Aug 8, 2023

15 min read

The Fight Against Climate Change: How Batteryless IoT is Helping

Climate change is arguably the biggest and most storied public crisis of our times. A hugely divisive and extremely charged issue, climate change is definitely not something to be taken lightly. In this post, we try to find the answer to the question, can IoT technology help in the global fight against climate change? If so, how? In the process of answering this question, we see the numerous ways in which IoT technology has become invaluable in our quest to build a sustainable future for all of humanity.

What’s the essential purpose of technology? Problem solving. Technology helps us solve challenging problems - they are tools that we devise and employ to make the world a little more to our liking. IoT technology, in many ways, represents the snow-capped peaks, if not the absolute summit, of human effort in the direction of information technology. The internet has made a noticeable impact on nearly every aspect of our lives, and the effort with IoT is to expand the scope of this impact. 

Like we said earlier, any technology is only as good as the most complex problem it allows us to solve - so, by the same token, IoT technology only means anything at all in the context of the big challenges it can help us solve. And boy does IoT come good when it comes to solving big challenges - healthcare, defence, conservation, manufacturing - you name it! IoT technology has disrupted nearly every sector over the past decade by driving previously unimaginable levels of efficiency and data-driven insight. 

But here in this post, we’re going to see if the might of IoT technology can help us counter what is arguably the most daunting challenge facing humanity today - environmental degradation and climate change. 


For better or for worse, the issue of climate change has captured the imaginations of the global populace like nothing else ever has - and fair enough right? I mean, the idea of total ecological collapse is not a pleasant one by any stretch of the imagination. 

In 2015, the countries of the world came together for the historic UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, France, to discuss remedial measures that could be taken against climate change. The ensuing Paris agreement, which was adopted by 196 countries, was ambitious to say the least - the overarching goal of the agreement - to cap global average temperature rise to below 2°C from pre-industrial levels. The idea was to begin a move towards a net-zero emissions scenario and reach the vaunted net zero goal by the year 2050.

But the fact of the matter is that we are not even close to being on track for the net zero by 2050 scenario - as things stand, we are still far, far away from the zero mark. The challenge is especially dire in developing countries which are tasked with the impossible balancing-act of trying to bring millions out of poverty while keeping up with the exacting demands of the Paris agreement. 

But for close to a decade now, huge hopes have been pinned onto IoT technology to help begin a revolution in addressing the issue of climate change - in 2015, a study estimated that the IT and communications industry could potentially help reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by 15% across all industries, by the year 2030. In those heady years when IoT was just an emerging technology that was yet to find its feet, such predictions inspired a ton of hope and enthusiasm. 

So, has IoT technology made good on its massive promise? Has it actually been able to deliver the goods in a tangible way?

In many ways, yes! IoT technology has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years and has truly left a mark in nearly every field of human enterprise. Today, thanks to innovations like artificial intelligence, machine learning, energy harvesting sensors etc, we are able to take for granted a level of connectivity and data-gathering that would have bordered on the ludicrous just a few years ago. IoT technology, along with its allied technologies, is being used today in a number of ways towards building a more sustainable future. 

By reducing unnecessary waste and improving operational efficiency, IoT technology, when implemented right, allows for substantially improved resource utilisation. This means that 

Driving Energy Efficiency

The biggest culprit behind man-made climate change is our dependence on fossil fuels. A huge chunk of our global energy production is still fossil-fuel dependent. So it would make sense that the biggest role in the fight against climate change is expected to be played by renewable energy and all the technologies based on green-energy. But, in the last few years, the role of the Internet of Things (IoT) and connected technologies have come to the fore in a massive way, as a means of enabling this move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources. 

For example, energy infrastructure around the world is in various states of obsolescence - most of our plants are quite old and waste large amounts of energy to efficiency losses. One of the solutions to tackle this problem has been to deploy IoT-powered smart grids which make for dramatically increased energy efficiency while also cutting down on costs and man-hours. 

The most notable example of this was when an end-of-life steam-powered plant in an island in North Carolina was replaced with a solar-powered unit that used 20,000 solar modules providing a stunning 5.5MW of power generation. This kind of a setup is genius because when the main grid isn’t available, the microgrid is automatically activated and seamlessly starts supplying power so there is no downtime. 

Similar systems have been trialled at hospitals, naval bases etc to great results. This is just to highlight how effective IoT-based solutions can be at cutting down on energy waste. 

Similarly, General Electric hit the news in 2016 when it unveiled its digital power plant which it claimed could dramatically slash emissions by supercharging the efficiency of traditional coal-fired power plants - the idea was to equip these plants with about 10,000 IoT sensors and use real-time data gathered by the sensors to find novel ways to drive up efficiency and sustainability. GE estimates that this system will help clear about 0.58 gigatonnes of greenhouse emissions from our atmosphere every year! That is roughly the equivalent of replacing more than 800 million square kilometres of forest or eliminating upwards of 115 million fossil-fuel powered cars from our roads!

