Business Delivering Environmental Innovation

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Over the course of human history, inventions such as the printing press, automobile, computer, and Internet-related technologies have radically altered the way humans live, work, and connect to each other. According to Radicati Group, worldwide more than 200 billion emails are sent and a billion online videos are watched every day. These technological innovations and the businesses that design, build, and deliver them have enriched our lives, strengthened our economy, and allowed us to experience things that were only recently considered the domain of science fiction novels. Today, a soldier in the middle of a far-off desert can watch a live video feed, on a hand-held device, of his child being born thousands of miles away. These innovations enable immeasurable efficiencies, and allow people to share ideas and collaborate on an unprecedented scale.

Today, businesses are using their passion for innovation to develop and build new technologies that can address some of the world’s most pressing environmental and sustainability challenges. For example, the development and application of “smart” technologies to manage buildings, transportation systems, manufacturing, health care, retail, and many others may help significantly reduce emissions and energy use. A report by the Climate Group (The Climate Group, 2008) and Global Sustainability Initiative concludes that better use of information technology (IT) has the potential to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 7.8 gigatons by the year 2020. This savings represents 15% of global GHG emissions, and in economic terms translates into saving nearly $950 billion in costs.

Ubiquitous, connected computing and information technologies can improve our lives and our environment. Computer-aided design and integrated, pervasive smart technologies have made cars 40% more efficient and allowed us to create buildings that have the potential to be carbon neutral. Complex computer-generated algorithms and high-performance computational models can tell airlines which routes and flight patterns are most efficient to save passenger time and fuel and can enable scientists to make more accurate climate and weather predictions. Data collection, analysis, and modeling can enable researchers to track changes in the ocean currents and chemistry and understand their effects on sea life and the coral reefs.

For consumers, online banking saves a trip to the local bank and associated auto emissions. Digital photography allows us to share photos online while significantly reducing the use of chemicals associated with developing and printing conventional film. Online shopping saves emissions associated with traveling to multiple stores; downloading music avoids the manufacture, packaging, and distribution of CDs and their environmental impacts. Business meetings and conferences can be held virtually, and companies can monitor and optimize the shipment and transport of goods in real time. The potential applications are endless. Technology gives individuals, families, companies, and governments information they can use to be more sustainable in their homes and across industries, helping to reduce the environmental footprint of cities and countries. Armed with richer data, researchers are developing whole-system energy management solutions used in electricity grids, homes, commercial buildings, water systems, transportation, agriculture, and more.

American businesses are continuing to explore opportunities to design, develop, and deliver new technologies that not only create jobs but also enable us to better manage our precious natural resources and address global sustainability challenges. By delivering environmental innovation, businesses today are enabling a high-tech - low-carbon economy.

[Editor's note: This article is part of The Role of Business in Environmental Innovation report.]

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