to water as the most consumed resource on the planet. Cement, the key ingredient in concrete, is responsible for about 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions. The production of other traditional construction materials is similarly polluting. Once they’re no longer in use, they produce heavy, non-recyclable waste. More sustainable alternatives include materials that use less carbon-intensive manufacturing techniques, or new materials altogether.

ECOconcrete co-founder Dr. Shimrit Perkol-Finkel with an ECO Armor Block used for coastal defense
ECOconcrete co-founder Dr. Shimrit Perkol-Finkel with an ECO Armor Block used for coastal defense. ECOncrete

ECOncrete is a company trying to reduce the eco-footprint of concrete, using additives and industrial byproducts, and making 3D-printed reef structures. Other companies are working on prefabricated buildings, or timber.

Construction companies are often fragmented and resistant to change, and costs need to come down for new materials to be appealing in countries in development. But shifting away from carbon-intensive construction could also mean using local materials rather than importing materials at great cost.

Watch how Econcrete’s technology helps strengthen and enhance the durability of coastal and urban infrastructure.

Low Carbon Food Production

Growing food is a big and messy business. The fertilisers and pesticides needed for crops, and food for livestock, are bulky and offer a low profit margin for the companies producing them. That means they tend to be produced in large, centralised facilities. Currently, fertiliser production alone accounts for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Enteric fermentation produces around 14.5%.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Distributed production of ammonia for fertiliser could help – Atmonia is one of these companies, developing small-scale, local production of carbon-neutral ammonia. Other exciting technologies include processing seaweed for animal feed, or using fermented or pheromone-based pesticides. These methods are not widely adopted yet, but if their effectiveness can be shown, they could both increase the yield for farmers in countries in development, and reduce emissions globally.

Guðbjörg Rist, CEO, Atmonia

The system we are looking at, for around a hundred acres of land, would be a washing machine size. That could be on the farm. This module can produce only during the day if there's solar panels, or during the night if there's excess wind energy.

Guðbjörg Rist, CEO, Atmonia

Electrification / Decarbonisation

When you hear the words ‘heavy industry’ you might think of the Industrial Revolution - large factories, pumping out plumes of black smoke. These images speak to a dual truth about heavy industries like steel: they produce massive emissions but are vital to the global economy. Industry accounts for 23% of direct CO2. It is one of the hardest areas to decarbonise – extremely high temperatures are required to make steel, cement and petrochemicals. At the moment, virtually all of that combustion relies on fossil fuels, and there are few viable low-carbon alternatives. Another source of emissions is transportation – not just personal cars clogging the roads, but huge trucks moving slabs of cement. So far, corporates have not reduced emissions at the rate required, and they face losses from rising carbon prices and heavy taxes.

Solutions must be found. But in countries in development, this can be a particularly difficult proposition. Many have interrupted electricity supplies, and industries face intense competition for relatively low margins, making major overhaul a difficult sell. What if both problems could be solved together, with heavy industry being linked to renewable energy and the electrification of vehicles? Most research on decarbonising industry is happening in Europe – but it could be transferred to developing contexts. More research is needed, and investment in commercialising new products. Industrialists in countries in development need to be brought on side to see that despite the costs of carbon taxes, reforming their methods could be a serious opportunity. Perhaps then, the automatic linkage many of us make between economic progress and polluting factories could become a remnant of the past.

Josh Whale, CEO, Ampersand

Until now, unfortunately, only a small minority of people are in a financial position to spend more on an electric vehicle. We want to get things to a point where an electric vehicle, from the customers' point of view, just makes pure economic and practical sense.

Josh Whale, CEO, Ampersand

Electric Steel Production

Steel production is the single largest industrial source of CO2: it produces 1.7 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions every year. While electricity is rapidly decarbonising, steel production is not – the blast furnaces required to make steel are overwhelmingly coal-based. The ideal would be to replace coal-based blast furnaces with electrically powered alternatives that use renewable energy. One company trying to do this is Boston Metal, which is developing molten oxide electrolysis technology for alloy and steel making – reducing carbon emissions in the process. Bill Gates is an investor in Boston Metal through Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investor-led energy innovation fund he backs.

Adam Rauwerdink, VP Business Development, Boston Metal

What we are trying to do is electrify the primary production of steel. We’re using electricity to go from iron ore to produce new iron units with no coal in the equations. So you’re getting oxygen as an emission rather than CO2.

Adam Rauwerdink, VP Business Development, Boston Metal

Any technology that relies on electricity in countries in development faces the same problem: inconsistent supply of electricity. Methods being trialled in Europe need to be adjusted for use in much smaller scale or less advanced mines in the developing world. But that said, some exciting projects are in pilot phase – and they could be commercialised within the next 4-5 years.

Listen to Adam Rauwerdink of Boston Metal on the challenges of electrifying the production of steel in South Africa.

“The one thing that we do require – and that can be a challenge in some of these emerging markets – is that the process is driven by electricity. We need a stable electricity supply. South Africa is an example. It's a tough situation right now – outages are fairly frequent and that would be a challenge for us. If you have metal at 1500 degrees Celsius, it doesn't like to stay at that temperature if the power turns off. So you would either need backup sources or just be limited in how you could deploy it in some of those places. That's a challenge.”

Watch Boston Metal’s team talk about how they are working to make steel without coal.

Green Ammonia

Ammonia – one nitrogen atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms – is regularly used as fertiliser and in household cleaning products; you are probably familiar with its distinctive smell. But could it also be a carbon-free fuel? Its energy density by volume is nearly double that of hydrogen, another green alternative fuel, and it is easier to ship and distribute.

Listen to Guðbjörg Rist of Atmonia on the advantage of using renewable energy in ammonia production to replace fossil fuels.

“Our focus is on finding new catalysts for ammonia production – different catalysts that can capture nitrogen from the air and convert them into ammonia. The big advantage by doing that instead of the current methods, which are high temperature and high pressure is that we can scale it very much down, so we can make very small units that are still commercially viable, but the cost is not through the doors because it's so simple. It is very easily turned on and off. That makes it also suitable to use with renewable or intermittent energy.”

