Nearly half of the tasks currently undertaken by humans could already be automated, even at current levels of technology. Within the next decade it is likely large sections of society will be looking for new jobs. People are calling it the fourth industrial revolution or “industry 4.0”. Highly automated, intelligent systems promise to transform people’s lives and even question the very role of humans.
What will all this mean for climate change? The answer is complicated. These innovations have the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide unprecedented levels of insight and data to mitigate climate change. But without proper consideration mass automation could be bad news, increasing consumption and emissions. To consider what mass automation might mean for our environmental impact, I want to look at two sectors where human work has already been largely replaced by machinery: agriculture and cars.
At the beginning of the 20th century, cars were a plaything of the rich, out of the reach of the average person. But that was before Henry Ford perfected the assembly line concept. Before Ford, cars were an artisan product, individually built by hand by teams of skilled craftsmen. Today, car manufacturing is largely fully automated, with human teams replaced by robotic workers. Robots and other technologies of industry 4.0 enable more efficient energy management in factories. And better data means better managed supply chains. This has allowed manufacturers to reduce waste and emissions across the entire lifecycle of products such as cars.
Developments in mechanisation — tractors, combine harvesters and so on — have allowed more food to be produced with less labour. Despite this, with the world population and demand for food rapidly rising, agriculture is responsible for increasing greenhouse gas emissions and an enormous share of environmental degredation.
But, as with cars, agriculture will fundamentally change with the advent of mass automation and smart technologies. Worldwide, robots are replacing human labour across a range of agricultural tasks from watering to pest control or harvesting. Even tractors could eventually become autonomous. Fully automated, vertical farms are being built, maximising space and production efficiency.
These developments might suggest that tech will reduce emissions and help the environment. After all, robots can build cars and grow food more efficiently than humans, right? The issue is while there has been a significant improvement in energy and resource efficiency, there has not been an absolute reduction in environmental impact. In fact, overall environmental impact is generally increasing. Some commentators even argue that improvements in technology have actually driven an increase in consumption, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “rebound effect”. Automation will not necessarily deliver a positive outcome for sustainability — we need to manage our consumption, even as the latest technological revolution races ahead of us.
— The Independent
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