Bill Gates, Jack Ma, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and other leaders in
the fields of technology, research and investing have formed Breakthrough Energy Coalition
to supercharge clean-energy innovation. These industry leaders vow to spur a new level of public-private partnerships that invest early in projects, with the potential for affordable, reliable energy that produces near-zero carbon emissions. Imagine an energy revolution taking place at the speed of social media or with an adoption rate as fast as that of the smart phone.
The energy sector will continue to transform and diversify energy
sources to increase choices, reliability and security while reducing
greenhouse gas emissions and providing additional transparency to
consumers about energy costs.
But not all of the innovative action of this new revolution centers on
energy. The fourth revolution—and its nexus in addressing climate
change—is driving changes in finance, insurance, city services,
building design, risk management and more.
The insurance industry is incorporating natural infrastructure in its
risk modeling and spurring new investments in nature-based solutions to
help reduce risks to storms, erosion, flooding and other threats.
Cities are using nature to help clean the air, handle storm water, cool temperatures and supply drinking water.
Planners, developers and infrastructure providers are expanding the use of nature-based solutions to enhance urban and coastal resilience.
And some of the largest innovations are not technological, but instead
institutional. New arrangements like "green performance contracts" can
improve economic, environmental and energy performance. Consider the
example of raw potatoes supplied to potato chip manufacturers. A study
of the carbon footprint of potato chips, summarized by PwC, revealed that prices were set by weight. Responding to the price
signal, farmers controlled humidification to produce moister (and thus
heavier) potatoes. Despite strict moisture-content specifications set by
chip manufacturers, farmers still added a few extra grams of water
weight per potato, which increased the price paid for the raw potatoes,
but added no value to the final product. The total additional weight was
significant, and it took extra cooking to burn off the extra moisture.
In a life-cycle analysis of the potato chip carbon footprint, this extra cooking turned out to account for an unexpectedly high percentage of the chips' energy consumption. The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and energy from this extra cooking actually dwarfed those from transportation of the potatoes to the factory.
The solution to this challenge was straightforward: change the procurement contract to provide farmers with an incentive to produce potatoes with less moisture without compromising product quality.
Other energy-performance contracts are emerging among builders and governments, providing customers with comprehensive measures that improve energy efficiency, expand use of renewable energy and use distributed electricity generation. Often these services are accompanied by guarantees that savings produced by a project will cover the full project cost.
As I see the unfolding of this Fourth Industrial Revolution, I am reminded of the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson: "The Earth is so huge, and yet so bounded." The world sees growing demands for energy, food, water and other resources as populations grow and incomes rise, putting pressure on finite resources. But the good news is that humanity's imagination is unbounded and therein lies hope for a healthy and prosperous future.
Combining knowledge in information technologies, chemistry, nanotechnology and more with solutions drawn from nature is helping to reduce waste, use resources with greater precision, and link economic opportunity and environmental benefits.