At the moment, most ammonia production uses fossil fuels – accounting for 1% of greenhouse gases, not including the emissions from transportation. But if renewable energy could be used instead, this would effectively convert wind or solar power into an energy-rich gas that could be easily cooled and squeezed into liquid fuel. This fuel could be used for transport and industry. Traditionally, ammonia production is highly centralised. Iceland-based Atmonia, mentioned earlier, is one company that is not only looking at creating carbon-free ammonia, but at producing it locally and at a small scale.

Guðbjörg Rist, CEO, Atmonia

We see a big opportunity for this kind of micro-production of fertiliser that could be set up in pretty much any location. If you link it with solar cells or a small wind turbine, then you could make tiny fertiliser factories.

Guðbjörg Rist, CEO, Atmonia

Electric Transportation

As more people around the world move to cities, reliance on fossil-fuelled cars, motorbikes and trucks is increasing. Reliable, low-emission transport would protect against the respiratory problems and lowered life expectancy associated with high pollution.

An Ampersand electric motorcycle driver changing his battery at a swap station
An Ampersand electric motorcycle driver changing his battery at a swap station. Ampersand

There are some exciting products already in use – battery-powered electric and hybrid electric vehicles, including e-bikes, three wheelers and electric freight trucks. Ampersand is a company currently operating in Kigali, Rwanda, providing electric motorcycles with networked battery swapping. The bikes are powered by grid electricity, but they still produce 75% lower emissions than petrol.

Ampersand employees in a vehicle workshop, August 2019
A Ampersand employees in a vehicle workshop, August 2019. Ampersand

As low-carbon energy sources like wind, sun and water are increasingly harnessed and used, there is the potential to make such vehicles even more sustainable by charging them using renewable energy. Some electric transport providers have been stymied by the high cost of starting a business in emerging economies, as well as long supply chains – but others are already succeeding.

Listen to Josh Whale, CEO of Ampersand, talk about how electric motorcycle taxi drivers will benefit from their technology.

“There are a few factors why electric motorcycle taxis make a lot of sense in that the drivers drive large distances every day. They do about 190 kilometers a day in Rwanda, they spend $5.10 on fuel. With us, they will spend about $3.25 a day. For motorcycle taxi drivers in Rwanda the margins are really quite low while the drivers are still financing or paying off or paying a rental on a motorcycle. We at least double the driver's take home, and we take it from something like $600 a year, through to something like $1400. That is not factoring in maintenance costs that actually add another couple of hundred dollars [saving] on top. That is massive for our customers, who are usually from rural areas, lower incomes, not the most educated.”

Innovative Financing

It is easy to talk about climate change in terms of abstractions – global targets, rates of emission. But for each extreme weather event, there is a devastating human fallout. Every year, people around the world lose their homes to flooding, or their livelihoods to drought. Farms are destroyed; lives are blighted. As the physical risks of climate change increase, people in countries in development are more exposed. Often, they have very little financial protection to rebuild their lives, should the worst occur. The cliché is that money is power - it is certainly true that people with no or little access to money and its movement around the world are at a sharp disadvantage.

In remote areas where people have little access to banks, credit or credit history data, the problem of obtaining financial protection via insurance is particularly acute. But there are options now. New insurance products are opening up entirely new markets, while fintech innovation is helping people who do not have access to banking. Mobile phone ownership allows for the creation of new banking and insurance products, giving more people access to money. Better geospatial data can help to assess risks more accurately, meaning that extreme weather events can be predicted and resilience measures put in place.

Increasing the use of these innovative finance techniques isn’t simple. There can be a lack of awareness of these new products in emerging markets, and early stage capital investment can be lacking too. The development sector could support this work with guarantee loans, facilitating partnerships with banks, and helping to connect new tech to the appropriate markets.

Parametric Insurance

Extreme weather poses a huge risk to houses, crops and barns. In a developing context, these physical structures might be more fragile and less able to withstand harsh rain or wind. One new development to mitigate against extensive loss is insurance which works within pre-agreed physical parameters. If a certain level of rainfall is reached, for instance, the insurance company pays out immediately, without waiting to assess losses. This fast response means that farms could have money when they need it, rather than getting mired in a long claims process.

A FloodFlash device on the wall outside a store in the UK, amidst floods
A FloodFlash device on the wall outside a store in the UK, amidst floods. FloodFlash

FloodFlash provides parametric insurance for businesses and homes in the UK. It installs sensors and agrees a flood height for an instant payout. This model could bring insurance to many uninsured people around the world. It is a challenge – financial products are often strictly regulated. But given the greater availability of good forecasting data, it could go beyond flood mitigation, for example insuring farmers against low rainfall.

Chris Hall, Marketing Manager, Flood Flash

There's a massive protection gap in catastrophe insurance. 41 billion dollars worth of flood losses that happen worldwide each year are unprotected by insurance.

Chris Hall, Marketing Manager, Flood Flash

Listen to Chris Hall of FloodFlash how new forms of insurance like FloodFlash can help solve the problem of people storing cash to tide over bad times.

“Ken’s family was flooded a couple of times in a number of years and essentially, had, you know, had each year to try and put away a pretty decent wedge of their sort of revenue to make sure that if a flood did happen again, they would have that cash put aside to sort them out if there was another flood. And clubs and businesses that don’t have a massive amount of revenue or don’t turn a large profit, that can be a big debilitating factor into how they drive growth. Uso, you know, the fact that they can find cover and, and free up that money that they’ve been putting away, to invest it back into the business is, is a huge thing. And I think one of the best applications of Flood Flash, and I think, you know, on a bigger scale, the more we can do to ensure that the people in businesses aren’t having to tuck money away and they can spend it on, on other things, that’s only going to help.”

