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Your smartphone is burning a lot of carbon

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This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Do you know your smartphone’s carbon footprint? You should
  • Green investing is a feel-good moneymaker
  • Wind-solar power just reached a major milestone
  • Reader tips on reducing your environmental footprint

Your smartphone use is burning a lot of carbon

(Sanjay Kanojia/Getty Images/CBC)

We all do it — snuggle up in bed or on the sofa, or maybe during our daily commute, and watch a video clip on our phones. We may even watch an entire movie that way.

It turns out this common, seemingly innocuous act — and our internet use more generally — is leaving a lasting impact on the environment.

In a study published earlier this year, two professors at McMaster University in Hamilton looked at the carbon footprint of the information and communications technologies industry (ICT), which includes the internet.

And it’s a Bigfoot-worthy print.

In the study, the ICT “universe” includes computers, phones and laptops; telecommunications structures, such as satellite dishes and routers; and, crucially, data centres, the backbone of the internet. (What it didn’t include is the Internet of Things, computers in cars and smart TVs. At the moment, that type of data use is still somewhat new, though the study’s authors say it would be figured into future studies.)

McMaster associate Prof. Lotfi Belkhir and his colleague Ahmed Elmeligi found that ICT is responsible for about 1.5 per cent of worldwide carbon emissions. As a comparison, the energy sector accounts for roughly 27 per cent, while agriculture, forestry and other land use make up 25 per cent.

The study suggests that by 2040, ICT’s carbon emissions could account for as much as 14 per cent, which is roughly where the transportation industry is right now.

It might surprise you to know that. The findings surprised Belkhir, too.

Smartphones were by far the worst contributors to tech’s carbon footprint. That’s because of several factors, including the mining activity needed to extract the metals needed to make our phones. For one thing, your phone requires almost 10 times as much precious metals as a laptop or desktop computer.

Also, we just use our phones way more often.

Data can seem invisible to us — especially if you’re on an unlimited plan — but every email, tweet and video lives on a server. With all the servers humming away in data centres, those giant buildings need to be cooled — and the emissions are through the roof.

The increasing prevalence of smartphones is not helping. As the number of users is only likely to grow, Belkhir said we need to rethink how we power communications.

“What needs to change is the way we’re running our data centres,” he said. One of his study’s recommendations: Run those data centres exclusively on renewable energy.

Belkhir believes this is completely doable. He said solar energy is getting ever cheaper, and server farms tend to be located outside urban centres, which are ideal locations for solar and wind installations.

He said consumers also have a role to play. For one thing, he said we should keep our existing phones longer, which would curtail all that mining activity. A more immediate suggestion, however, is for us to reduce our internet use — particularly video, which eats up a ton of data.

That means thinking twice before downloading and watching a movie on our phones.

Said Belkhir, “Maybe going with friends to the movies and watching a movie there on the big screen is actually more environmentally friendly than each one of them watching it on their smartphones.”

Nicole Mortillaro


Missed any issues of What on Earth?

You’re reading the fifth issue of our newsletter. If you missed any issues, they also live online:

As always, feel free to send comments to whatonearth@cbc.ca.


The smart money is in green investments

(David Goldman/AP)

New numbers this week reveal a trend that may come as a surprise to many environmentalists: The world’s richest investors are finally embracing their inner treehugger.

Canada’s Responsible Investment Association (RIA) says that last year, for the first time, more than half the money invested in Canada went to sustainable investments.

By RIA’s math, that’s more than $2 trillion. And numbers out of the U.S. are even more eye-popping. The biennial report from the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment calculates that there’s $12 trillion US being put to work on investments in renewable energy and other initiatives seeking to mitigate the effects of climate change.

That’s music to the ears of Toronto-area investment coach Tim Nash, who said that for too long, his clients had a hard-wired bias against green investments, assuming that anything “sustainable” was somehow inferior in the core aim of making money.

“They just assume performance is going to be worse,” Nash said this week, “against all evidence to the contrary.”

For a long time, green investing was seen as something only idealistic hippies were into — not ruthless, profit-hungry hedge funds. But saving the world, it seems, is good for business, which is why the smart money on Wall Street and Bay Street wants in.

Even the capitalists who run Canada’s pension plan are getting in on the action. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) has earmarked $3 billion in the past two years to green energy projects.

For Ben Lambert, CPPIB’s interim head of sustainable investing, the reason is simple.

“Our job is to maximize returns without risk of loss for generations to come … and the research shows that companies that do well on these sustainability issues extend their corporate life and are more likely to create value over the long term.”

Which is why these days, big investors are more likely to put money into an oil company that’s readying for a world without oil than they are to gobble up a pollution-belching mining company that has no plan beyond its next quarterly results.

“It’s about doing the right thing and generating returns,” Lambert said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Pete Evans


The Big Picture: Worldwide solar and wind power

In August, research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that the combined installed capacity of solar and wind power globally had surpassed one terawatt, or 1,000 gigawatts. (That’s roughly the total power capacity of the U.S.) It took about two decades to get here, but Bloomberg NEF estimates it will only take until the middle of 2023 for this figure to double — and that installing the second terawatt will cost 46 per cent less than the first.



You’re doing your part

(David McNew/Getty Images)

In our last newsletter, we asked you to share some of your personal initiatives in reducing your carbon footprint. And you kindly obliged.

Here are some of your examples. We will continue to publish other reader tips.

Claudette Preece of Courtenay, B.C., wrote:

“We have had a heat pump for 16 years and replaced it last winter with a model that will withstand minus–20 temperatures.

“We installed solar panels about three years ago. Thirty-six of them. We got rid of our hot water heaters and installed a gas-fired hot water on-demand system. We have gone from our 14-year-old gas-driven car to a Mitsubishi PHEV. Wanted one that did more mileage on battery but the waiting list was eight months. This does enough mileage on battery to do all my errands and shopping trips. On long trips, if the engine kicks in, it is to recharge the battery, not to run the engine. Since purchasing it May 1st, we have filled it up with gas about five times, and on none of those occasions was it completely empty.”

One reader, who wished to remain anonymous, had a raft of good suggestions, including:

  • Using reusable grocery bags, and keeping them in your trunk so you never forget them!”

  • Carrying a reusable water bottle around at all times, saying there is no need for bottled water, because “municipal tap water is safe and delicious.”

  • She has LED lightbulbs and low-flow showerheads installed at home.

  • She also does clothes swaps, in which she and friends get together and exchange gently used clothing.

She also made a couple of bigger points:

“The 3 Rs are real, and “reduce” is so important. Shop less. Bring less stuff into your house.”

And:

I get out in nature as often as I can, as someone who works behind a desk in an office, to admire its beauty and appreciate it, and improve my physical and mental health.Knowing more about the environment and loving all of its wonderful qualities helps you understand why it must be preserved and protected.

Amen to that.

Finally, Chélie Elsom of Salmon Arm, B.C., wrote in to tell us that she has been so “passionate about plastic pollution” that she started an online petition.

Petition 1834, which is sponsored by Green Party MP Elizabeth May and slated to be tabled in the House of Commons in January 2019, calls for a “National Plastic Strategy.” That includes a ban on “the manufacturing, distribution and use of all plastics that cannot be recycled” and a “Zero Plastic Waste Canada” by 2030, where all plastic packaging is 100 per cent recyclable, reusable or compostable.


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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