There are now more connected devices in the world than there are people. Recent data collected by analyst firm Gartner revealed that in 2017, there were around 8.4 billion devices connected to the internet, and it is estimated that this number grew to 20.4 billion in 2020.
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The use of digital devices is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. However, recent research has shown that the Internet of Things (IoT) can streamline processes, reduce energy consumption, and, therefore, reduce emissions. As a result, the development of the IoT does not have to worsen climate change; it can, in fact, mitigate it.
The IoT and Sustainability
Recent figures estimate that the global IoT market will grow to $1,854.76 billion by 2028 from 2021's market value of $381.30 billion, representing a CAGR of 25.4% over the forecast period.
Currently, digital services account for roughly 2% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The sector is only second to the aviation industry in terms of the speed of growth of its emissions. This is concerning given the rapidly rising demand for connected devices given the growing population and digital revolution.
All industries must focus on reducing their carbon footprint and becoming carbon neutral by 2030. Industries that are currently increasing their emissions look set to fail this target and jeopardize the world's chances of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, put in place to protect the planet from the detrimental and irreversible effects of climate change.
The growing use and demand for data centers to power what many consider everyday necessities, such as accessing and using social media, streaming music and videos, and cloud computing, simultaneously generates a lot of heat from the servers and increases energy demands. It seems that the fourth technological revolution, which is already in full swing, is synonymous with increasing energy use and emissions.
How mass IoT solves the Intrinsic Sustainability Equation | Loic Barancourt | TEDxBlighStreet
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However, a recent report by the World Economic Forum believes that the opposite is true. Here, it is predicted that IoT projects will be fundamental to helping the world meet the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development set by the United Nations (UN).
Because one major benefit and driver of the IoT is that it can integrate multiple sensors into various applications, allowing for real-time data collection and analysis, systems can be optimized to reach higher efficiency levels while using significantly less energy.
Smart farming is an example of this: sensors can intelligently monitor moisture levels so that crops are only watered when they need it, resulting in significant reductions in energy use and water waste, two factors contributing to global warming. Another is smart buildings, where sensors are used to reduce energy wastage to power heating and cooling systems.
The success of sensor systems in fostering energy efficiency has been demonstrated by the Fraunhofer flagship project ZEWOPEL. The project's results showed that the IoT has the potential to reduce the carbon emissions of Germany by up to 20%. When considering the impact on the entire world, this reduction may be even more significant.
The project demonstrates how sensors and their associated algorithms and connected networks are vital to creating sustainable systems with optimized energy usage and maximized outputs.
The ZEWOPEL platform was set up following years of research and development into multiple factors, including integrated sensors, signal processing, energy harvesting, data storage technologies, and wireless communication between IoT devices. The platform optimizes all these key factors, resulting in a sustainable system that reduces connected devices' energy consumption, helping industries reduce their carbon footprint and work towards climate change goals.
The project was tested in two different scenarios where integration of the IoT has become commonplace: smart cities and smart fabrication. In smart cities, sensors are used to monitor factors such as air quality with high levels of efficiency. IoT devices form the backbone of the connected production system in smart factories where the machinery of all types is monitored and operated automatically, reducing overall energy consumption.
The Future for Internet of Things and Sustainability
IoT defies assumptions that increasing the use of digital devices will inevitably result in increased emissions. The ZEWOPEL acts as an example of how sensors can reliably and significantly reduce emissions via the integration of sensors and the intelligent analysis of the real-time data they collect. Almost all industries could benefit from adopting similar IoT platforms, with agriculture and manufacturing sectors standing out as those with currently the most to gain.
Likely, IoT sensor systems will soon become a key tool to helping fight climate change. As more IoT platforms are implemented across industries, we may learn how to enhance IoT systems to further reduce emissions and help the world meet global climate change goals.
Continue reading: What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?
BBVA. (2019) The Internet of things and its impact on sustainability. [Online]. Available at: https://www.bbva.com/en/sustainability/the-internet-of-things-and-its-impact-on-sustainability
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Fraunhofer-Institut für Zuverlässigkeit und Mikrointegration (IZM) (2021) Greening the Internet of Things. [Online]. Chem Europe. Available at: https://www.chemeurope.com/en/news/1172866/greening-the-internet-of-things.html
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