Green Bonds

To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, carbon emissions must be cut drastically, and fast. This change, though desirable, could have an unpredictable financial impact, including stranded assets – fossil fuel resources no longer able to make money. Green bonds are a way for issuers to raise money specifically for environmentally friendly projects, such as renewable energy or clean transport. This is a fast-growing area of financial innovation. In 2017, it was estimated to surpass $160 billion, and is expected to reach $200 billion by the end of 2019, essentially making money available to fund green projects. This could be a significant tool to mitigate physical climate change and manage the transitional risks. In countries in development, there needs to be more training and capacity building around this. And across the board, oversight is important, as there is a risk of green-washing – funds going to projects that appear to be more environmentally friendly than they are.

Soil Sequestration Incentives

Soil is the largest land-based reservoir of carbon on Earth, absorbing it from trees and vegetation as they die and decay. Tweaks to farming practices can increase the carbon content in soil and reduce overall emissions. At the moment, there isn’t much reason for farmers to make these changes. So why not pay farmers and other land-users to increase the carbon content of soil? This would not only reduce emissions, but would also give income to smallholders. It would improve soil quality which in turn improves crop quality. Specific schemes to encourage soil-based sequestration through crops and adapted farming practices have just come to market this year – with incentives packaged with farm management software systems. Other, more physical tech is needed too – before you start paying people to store more carbon, you need to be able to accurately measure the amount of carbon in soil.

Sensors

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the interconnection, via the internet, of computing devices embedded in everyday objects. These connected security systems, cars or household lights are constantly sending and receiving data. As consumers, we might associate it with wearable step trackers or speaker systems that follow voice commands. But IoT can bring new efficiencies to industry and logistics, as well as providing vast tranches of data that can help to slow climate change and monitor progress towards climate goals.

This technology is becoming more affordable – Asia Pacific already accounts for almost half of the market of sensors in industry, on the back of improved automotive standards in India, China and Indonesia. As sensors get cheaper and more sophisticated, IoT already has a range of applications in countries in development. For example, farmers can use remote sensors to monitor moisture levels and soil conditions in the fields to avoid crop failure. Sensors can provide remote control of micro-irrigation pumps in India and water pumps in Rwanda, improving functionality and reducing repair intervals. In Haiti, healthcare professionals are using “smart” thermometers to better track vaccine delivery and storage.

 A text message from Ignitia to a farmer using a feature phone.
A text message from Ignitia to a farmer using a feature phone. Ignitia

However there are privacy and security concerns about IoT technology, and although costs are reducing, they are still high enough to be a barrier to widespread use in nations that are in development. Embedding computers into everyday devices is still a fairly new concept, and innovation is needed to bring down costs. But this tech is already transforming vital services and infrastructure in nations in development, and there is much more to come.

Asset-Level Remote Monitoring

Sensors are bits of physical technology that collect images, location information and other data. They remove the need for people to be out there gathering this information, and allow for larger areas to be monitored with more precision, significantly reducing costs. This can help businesses and governments in countries in development to deliver and monitor the impact of their action on the climate: the temperature of shipping containers could be tracked to prevent food and medicines from going off, for example. Soil-based sensors can check water and plant conditions to enable smart irrigation systems. Sensors in water systems could prevent leaks. The opportunities are almost limitless, but more innovation is needed to work out exactly how this emerging technology can improve climate outcomes. Accelerators, incubators and competitions encouraging companies to develop solutions in this space, all have a role to play.

Space-Level Geospatial Sensing

A satellite is an object that orbits in space. Traditionally, they have been heavy and expensive, requiring a large rocket launcher to get into orbit. But the development of miniaturised satellites, which require a much smaller rocket to launch, means that this technology could be used much more widely. Essentially, the presence of more satellites means that much larger areas can be monitored, with a much greater level of accuracy. This reduces the overall cost of monitoring, while also meaning that more data is available to assess and act on. Energy infrastructure could be checked for damage, to better inform maintenance. Hyperlocal weather forecasting using satellite data could help farmers to better plan sowing and reaping – in fact one company is currently working on this already in Ghana: Ignitia.

Ignitia CEO Liisa Smits talking to farmers in Africa
Ignitia CEO Liisa Smits talking to farmers in Africa. Ignitia

There are exciting uses for satellite imagery too – it could be used to help understand and improve transport systems – not just overland, but by sea. It could also be used to identify the best places for reforestation.

Liisa Smits, CEO, Ignitia
If you look at the tropical belt, 80% of the working population are within small scale farming. So if you intend to move the needle, you need to find ways of making this more efficient, better and smarter.
Liisa Smits, CEO, Ignitia

Listen to Lisa Smiits tell the inspiring story of a farmer in Ghana who over the course of a few years was able to become a businessman thanks to Ignitia’s technology.

I think one of the, you know, most, most convincing stories, at least that I’ve heard happened over a period of actually three years where we got in contact with Mohammed who signed up for the service. He is a male in his 50s, has a family of, I think eight others that he is supporting financially and he lives in Northern Ghana. We saved basically his yields by being able to communicate to him that the rainy season had not yet started when everybody traditionally went on planting their crops. So during this period we predicted that, you know, we predicted that there would be a dry spell of four weeks and because of that he decided not to go out and do his planting that he would do otherwise. His neighbor’s crops, you know, they, they failed because nothing germinated. And that year he had enough yield to also share this with his neighbor farmer. Next year he had gotten a little bit of more confidence in the product and really understanding it while when he got the text message from us saying that the season would be I have to think now how it was if it, it would be much drier than usual. He came up with the idea that he’s not going to do the rice farming, that most people in his village and community around him were doing. But he would go with eggplants instead. So that year, he grew eggplants instead and he even invested in fertilizers for the first time which was not just natural fertilizer from his farm. And by this he said that he had like five times as big yields as he had predicted to have. Now again, this was a new crop, so perhaps that had something to do with it as well. But he had enough, eh, you know, eggplant actually for the whole village to eat that year. Yeah. And there was a risk of famine in that region because there was just not enough food. And the third year he could in a very sophisticated way show like how he could start - he had by then invested in a, a few of these like rice machines, how you harvest rice it’s still very manual but it’s something you can only do if it’s dry weather because otherwise the machine gets stuck. So he had invested in five of those by, you know, being able to sell his eggplant the year before and now he could rent them out at times where it would not rain. And, and he had basically created a whole new business for himself as well, more than farming by renting out this equipment at a great time and delivering it together with a weather forecast to his neighbor. So nowadays he is a businessman rather than a farmer, which I think really shows like in three years, the kind of development is pretty amazing.”