The claims were not unfounded either - GE’s digital power plant actually showed some pretty cool results - EDF energy achieved a staggering 62.2% efficiency rating in a plant in France - something that was previously unheard of. In the process, that power plant in Bouchain, France received a Guinness world record for being the most power-efficient plant in the world. This suite of efficiency-promoting technologies has also been deployed in various power plants across the world in countries such as China, Israel, Puerto Rico etc. As things stand, these early results shown by GE stand as a huge testament to the enormous promise of IoT in the fight against climate change. 

The German giant Bosch has unveiled something similar but targeted more towards households - a range of smart thermostats that are equipped with state of the art IoT-sensors. These nifty smart thermostats allow you to monitor your power consumption accurately in real-time and make sure you are not using any more watts than necessary. Hive has also come up with  similar solutions aimed at improving energy efficiency at a domestic level. Their range includes a  smart plug that can be turned off remotely. 

As more and more households embrace IoT-powered  smart home technologies, we will see a huge cumulative increase in our collective energy efficiency. When fewer watts are wasted, fewer watts need to be generated. That’s one way we can make a huge dent in our net carbon footprint. 

The same principle applies to smart buildings - they do exactly the same thing but on a smaller scale. An increasing number of corporations and companies are switching to smart office buildings which allow them to keep costs down while also accentuating the firm’s green chops. This is also a great trend - smart buildings are equipped with various IoT sensors that are able to detect superfluous usage in real-time, cutting down on unnecessary resource consumption. 

Batteryless sensors making huge waves

Batteries, as recently as the 2000s were being sold as the remedy to all the woes brought on by fossil fuels and the resulting emissions. There was a lot of enthusiasm around the idea of batteries as a greener alternative to fossil fuels. However, with the explosive rise in the use of smartphones and personal computing devices, the demand for Lithium-ion batteries rose dramatically throughout the 2010s. Actually, to say that it rose dramatically would be understating the fact - A recent research study found that demand for lithium had risen by a mind-numbing 300% since the year 2010! 

Lithium mining is a fraught and ethically dubious racket that seriously undermines both human rights and the environment. Lithium mining devastates surrounding water tables and destroys entire ecosystems in the process. Cobalt mining also has an equally seedy and morally questionable background - An disproportionate amount of the world’s Cobalt reserves are in one country - the Democratic Republic of Congo - a low-income country in Sub-Saharan Africa characterised by widespread poverty, dysfunctional government institutions and rampant crime. Child miners in Congo often work extremely long hours in dangerous conditions to earn the equivalent of a few dollars a day. These artisanal mines generate a huge amount of profit but the proceeds are used to fund seedy enterprises such as militant outfits. These artisanal Cobalt mines take a toll on the health of the child miners and also have devastating consequences on the health of the surrounding environment. 

And dialling in more specifically into the world of IoT and connected technologies, batteries didn’t make sense for IoT devices either. In a world that was starting to embrace the idea of a trillion sensor world, there was simply no way the battery could remain the power solution of choice for IoT nodes and devices. 

In terms of climate change, batteries are not a great solution at all, all things considered - they do have some potential to ameliorate some effects of climate change, but when the manufacturing processes involved in battery production are factored in, the numbers present a very different reality. These manufacturing processes often rely very heavily on energy-intensive and emission-heavy processes all of which contribute hugely to greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, Lithium and Cobalt mining is possibly the largest culprit in terms of the total carbon footprint of modern day batteries.

There was a lot of apprehension in the world of IoT about hundreds of trillions of IoT sensors being battery-powered. Needless to say, when energy harvesting technology emerged as a viable alternative, there was no looking back. In the past few years, various energy harvesting technologies have entered the mainstream and are causing significant waves in the world of semiconductors. Batteryless IoT has led the charge against climate change in various ways. 

Here are some of the main areas where batteryless sensors and microcontrollers shine when it comes to cutting down on carbon emissions. When batteryless sensors and batteryless microcontrollers are deployed in large IoT-based solutions, they make for a dramatic reduction in the overall carbon footprint of the setup - energy harvesting based solutions don’t require any battery replacements and this adds up to quite a lot of tonnes saved. Moreover, these sensor-based systems are also really adept at monitoring the real-time use of valuable resources such as energy, water etc contributing in a huge way to sustainable resource management. 

The movement of IoT solutions and products away from disposable batteries towards energy harvesting is great from a sustainability point of view. Moreover, it’s a trend that’s only going to witness more traction as we move forward.

Smart traffic management

The transportation sector accounts for approximately 25-28% of total carbon emissions, depending on the country. This makes a lot of intuitive sense as well. It has been well understood for a while now that if we manage to make a dent in th

report published in the UK in 2015 caused quite a stir in insider circles when it estimated that a 15% reduction in traffic congestion could help save British taxpayers upwards of GBP 1 Million! Moreover, it would also have a significant impact on reducing emissions. 

