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newsroom: We won’t get a ‘freedom day’ from climate crisis without technology

Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is the managing director of urban technology business Serviceworks, a member of NZTech, New Zealand’s largest technology association

Technology has allowed us to ease out of Covid crisis restrictions, and will be crucial to ever gaining the upper hand over the other big crisis, climate change, says Mark Thomas

As freedom reigns in Auckland, reflecting a gaining of control of the crisis of the moment, Covid-19, we need to get back to applying ourselves much more to breaking out from the crisis of the age: climate change.

Technology has been an essential element in both helping Kiwis survive the Covid-induced constraints but also in managing its impacts better through new scanning, social distance monitoring and even transport management.

Yet we have consumed 642 million CO2 tonnes more than we should have on our climate change menu. Technology can help reset the diet.

Consultation has just finished on the government’s Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) which, when it is published in May 2022, will proscribe the direction for New Zealand to gain more climate freedom.

But for this to be achieved, we will need a technology roadmap running alongside the final ERP route. This will help us make much greater progress deploying existing or near-term climate technology solutions.

Importantly, it will also be need to strengthen New Zealand’s innovation, research and development pipeline to explore, test and commercialise future climate solutions.

New Zealand has world-leading technology expertise in areas as diverse as movie-making, rockets and yachting. This is also growing in energy, transport and also agriculture but as a country we have yet to develop this tech capability to make a New Zealand-wide impact.

In the Bloomberg Innovation Index 2021 on how technologically advanced countries are, New Zealand was mid-ranked at 25th.  Almost all comparable small economies were in the top 10: Singapore (2nd), Switzerland (3rd), Sweden (5th), Denmark (6th), Israel (7th), Finland (8th) and Netherlands (9th).

Our Climate Change Commission says we have all the technology we need to meet the emissions goals it recommends. If that’s true, we’re obviously not doing the best job we can in utilising it.

The UK Climate Change Committee, their version of our Commission, set a better example. In their first report in 2010, which today we would see as technology roadmap, it said the UK government should outline a climate technology strategy because the case for technology action on climate change was strong. It went on to say that with sufficient funding, new policies and ways of operating, UK enterprises should be able to take the lead in developing important new emissions reductions technologies.

And so it came to pass. The UK government introduced new rules to ensure competitive technology markets are in place, it revised its regulatory approach and funded the development of technology both from fundamental research to pre-commercial trials. UK carbon emissions have fallen faster than any other major developed country and it is now a world leader in climate change technology.

In 2013, the Technology Executive Committee of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recommended countries prioritise technology, including the adoption of Technology Roadmaps, to advance climate change mitigation and adaption

They evaluated 190 existing Technology Roadmaps across 21 countries. New Zealand did not feature, except in an Australian-led study on an aviation technology fuel roadmap. The study showed technology roadmaps boost the development of technology activity by showing trends, objectives and actions in a structured way, and the approach for developing them also usually helps build strong consensus and can reduce less valuable investment.

The strategic use of technology has been a key contributor in Denmark, Finland, Ireland and Switzerland all of whom have reduced their GHG emissions by at least 10 percent since 2000. New Zealand’s emissions climbed 7 percent over the same period.

Denmark prioritised four technology levers across its carbon-intensive industries: energy efficiency, electrification, a shift to green mobility and biogas.

Technology roadmaps have been used within industries, particularly focusing on the harder-to-abate sectors. Allied to this has been public policy mechanisms, including incentives to bring these programmes to a market-competitive standard.

Sweden was the highest ranked country in the European Union’s Annual Climate Change Performance Index 2020. The national roadmap it produced, implementing the European Environmental Technologies Action Plan, focused on cataloguing all existing technologies in an accessible database, linking technology investments to climate performance targets and developing new financial tools to risk-share in environmental technologies.

It had an added benefit of boosting the contribution environmental technology makes to the Swedish economy and increasing the export of environmental technologies.

In priority areas for New Zealand such as agriculture, a technology roadmap approach could include the treatment of urine patches including nitrification inhibitors. Published results are showing 90 percent reductions in nitrous oxide. Other options include methane vaccines for ruminants and methanogen inhibiting food supplements

In energy, developing and implementing smart EV charger regulations would minimise the impact to electricity network peaks and therefore cost to consumer. Expanded digital platform use would help optimise the energy system and obtain more affordable electrification.

In transport, we could follow Finland and develop policy tools to encourage technology use to deliver a more service-based transport system. Using the Mobility as Service (MaaS) approach we could create an easy-to-use platform where citizens can readily access and pay for all the ways you can travel around a city in one place including those which promote less carbon-intensive modes.

The Roadmap for Buildings and Construction produced for the Global Alliance for Buildings highlights other opportunities to reduce emissions in building, construction, waste and other areas.

recent PWC study concluded that, despite powerful new technologies such as AI, the cloud, blockchain and advanced sensors enabling emissions reductions solutions, the overall levels of investment and innovation in climate technology have been inadequate to deliver the net zero transformation the world has signed up to.

Combined Microsoft and PWC analysis indicates AI alone could, by 2030, reduce global emissions by the equivalent of that produced by Australia, Canada and Japan.

But we will need a technology roadmap to show us how to get to our equivalent of a Climate Freedom Day.

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