Water Stress Management

It has become a cliché to say that the wars of the future will be fought over water. Whether or not this turns out to be true, there is already evidence that many places around the world do not have enough of it. Throughout 2018, there was panic in Cape Town as it approached ‘Day Zero’ – the day when water would be rationed. It was narrowly averted, but water remains at a crisis point. In Karachi, water has become a criminal currency controlled by mafias. These are extreme examples, but it is a global trend. The gap between water demand and supply is predicted to rise to 40% by 2030. Meanwhile, many people already struggle to get safe, clean and reliable water access. Imported water is expensive – but as populations grow, so does demand - we will always need water.

A lot of people have no option but to drink dirty water and suffer the health consequences, something likely to worsen as extreme weather compromises drinking water supplies. Perhaps the best known solution is desalination, a process by which saltwater from the sea is turned into a drinkable product. Small modular desalination plants that use renewable power could be a sustainable solution to water crises around the globe. Some plant-based water purification techniques currently in development could help. So could water management software and atmospheric water capture. Smart irrigation systems can even help farmers assess water levels for their crops, and solar pumps can help cut the costs of irrigating farms with water. Some of this innovation is new, but many of these technologies – such as desalination – are well-established. Work is needed to make them viable for countries in development, creating smaller scale plants and hardware that is durable and easy to maintain.

Novel Water Purification

Dirty water is a huge problem. Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces. Contaminated water can transmit diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. It causes hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. But new technologies to purify water are coming to the fore, using UV light and ozone, plus filtration, to produce sustainable, bacteria-free water.

Similar systems are already used in industry and at the municipal level in different countries. But traditionally, most have needed electricity. New systems of UV filtration are electricity free. It is not a perfect solution – the technology removes bacteria, but not other contaminants like pharmaceuticals or heavy metals. But, if widely applied, it could still give people access to sterilised water and help to prevent many avoidable deaths.

Modular Desalination

Many countries are forced to import water, which is expensive and uses fuel. In addition, plastic is heavily used in packaging water. Desalination, or turning saltwater into drinking water, is well established as a solution. But centralised desalination plants involve big set-up costs and are mostly run off diesel, which is heavy, polluting and noisy. This kind of plant is often inappropriate for island nations – which, surrounded by saltwater, are obvious sites for desalination.

Installation of A Modular Desalination Unit.
Installation of A Modular Desalination Unit. Resolute Marine

What if desalination plants could not only be smaller, but use renewable energy? Resolute is currently working in Cape Verde, an archipelago, using wave energy to power desalination. This model reduces pollution and makes drinking water cheaper, allowing nations to be self-sufficient and reducing geopolitical tension over water. The fact that this desalination technology is modular means it can be tailored for different settings, and could even be used for disaster relief or electricity generation. Most of these projects are in development or pilot stages, and more financing is needed – not least to help clear regulatory boundaries.

Olivier Ceberio, Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer, Resolute Marine
We try to provide a solution that is tailored to this country where you have little or no infrastructure, and where usually the cost of energy and the cost of water is very high.
Olivier Ceberio, Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer, Resolute Marine

Listen to Oliver Ceberio of Resolute Marine talk about how their technology works.

So the way it works is actually pretty simple. So first you have a flap attached to the bottom of the sea that move back and forth with a wave. So the wave energy converters are underwater, you can’t see them from the shore. And we use this motion of the flap, to pressurize seawater. We sent the water, seawater to the shore where it is used to directly drive a reverse osmosis process. A Reverse osmosis process works by sending pressurised water through a filter. And so we directly drive this process, if you want by directly pushing the sea water that has been pressurized at a wave energy converter level. So the main feature is that it uses only ocean waves to produce fresh water and there is no electricity in the manufacturing process. We are not transforming the wave energy into electricity. And then this electricity into a pressurized seawater which would be the normal way of functioning of a desalination system. However the system can also generate electricity because we need electricity for our computers and lighting and sensors. So the system is designed to co-generate electricity. And this is interesting also for our customers because once the system is deployed everything being modular the customer can decide to have X number of units producing water, Y number of units producing electricity so that we can provide a hybrid of water and power production.”

Irrigation Management

As the climate changes, it is increasingly difficult to predict the weather. Rainfall is erratic – at one end of the spectrum, this can mean water shortages and droughts, and at the other, flooding and rising water levels. For farmers, this can result in significantly fewer crops grown and lost income. Though hardware and software to monitor water delivery to crops exists in the global North, many farmers in those regions do not have access to it in the global South.

A Futurepump user setting up their solar-powered irrigation pump SF2
A Futurepump user setting up their solar-powered irrigation pump SF2. Futurepump
Toby Hammond, Managing Director, Futurepump

If you're able to irrigate high value crops, in particular like vegetables or fruit, then you improve their quality dramatically. You can often also grow an extra crop in the dry seasons. That means a dramatic increase in family income – these are marginal farmers.

Toby Hammond, Managing Director, Futurepump

This technology is widely commercial in the developed world, but needs to be adapted before it can be transferred – devices are expensive, maintenance is complicated, and there is a whole infrastructure required to support their use. But there are solutions: such as solar-powered water pumps, smart irrigation systems, soil-based and plant-based sensors. Work is needed to make the costs of acquiring and using them lower, to simplify maintenance – and to encourage farmers to try new technology in the first place.

Futurepump build solar-powered irrigation pumps for use by small-scale farmers. Some of their customers have purported a tripling of their income by being able to grow a particular high-value crop, thanks to the use of the pump.

Listen to Toby Hammond of Futurepump on why he wanted to focus on lower-income economies as a target audience.

Watch how Futurepump’s solar pump helps smallholder farmers.

