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The role of engineering and technology in addressing climate change and Covid-19

We find ourselves in the middle of unprecedented crises that are bound to shape how we do things and the future of the planet. One crisis being the Covid-19 pandemic, and the other, climate change.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020, we have experienced extreme pressure on healthcare systems, which led to a significant loss of life and plunge in the global economy, primarily affecting vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals.

Meanwhile, the ongoing issue with climate change has compounded the problem, with rising sea levels, famine, drought, and critical water sources drying up. These have further deepened the gulf between high-income and low-income people.

According to the 2020 Lancet Countdown report on health and climate change, the world needs to present a united front to successfully solve the challenges caused by Covid-19 and climate change.

This therefore leads to the question, what is the unique role of engineering and technology in tackling these issues?

Over the years, we have seen the importance of technology as an innovative approach to quantifying the changes in the environment and monitoring those changes over time.

That includes satellite-based surveillance systems and climate models, which have offered a basis to understand and manage how climate change impacts worldwide health.

These can be seen in how we can now easily monitor air quality in near real-time using a combination of sensor technology and computational modelling.

Also, data generated on an individual level through wearables or on a large scale – for example, the London Air Quality Network – can be employed to monitor and forecast air pollution levels.

Additionally, the data can be leveraged to develop an early warning system for populations vulnerable to high pollution levels.

Why is monitoring air pollution crucial? Numerous scientific studies reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed that higher exposure to the air-borne pollutant PM2·5 is historically linked to poor respiratory and cardiovascular systems, contributing to the severity of Covid-19.

Air quality is not the only factor we need to monitor closely. Understanding the impact of meteorology on Covid-19 could help predict seasonal trends in the transmission of the virus.

“Since SARS-CoV-2 has emerged only recently as a human pathogen, there is still uncertainty as to whether its transmission will vary seasonally in different parts of the world,” says Associate Professor Rachel Lowe from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“If modelling studies reveal sufficient evidence that seasonality in Covid-19 transmission is linked to meteorological variables like temperature and humidity, weather forecasts could be used to provide early warnings of increased risk and support response strategies.”

Technology can help in reducing the carbon footprint of healthcare systems, hence, easing the health effects of climate change.

In 2017, NHS Digital set targets to reduce its impact on the environment and become a sustainable organisation.

Its Sustainability Annual Report, 2019–2020, revealed that NHS Digital achieved 44% carbon reduction compared to its baseline year of 2013/14.

This progress can be attributed to Covid-19 that made it necessary for the organisation to cut non-essential travels and switch to remote operations using tools such as the algorithm-based triage system NHS Pathways.

Supporting the significance of technology on climate change, Nick Watts, NHS Chief Sustainability Officer, says,

“In 2020 the NHS published the Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service report detailing the ambition to become the first Net Zero health system.

The report recognizes digital transformation is key to delivering low carbon models of care. Developed in close coordination with NHS Digital, the arrival of the strategy will require refreshed ambition and focus as the system moves more squarely into delivery.”

These reveal the potential capability of artificial intelligence (AI), big data, and machine learning in developing diagnostic tools and more efficient systems for dealing with Covid-19 and climate change issues.

However, the negative impact of these technological innovations on the environment cannot be ignored. AI is energy-intensive; the data storage and machine learning algorithms involved generate significant carbon emissions.

Next steps

The negative impact of AI on the environment has led to a public call for green AI that employs less energy-intensive hardware and full transparency on the energy consumption and carbon emissions of these technological innovations.

It is now more important than ever for energy efficiency and carbon emissions to take centre stage as we experience increased data-driven methods and the range of available digital services.

Evidently, when carefully employed, technology could be critical to solving the challenges presented by climate change and Covid-19.

It can equip us with essential real-time information on environmental conditions, help detect links between these conditions and the severity of diseases and play a role in building sustainable healthcare systems.

However, to successfully harness the potentials of technology in dealing with these dual crises, the engineering, scientific and research community must take more carbon-friendly and transparent approaches.