Deploying IoT-powered traffic management systems makes a lot of sense from both economic and environmental perspectives. Typically these systems employ hundreds of node devices which collect various kinds of traffic data and put them together to find meaningful patterns. Remedial measures are actuated based on these patterns and this often has dramatically positive effects on congestion levels. 

Cities like Darmstadt and Dallas are on their way to implementing modern smart traffic management systems thanks to their massive potential in being able to cut down on emissions. These city-wde smart traffic management systems can make a huge difference when it comes to climate change. As more and more cities around the world embrace IoT-powered tech and introduce some variant of a smart-city setup, we will see a substantial decrease in terms of emissions. 

Various studies have confirmed the causal link between smart traffic management systems and reduced carbon emissions. 

Precision Farming

Precision farming is another IoT use-case that comes with some serious emissions-reducing potential. The global population is reaching unprecedented heights and there is now, a real pressing need for us to find new and innovative ways to produce food for our billions. 

As you probably already know, agriculture is a big source of carbon emissions. But that being the case, smart farming practices employ IoT sensors in large numbers in order to track various parameters in real-time - such as humidity levels, temperature, nutrient levels, soil pH, weather patterns etc. These rich data sets are then scoured for meaningful patterns using artificial intelligence which allows us to set up farms that are super economical on resources while also keeping yields high. 

In the long run, this means that IoT-based precision farming will allow us to find more sustainable ways to grow food which is great from an emissions perspective. Moreover, a lot of farmers today are taking up agroforestry, which is essentially a farming practice where usual crops are interspersed with trees of various kinds - this allows the soil to retain its moisture-holding capacity and therefore prevents droughts etc. This means that any given farming operation, if it is equipped with IoT sensors, is likely to need less water than a comparable non-smart farm. Again, this makes up for significant emissions savings. 

Monitoring greenhouse gas emissions

IoT technology is being used today to monitor air quality levels and emission levels in real-time. Climate scientists are using dedicated sensors to monitor the concentrations of various greenhouse gases in the environment. This data allows climate researchers to devise remedial measures and advise policymakers in the best way possible. 

Similarly, batteryless sensors are being used in various smart city projects around the world to help detect levels of various pollutants such as particulate matter, sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), Ozone (O3), Nitrogen oxides (NOx) etc in the air. Air pollution is one of the leading contributors to climate change. When these parameters representing air pollution are tracked in real-time, it allows us to design highly targeted corrective measures directed against air pollution. 

Likewise, batteryless sensors are also being used to study our ice caps and how rising global temperatures are affecting the rate at which they are melting. For instance, Fujita et al published an article in the Journal of Glaciology in the year 2017 where they used batteryless sensors to study the relationship between surface temperature fluctuations and the mass balance of Himalayan glaciers. This is just one example of connected technologies being used in the scientific appraisal of climate change in a precise manner. 

Governments, international organisations and climate-research bodies rely on accurate data obtained through IoT sensors to assess our progress with respect to our goals. Moreover, these rich data sets allow them to formulate climate policies going forward that represent our best interests. 

Similar systems are also being used to track sea levels - allowing researchers to accurately estimate the extent of damage that has already occurred due to man-made causes. 

Summing up

Human civilization has come a long way from our hunter-gatherer days. The modern world that surrounds us is a miracle in many ways - Throughout history, countless human lives were lost in the pursuit of the bare necessities of life - food, shelter, security etc. Today, thanks to the post-industrial world we find ourselves in, these basic aspects of human existence are better organised than ever. 

Nevertheless, we face some pretty intimidating global challenges - our massive technological advancements and economic improvements have come at a terrible cost. We’re perilously close to rendering our planet uninhabitable - not just for us but for all forms of life. The rate at which we’ve been consuming the planet’s resources is alarming. Today, we’re very close to a total ecological collapse, unless serious action is taken soon. 

Climate change is just one manifestation of the overall problem - The issues of soil degradation, water pollution, mass extinctions etc are all various aspects of the same problem. Unless we find better ways to conduct our lives, we might not have a thriving planet to pass on to our future generations. 

IoT technology is a major tool in our fight against climate change and the other manifestations of ecological collapse. Today, thanks to IoT technology, we are able to dream of a fully connected world where the processes involved in analysing problems and coming up with appropriate solutions can be seamless and efficient. 

The capabilities that modern connected technologies bring to the table are truly staggering - but at the end of the day, these are mere tools. They are great tools that can be tremendously empowering when used right but they are tools nonetheless. We need to stand up and take note of the sticky mess we’re in and the even worse situations we might be hurtling towards. We need to take stock of our collective bad habits as a species and do something about them. Unless we do this, there is very little hope in this seemingly inevitable fight. 

About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

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