Atmospheric Water Generation

All air contains at least a little bit of water. On hot, humid days, the air feels thick and uncomfortable because it's saturated with moisture. Water generators, also known as water makers, harvest the moisture suspended in humid air. This can then be condensed and purified into drinkable water. At the moment, this technology produces a limited amount of water, but if it can be developed further, it could provide much-needed drinking water to small and remote communities, particularly in hot places. If water generation can be integrated with renewable energy, it could be even better, circumventing the need for electricity connections and reducing emissions. Some water generation tech is at the early stages of commercialisation, but more work is needed, particularly when it comes to transferring it to other parts of the world.

Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage

The scientific consensus is that 1.5 degrees Celsius over the preindustrial baseline is a ‘safe’ level of warming. But in order to hold the rise in global average temperature at that level, humanity must stabilise the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to around 350 parts per million. In 2017, we breached the 410 parts per million threshold. Put simply, there is already too much CO2 in the atmosphere – which means that reducing emissions is not enough. To keep climate change to a safe level, we also need to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, to mitigate still-rising global carbon emissions - with more on the way from the use of existing fossil fuel infrastructure.

Burying the CO2, or storing it underground, has been the most popular method so far – but there is an issue. Carbon has no immediate economic benefits, so there is little incentive for companies to get better at capturing it. Could other solutions help – more permanent storage solutions such as mineralising CO2? Perhaps turning it into new chemical products? Or reusing it as fuel in a way that does not cause environmental damage?

A rendering of Carbon Engineering’s air contactor design
A rendering of Carbon Engineering’s air contactor design, one of many units which could collectively save 1 million tons of CO2 a year. Carbon Engineering

Consistent with other technologies we discuss here, much of the technology for capturing and storing CO2 has been created in the developed world, and needs to be transferred to countries still in development where it can make a potentially bigger impact in terms of population reached. This poses challenges. Carbon markets are largely a function of government credit schemes, so regions without such measures struggle to fund carbon capture and storage work. But if that initial investment can be found, there is potential for carbon capture to create jobs, bringing economic as well as environmental benefits.

Reforestation Optimisation

We have all seen the shocking images of the Amazon burning. This reflects a global trend: every year, two billion hectares of land is degraded globally, the result of fires and intense deforestation for industry. Although reforestation efforts are underway in some parts of the world to try and stem the damage and replace what has been lost, these efforts are impeded by imperfect data. Replanting efforts are less effective if we don’t know exactly where and what to plant.

Technology, such as drones that monitor forests, could help monitor and accelerate efforts to reforest large areas. Specialised hardware and software could also help establish forest carbon offsets, which can create extra income for small scale farmers once they’ve been trained and equipped with the right data. Most of this technology is already commercially available, but the business models are still evolving.

Biological Carbon Capture

At the moment, carbon capture technology is energy-intensive and expensive. It requires bulky, expensive infrastructure, not to mention vast amounts of land. But there could be simpler solutions. What if the algae that already proliferates in our oceans and rivers could help?

Listen to Kristina Libby of Hypergiant talk about how the Eos Bioreactor works and why they’re interested in carbon capture.

“And so climate change is very personal to our CEO who thinks it is the biggest problem of the coming, you know, century, which I think a lot of people can agree with. And then some people don’t agree with. But we are starting to believe that that is a big coming challenge and that there are ways to solve it. And so he really asked the question, why is it a two sided argument? Why is our approach to climate change only to cut carbon emissions or to plant more trees? Why, why isn’t there sort of a broader conversation here or, or other solutions that can potentially help as we, you know, we know carbon cutting carbon emissions is a slow process. And planting trees is a slow process, right? Plants, trees need time to mature. So are there, are there things we could do in the, in between that give us a better chance of humanity to get to the carbon cutting or it gets the tree growth. And so we did a bunch of research and one of the areas that was really promising is this area around algae bioreactors. And there has been quite a bit of research in academia where this idea - we’re not first people to come up with it - but we looked at it and we found that there were problems with making a bio-reactor something that could be, could live outside of university campuses. So the way a bioreactor works is it grows algae, algae consumes carbon and then it puts off some sort of output, right? In our case, dry disks of algae, dehydrated algae. But that problem - in universities, there were problems about size and scale, so it wasn’t modular. There were problems about continued flow of consumption. So it needs a certain amount of CO2 in order to to breathe appropriately. Right? So it needs about 70% influx of CO2 at any time that definitely makes it less effective. There are issues with light and temperature and ultimately when we looked at that problem, we thought these are all problems we can solve with machine learning and various other types of technology in order to make it much more efficient. And so we were able to build the Eos, which addresses the optimization concerns by modulating light and modulating temperature, CO2 input, all of those things with a remote operating system that’s run by machine learning and potentially artificial intelligence and was able to address things like cleaning and growth through the integration of this advanced technology comparative to what these schools were using. And so what the device does is it’s much smaller than the majority of bioreactors that you see out there and it hooks directly into an HVAC system. So it’s inside a building. It kind of looks like a server and it hooks into the HVAC system because that guarantees a continuous flow of carbon. And then we can use our technology to moderate the growth of the algae so that we can be very consistent in the bio mass output, which is essentially the dehydrated algae. And that, that is, that’s what we did.”

Researchers are exploring the possibility that algae, which is photosynthetic, could be used to replace this complicated and pricey infrastructure. Some research by a company called Hypergiant which leverages Artificial Intelligence across verticals like space, retail and health, even suggests that algae is 400 times as effective at capturing carbon than forests are. This could be a way for nations in development to extract CO2. At the moment though, the only proven benefit to building algae farms is extracting CO2. Research is ongoing to look for other uses for spent algae. Other methods of using natural organisms for carbon capture – including ocean phytoplankton – are also being researched.

One of Hypergiant’s products is the Eos Bioreactor, which uses dehydrated algae disks to sequester carbon more rapidly and efficiently than trees, using data gleaned from machine intelligence.

Watch a demo of the Eos Bioreactor.

