Can The Internet Of Things Save The Planet?

Only governments can fix the problem of global warming, right?

The massive change in behaviour that we need across the board is only going to happen because governments mandate it. Businesses and individuals will accept this and do what they are told, or will be incentivised to do so. I guess that’s how we tend to think it will play out.

Governments certainly like big but simple policy decisions. If you take the UK’s approach to sustainable power generation for example, we had a couple of decades of not doing very much (one could charitably say ‘exploring the options’), and then we decided to bet the farm on offshore wind power and nuclear.  

To be effective, the government has to have simple levers of control. And clearly, in the power generation space, it has. For massive, single-minded challenges such as, say, putting a man on the moon, or creating practical nuclear fusion, governments are well set up to intervene. However, I am disinclined to believe that the global warming challenge is something that governments can fix. The scale of the problem is certainly right, but global warming is way too messy and complex and is devoid of silver bullet solutions. Fundamentally, we need to change the behaviour of the six billion people who inhabit the Earth; or at least influence that proportion of the global population whose consumption is generating most of the climate change.

The other day I was discussing one of those ‘black box’ apps that are designed to improve young driver behaviour. They are very simple in principle, processing data from a few simple sensors, but delivering a great impact. At the top level, they score overall behaviour as Bronze, Silver or Gold, but with the ability to look at trends or drill down to answer questions about a specific journey: “why was the score on Tuesday so bad?”

The precision of the information provided is just what is needed by the driver to adapt his or her behaviour, thereby achieving the low insurance premiums that provide the principal motivation. But secondary motivations come into play, such as getting a better score than a sibling or friend that have the same device. Such competition between users is something that Fitbit has exploited to great effect to get people to exercise more.

Measuring personal impact

Therefore, I started wondering how impactful a personal global warming app might be. Not one that relied on a lot of hand-waving estimates and assumptions, but one that had access to enough data to figure out what impact I’d had on the planet today. Could that be credible?

Let’s start by looking at the major contributors to global warming. According to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, the top five are energy supply, industry, forestry, agriculture and transport in that order (see chart). So, what would I need to assess my energy supply impact today? Well, it is a bit complicated, as you might expect: the energy used to make stuff is included in industry, energy used to heat and light buildings is in residential and commercial buildings and energy used to power vehicles in transport. For argument’s sake, let’s say a clever algorithm is looking after the calculations, so what do we need to know about my activities during the day?


This list would be a good start: how much energy my personal devices use, my share of any non-personal energy used in heating, lighting and powering my home, and who is the supplier of this energy (and their generation credentials). The same could be applied to the office: what food and drink I consumed, whether it was cooked or bought, how much global warming resulted from its production or shipment around the world, how far I drove, in what type of car, when and in what traffic conditions, if I caught a train or bus, which one, how far I travelled, how much water I used in kitchens and bathrooms, what I have thrown away in my green, blue or black bin, what I have purchased, and so on.

Let’s assume that if I buy an apple, for example, we can calculate through the supply chain its cost to the planet, which doesn’t seem unreasonable. Or if I get on a train, that we can attribute a proportion of the environmental cost of that journey to me. We’re going to have to make an executive decision here that I only ‘pay’ for one passenger unit of that journey cost, whether the train is full or half empty. Let’s assume the train operator has a similar app. They incur a big cost whenever they run a train, but get a credit for every passenger who boards, transferring the environmental cost to them. The operator has a new incentive to try to fill every train.

Following the carbon footprints

Another decision is required on how to deal with purchases. If I buy a bag of apples, I can ‘pay’ for it now or when I eat it, over the next few days. I suggest the latter makes more sense. But if I buy a car, the environmental cost impact of its design and manufacture is going to have to be spread over a long period of time. But for how long? I’ll leave that to the environmental accountants, but it’s just going to be a formula at the end of the day.

So what we need are some connected sensors to pull in all these aspects of my behaviour, which is where the IoT comes in. On the list of must-haves are energy monitors on all powered equipment, water usage monitors, sensors to detect boarding and leaving public transport, a black box in my car (and a means of detecting occupancy so I can divide the environmental cost among the other passengers), sensors in my fridge and kitchen cupboards to check off when I am using food items (with a way of allocating them to me or to the family), sensors on waste and recycling bins to monitor what is being put in, and finally, at the cash till, a means to transfer to my device the relevant information from my purchases.

None of this sounds like rocket science. Let’s take one of the harder ones – tracking my eating habits. Say I make a cheese sandwich for lunch. A combination of cameras and mass sensors ought to get most of the way to checking out from the fridge inventory a couple of slices of bread and a lump of cheese. Add a Bluetooth connection, and this data can be sent to the home IoT hub. If I’m making sandwiches for two people, I’ll need a way of identifying who the other one is for and charging it to their environmental tab: a button on the fridge door, perhaps, or a contactless swipe of their phone?

The appliance manufacturers are already filling their high end products with sensors, connectivity and processing power. Though, overall, the outcome is the pointless features you tend to get when technology is looking for a problem to solve. If designers deployed the same kind of technology to provide features supporting this sort of environmental accountability, then they could deliver product features with a genuine purpose.

With a combination of back end data on the environmental cost of basic products and services, the IoT devices described and a suitable app, I could have immediate feedback on the affects of my behaviour on the planet, thus answering the question “what impact have I had today?” I could monitor my behaviour and compare it to recommendations or targets from governments or environmental groups. I could even compete with friends or family for low impact scores, or experiment with ‘what if’ scenarios before deciding how to get from A to B. And, if a good proportion of the two billion smartphone users had access to such an app, we could all just get on with saving the planet… Instead of waiting for our governments to act.

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