Mark Schwartz is the Chief Digital Officer at Trimble, responsible for transforming the company’s systems, processes and infrastructure.
Sustainability is no longer just a buzzword, but an environmental, economic and social driver that’s changing our day-to-day lives in almost every way imaginable. This is obvious throughout the business community, in which committing to sustainable practices is no longer a “nice to have” but a “must do” as the negative impacts of climate change become more obvious and ominous, with the potential to alter everything from supply chains to profitability.
Businesses in industrial sectors like manufacturing, transportation, agriculture and construction — industries that define where we work and play, what we eat and how goods and services are transported — are heeding the call. Although industrial businesses play a major role in our lives, their adverse environmental impact is substantial. To truly minimize the harmful impacts that result from them, we must have a solid understanding of the scope of the problem at hand. Although this can be difficult to quantify, understanding these baselines is critical for new goals to be established, let alone reached or exceeded.
Although the solution to this global problem is complex, multifaceted and will unfold for generations to come, what’s certain is that technology will play a pivotal role. Although it’s not a panacea, technology has the power to increase productivity, efficiency and cost savings, reduce product waste, chemicals and resources and measure, analyze and track progress, all of which can help minimize the impact on the environment.
Below is a broad look at three major industries that I’ve had significant experience with. For each, I’ve provided a snapshot of some of their environmental impacts and how technology is helping them find a more sustainable way forward.
Buildings And Infrastructureuildings and infrastructure are the fabric of our society, enabling us to assemble in schools, seek care in hospitals and pick up groceries at the corner market. We can’t exist without them, yet according to research results from the World Green Building Council, buildings account for 39% of global carbon emissions. The majority — 28% — is caused by operational carbon, which results from operating a building once it’s built and includes things like heating, cooling and lighting. The remaining 11% is used to produce the building and its construction materials.
As the world’s population continues to increase, this number will be compounded as cities, states and countries seek to grow their economies by building out infrastructure designed to help their citizens progress. However, technology that’s on the market today can help drastically reduce the environmental impact of building and infrastructure construction. Early design processes, the continued adoption of building information modeling (BIM) and the proliferation of technologies like mixed and augmented reality that let project owners visualize their projects before they’re actually built can all help reduce rework, material use, fuel and other resources and overall energy consumption.
AgricultureEveryone must eat, which makes agriculture the world’s largest industry according to the World Wildlife Fund, with pasture and cropland comprising roughly 50% of Earth’s habitable land. This also makes it one of the leading sources of pollution in many countries, as farmers consume roughly 70% of the planet’s freshwater and use farming practices that contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions — from burning fields and clearing forest land to using a large number of pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals to increase agricultural yields. According to the results of the EPA’s national inventory, farming accounts for roughly 10% of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions, and findings from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that roughly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from livestock alone.
But technology can help here, too. Precision application equipment, for example, can reduce the amount of water and chemicals needed to operate today’s farms, and advanced technologies like robots, drones and various types of sensors can all help agricultural businesses become more environmentally friendly. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the environmental benefits of technology in agriculture include a reduced impact on natural ecosystems and less runoff of chemicals into rivers and groundwater, as well as safer growing conditions and safer food.
TransportationTransportation is the cornerstone of commerce, creating a connected supply chain that moves goods across the nation and the world using short- and long-haul carriers, trains, ships and airplanes. Although necessary, transportation burns an enormous amount of fossil fuels, largely from the combustion of petroleum-based fuels like gasoline and diesel, causing the industry to account for 29% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. This makes it one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, increasing more in absolute terms than any other sector between 1990 and 2018.
The environmental impacts of transportation are expected to increase as the demand for travel rises, which is influenced by a confluence of factors including population and economic growth, urban sprawl and low fuel prices. But just as the transportation sector’s environmental impact is substantial, so, too, is its opportunity to improve. The role technological advancements can play here is vast, ranging from a more sophisticated electric vehicle infrastructure to tools for improved fleet maintenance, fuel efficiency and routing to the mainstream use of autonomous vehicles.
Although these numbers may be daunting, there are a wide variety of innovative solutions being brought forth by companies across the globe that are committed to ensuring that our planet can thrive for generations to come. Unlocking the solution to industrialization’s impact on the environment won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But it can be done, and technology is undoubtedly part of the solution.