CO2 Mineralisation

It is all very well to capture CO2 from the atmosphere – but then what do you do with it? If this captured CO2 is re-used either as a fuel or for other chemical purposes, it might simply result in the same CO2 being re-emitted into the environment. One possible alternative, which is currently at the early stages of commercialisation, is binding CO2 to other minerals. This could make the captured CO2 into a useful solid object, storing it permanently while also making use of it. Through processes like carbonation or calcium carbonate curing, captured CO2 could be used in essential construction materials such as concrete. At the moment, this process is inefficient and costly, and not much value is added to the finished products, so more research and development is needed to make it viable.

CO2 to Chemicals/Fuels

‘Feedstock’ is the raw material that supplies or fuels a machine or industrial process. One suggestion for dealing with vast tranches of captured CO2 is to use a catalyst to turn it into something different altogether. If this works, the CO2 could eventually be processed into different chemicals and fuels, some of which could be worth a lot of money. Creating high-value, expensive products from captured CO2 could bring much needed money into carbon trading markets. These markets usually function because of government incentives, and in countries in development where those government incentives don’t exist, the introduction of genuinely valuable fuels and chemicals could be a game changer. The infrastructure is complicated, and development cycles are long, but ways of making some chemicals and fuels have already been established in the developed world and now need to be transferred.

An aerial view of the Carbon Engineering pilot plant.
An aerial view of the Carbon Engineering pilot plant. Carbon Engineering
Gareth Hughes, Managing Partner, Beetle Capital, who support
            Carbon Engineering in the UK

“There's a lot of misunderstanding about direct air capture. [Comprehensive research] looking at its potential as a response to the climate crisis is going to be very important ahead of the 2020 COP in Glasgow – how direct air capture can help in reducing emissions and what is required by early stage commercial plants, in the same way that offshore wind has been supported.”

Gareth Hughes, Managing Partner, Beetle Capital, who support Carbon Engineering in the UK

Carbon Engineering is one company that has fully demonstrated their Direct Air Capture technology, which extracts CO2 from atmospheric air through a series of chemical reactions faster than plants and trees, in a compressed form that can be reused. They are now looking at commercialising the technology.

Listen to Gareth Hughes of Beetle Capital on why cheap energy is key to being able to install a Carbon Engineering plant, whether in the UK, California, or Middle East.

“CO2 is a global problem. You do not need to put a plant in the middle of an emerging market. You can do it where it's most efficient to do it. It just doesn't matter. The fact is you are extracting CO2 from anywhere – it's out there in the atmosphere. It's not concentrated over Ghana or over Indonesia. You need cheap electricity. If you're going to do the synthetic biofuel, you need a source of hydrogen which could be splitting natural gas. In the UK you've got grid service, good servicing, balancing. But if you're in, let's say, the Middle East and you've got very cheap solar, your cost for energy would be really low. So if you found a market that had very cheap renewable energy, that would be somewhere that you could put one of these plants.”

Low Carbon Energy Generation

For countries in development with unreliable electricity grids, the plague of rolling blackouts or load-shedding not only makes life harder for families, it can be hugely costly for businesses. Clearly, something needs to change. From Egypt to Argentina, Costa Rica to Kenya, Tanzania to Thailand, renewable energy is growing rapidly. Collectively, these countries have over half of the world’s capacity for renewable energy – rich in solar and wind power, geothermal energy and biomass. Developing these energy sources reduces reliance on oil and gas, which in turn means that fragile or growing economies are less vulnerable to price hikes. The downside is that it can be expensive to create the infrastructure needed to develop new systems. This initial investment is often less expensive than expanding fossil fuel systems, but work is needed to bring down the costs of development and maintenance.

Watch a video about how wind power can help create energy for the grid.

For decades, the accepted wisdom was that renewable energy was an expensive luxury, and that fossil fuels were required for economic growth. That perception is changing – in fact, the lack of legacy infrastructure might actually be an opportunity, allowing countries in development to avoid the challenges of updating old technology and go straight to more advanced methods. The global market for renewable energy could expand by 50% in the next five years – with particular growth in hydro, wind and solar power.

As more of the world urbanises, there is a demand for reliable energy in cities. Rural areas need power too – extending electricity grids to isolated areas is expensive, while the diesel generators that function instead are polluting. Renewable technologies that are locally tailored for specific challenges can provide sustainable solutions for both.

David Ainsworth, CEO, Kite Power Systems

It's about trying to halt climate change and actually reduce the use of fossil fuels for power generation. But it's also about making the world a better and more equal place for people who don't have open access to electricity.

David Ainsworth, CEO, Kite Power Systems

Tethered Energy Drones

Wind power is growing in popularity, but still only accounts for around 4% of worldwide electricity. This is partly due to the intermittency problem – wind doesn’t blow all the time. Winds at higher altitudes, above 500m, are stronger and more consistent. Accessing these high altitude winds means bigger, more expensive towers. In the developing world, it can be a challenge to build wind turbines at all. One solution is cable-tethered drones or kites, which act like a miniature turbine to capture high altitude winds and generate electricity.

Scotland-based Kite Power Systems is working in Sub-Saharan Africa to produce tethered energy drones, as the infrastructure for traditional wind turbines is lacking. Drones use between 1% and 10% of the materials needed for a full turbine, costing less than wind turbines and potentially less than diesel power. At the moment, this technology is in pilot phase, and needs financing for proof-of-concept, as well as contacts leading to partnerships in countries in development.

Listen to David Ainsworth of Kite Power Systems talk about the people who can benefit from their technology in Malawi.

“There's a tea plantation owner in Malawi. The tea plantation is in Satemwa and it's an old English plantation. They have a community they support – about 2000 people that work on the tea plantation, the tea processing. They have schools, hospitals and everything. It's a very large community. Irrigation is a constant issue there. It's a very successful plantation, but the guy there is screaming out for renewable energy solutions that can both benefit the community but benefit the economy of the farm. The kite power system would be ideal for his location.”

AI Grid Optimisation

The addition of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power to electricity grids has complicated the way they are managed. When it comes to countries in development, where certain areas are off-grid or operating on micro-grids, this is even more complex. Systems are made up of components from different manufacturers, making it almost impossible to monitor them centrally. As new technologies are introduced, operators must constantly adjust the way they maintain and manage different energy sources.

It is a huge challenge. But machine learning could help to predict when and where electricity will be needed, thereby managing the load and making energy more reliable. Remote diagnostic towers can reduce maintenance costs and make micro-grids more consistent. Many of these technologies already exist, but have been designed for the kind of top-down market more common in more mature markets; to work in the developing market, local engagement is crucial.

DC Mesh Networks

Afnan Hannan, Co-Founder & CEO, Okrasolar

We help energy companies make a business case. We're not disrupting utilities in emerging markets. We're not becoming a utility. We help those utilities make a business case of getting energy access to the last mile.

Afnan Hannan, Co-Founder & CEO, Okrasolar

Many governments have pledged to bring electricity to every area of their country. But extending electricity grids is a challenge. In many countries in development, remote communities rely on microgrids – small-scale power grids. Running these grids off solar energy and connecting them to each other could be a low cost way of bringing sustainable energy to places that needed it. The connections between different microgrids – between households, or between villages – could bring a continuous power supply to underserved areas, and distribute power fairly between communities. Okrasolar is currently working in Cambodia and the Philippines, using software to connect different at-home solar power systems. The company has just signed a deal to supply 40,000 people with power.

Watch how Okrasolar’s Distributed Solar Energy Sharing is making a difference to communities around the world.

Mesh networking can create decentralised energy embedded in the communities that need it. The precise technology required includes wireless base stations, smart metres, and software that manages and automates the process. Much of this already exists. But to become commercially viable, the performance of such networks need to be improved, and partnerships must be sought with local utility providers.

Listen to Afnan Hannan of Okrasolar talk about how utility companies can benefit from their Internet of Things-enabled technology and employ local labour in the process.

“It shows them how much power the house is using. So that’s how much they should be billed for. And it also shows them if any household has an issue for example, a fuse might be blown, a battery might be damaged, your panel might be shaded and then the energy utility gets an automatic notification. And rather than having to go all the way out to an Island that might take hours on a boat, burning a lot of diesel fuel they can actually just call someone in the community and tell them, Hey panel 14 is actually shaded because the data says so. Or can you replace a fuse on this controller? Or actually can you take some of the batteries out of the storage and add it into the modular network for more capacity because that’s what the analytics is showing. So it enables them to really operate a network, ah, quite remotely while leveraging or utilising the local labor force a lot more.”

Renewable Soft Cost Optimisation

The cost of hardware for renewable projects has reduced significantly and quickly. But soft costs – designing, financing, installing systems – are not reducing at the same rate. In the US, these soft costs now make up 40-60% of the price of residential solar systems. Good product design platforms can bring these costs down drastically, such as Aurora Solar. Currently working primarily in the US, they can amongst other things use utility data from houses to model the impact of solar energy over time.

Learn how Aurora Solar’s cloud-based software helps Black & Veatch, an engineering firm in the US, design and sell solar projects.

In theory, this model could be applied to countries still in development. One problem is access to detailed data – regulations around data vary between countries, as does the level of record-keeping. The renewables industry is still working out how their work can be made more efficient. But there is big potential here – to reduce costs for providers and consumers, and to help local providers of renewable energy forecast prices and plan in areas where they don’t yet work.

Christopher Hopper, CEO & Co-Founder, Aurora Solar

Through our painstaking experience remotely designing a photovoltaic system for a school in Nairobi, Kenya, it became clear to us that a software like Aurora is absolutely necessary for the scalable deployment of solar energy across the globe."

Christopher Hopper, CEO & Co-Founder, Aurora Solar

Circular Economy

Societies around the world make, use and dispose of items in a linear way. Clearly, in an era of unprecedented waste, with pollution overwhelming swathes of land and ocean, this is not working. Recent campaigns against fast fashion and single-use plastics make it clear that there is a demand for something different. Yet the most devastating step of the linear process – disposal – most often happens far away from mature economies, with waste being dumped in countries that are poorly equipped to deal with it. This not only threatens the ecosystem, but human lives too.

A circular economy aims to redefine growth, gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. This means the use of renewable energy in the manufacturing process, truly effective recycling to keep products in use, and the regeneration of natural systems. There is no one size fits all approach.

The exact nature of the problem varies greatly between countries. The circular economy could mean the chemical or organic degradation of plastics – or the use of bioplastics which can degrade over time. It could take the form of textile recycling which makes discarded clothes into entirely new fabrics. It could mean better tracking of supply chains to reduce asset loss and fuel consumption.

A look at how Infinited Fiber creates clothes from recycled textiles to help reduce waste.

There is a big opportunity here. Transitioning to a circular economy model could bring global growth of up to $4.5 trillion. Action from the development sector – in providing subsidies, education programmes, skills training and connections between corporates and utilities – is crucial in making that happen.

Textiles to Textiles

What happens to the unwanted clothes you discard? Large volumes of clothes are transported to the countries in development, where they go into landfill. But there is another way. The chemical breakdown of old fibres into new materials can make old fabric into new, producing thread that rivals normal cotton, but without the air and water pollution involved in the usual process for growing cotton. In fact, waste from the production of other materials, like rice, can also be put to good use: for example, rice straws can also be repurposed in apparel. This not only gets rid of landfill, but can provide a real business benefit – many of the countries where textiles are dumped, like India and China, are also big producers of textiles, so there is a readymade market for this tech. Infinited Fiber has already consulted with 10 big brands about integrating their recycled fibres into clothes, and are in discussions with manufacturers in India and China.

Models wearing clothes made using Infinited Fiber’s recycled material
Models wearing clothes made using Infinited Fiber’s recycled material. Infinited Fiber
Magdalena Banasiak, Senior Innovation Advisor, DFID

Look at India – even though they grow rice in big quantities how are they utilising the rice straws? They are just burning it. The pollution from burning the rice straws is tremendous.

Petri Alava, CEO & Head of Ecosystem, Infinited Fiber

Listen to Petri Alava of Infinited Fiber talk about why big brands are moving to become more sustainable.

“When I started building the company in 2015, there were a couple of frontrunners, like H & M, Adidas and Ikea who were very keen on sustainability and had already at that time very clear sustainability targets by themselves. But now if you look at the development during the last few years, basically everybody, all the big players, have been setting very challenging sustainability targets. So I would say they’re changing partially by the regulation and then partially by the industrial textile industry itself.”

Fungal Plastic Decomposition

Plastics are overflowing in nature and threatening ecosystems. We know this is a problem, but there is no easy solution. One exciting new discovery is fungi that can breakdown plastics. This could allow the localised decomposition of plastics within countries in development, with very little environmental impact. This process could theoretically work in the oceans, in landfill, and in private homes. It might even allow plastics to be turned into food or fuel.

Although 50 species of plastic-eating fungi have been discovered, the technology hasn’t been commercialised yet. More research is needed to see how long it takes to break down plastics – and to properly understand the ecological impact of using these fungi. This is just one example of new methods to repurpose or degrade waste.

Waste To Energy

Globally, we have a problem with waste – as is evidenced by heaving landfill sites, many of which are in countries in development. One problem is that a lot of waste is difficult to recycle and ends up being burnt, which causes soil, water and air pollution. This has serious implications for human health. A solution might be the molecular breakdown of waste using heat and pressure. This process turns the rubbish into fuel – specifically fuel like syngas and ash, or non-leaching stone. Not only does this turn discarded rubbish into a valuable product, it also prevents the harmful gases that come from burning waste. This technology exists already and is in the early stages of being commercialised in the developed world. At the moment, it is expensive, requiring a big initial investment as well as ongoing maintenance – but it could have a huge impact.

Data Analysis and Control

We associate computer technology with the places where most innovation happens – Silicon Valley, Berlin, London, New York. But the cost of computational power is decreasing, and as electronics become smaller, cheaper and more widespread, they are more accessible to the developing world. Invisible computational systems can revolutionise all manner of industries, even in countries where electricity connections are unreliable. And the rapid growth of mobile technology has connected off-grid communities across Africa and Asia, opening up new opportunities.

Innovators are still figuring out how machine learning and quantum computing can be targeted to help solve climate problems. But in today’s world, technology means we have access to more data than ever before – sometimes more than companies or governments know what to do with. The use of data might be more dominant in more developed, high tech economies, but computer systems and data collection are increasingly available in the less-developed world too. And that means the opportunity to do something with that data.

Hypergiant aims to change the future through the use of technology today.

To effectively tackle climate change and its impacts through tech, people in the places that need these technological solutions must have access to them. Knowledge sharing is essential. People working in tech don’t know what they don’t know – someone sitting in Silicon Valley might not be best placed to come up with a tech solution for rural Tanzania. This can be solved by supporting accelerators, incubators, and competitions locally to encourage home-grown ideas about how best to apply tech to each environment.

Machine Learning

Machine learning refers to systems that can automatically learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed – accessing data and learning to use it themselves. When it comes to climate change, machine learning can help on both mitigation and adaptation sides. It could help to distribute and manage energy more effectively across different areas through modelling and forecasting. For agriculture in a controlled environment, machine learning could help to create the best possible growing conditions – adjusting light exposure or water delivery. It could improve the way cities are planned and run, for instance working out when and where public transport is most needed, or when certain roads are busiest. Hyperlocal weather forecasting could also help individual villages or farmers plan for extreme weather events.

An advertisement for Hypergiant in New York
An advertisement for Hypergiant in New York. Hypergiant

Machine learning can also help first responders and government identify heavily damaged sites after a natural disaster. Hypergiant have recently released an an open-sourced AI model that uses satellite imaging for this purpose. They have made it and several other AI projects available on a platform called Modzy , built by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

Automation

From factories to phone networks, steering vehicles to controlling temperatures, automation is already revolutionising the way we live. Part of the point of gathering and processing data is to get insights that can then inform action. In automation, those actions are not carried out by people, but are passed along to control units that can execute predefined instructions. Automation is, in theory, more efficient, and it also reduces overall costs. It could have numerous applications that might help to reduce emissions and waste. In agriculture, in-ground sensors could detect water levels and relay the information to water delivery systems, thus automating irrigation management. Driverless cars could revolutionise transport and logistics. Robots could allow the 3D printing of bricks for buildings. The possibilities are endless.

How Funders Can Help

Around the world, technological solutions to some of our most vexing environmental problems are in development – from decarbonising industry, to repurposing waste. In some cases, these solutions are already being used in the developed world, but need to be transferred to the contexts that need them most. In others, the technology simply needs to be supported to grow its area of operation. Others still remain at a nascent stage of research and development, and need support to become viable.

There are many ways in which an organisation like the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) can support the development and application of these new technologies. The first, and perhaps most obvious way of helping is to provide funding to help technologies progress from the early stages of development to the point where they can start to grow. DfID already supports funding mechanisms like the African Enterprise Challenge Fund; continuing and expanding this kind of support is vital to encouraging technological innovation in countries in development.

But there are many other ways of helping too. Some companies are eager to apply their tech to the developing world, but do not know where to start – they might lack contacts, or the specific regional knowledge to identify the best target markets, or particular awareness of the challenges of operating in a developing market context. Organisations like DfID could help the transfer of technology by providing technical and regulatory advice on local conditions, advising on the best ways to break into developing markets. It could also provide networking opportunities between international creators of technology and stakeholders in countries in development.

Clean technology is here. Now we just need to make sure it reaches the places that need it the most.

Magdalena Banasiak, Senior Innovation Advisor, DFID

It's a combination of technology innovation and business model innovation – you need them both. Where philanthropic and grant capital goes best is proving out some of these business models, being willing to take risks, and then being able to leverage that into scaleable solutions.

Magdalena Banasiak, Senior Innovation Advisor, DFID