Switching to renewable energy is sometimes dirty. Tech like blockchain can help

April 12, 2021, 1:35 PM UTC

The worldwide push to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will require advances in green technologies—particularly tech associated with renewable energy—but simply waiting for future tools to emerge isn’t a viable solution to climate change.

“I would like to argue that we should not just wait for these innovations and technologies to mature. We actually have a lot of already mature technology that we should be putting in place and deploying at the moment,” Annika Hedberg, head of sustainable prosperity for Europe programme at the European Policy Centre (EPC), said Thursday.

Hedberg was speaking during Fortune’s virtual conversation on how digital solutions can transform the way we generate, store, and distribute electricity. Global electricity consumption has grown steadily for decades, but the rise in urbanization, corporate digitalization, and the electrification of cars and other utilities will create a new surge in demand for electricity.

According to McKinsey, electricity will occupy 30% of the global demand for power by 2050—up from 19% today. Meanwhile the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects renewables to generate 80% of global electricity demand within the next decade, as the cost of renewable generation plummets below the cost of fossil fuels.

But in terms of sustainability, switching to renewable energy and electricity carries its own challenges.

“Clearly, there’s a great danger that we simply replace a hydrocarbon-based economy…with a metal economy,” says Robert Lee, professor of law at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., referring to the metals that are required to make batteries, such as lithium. Mining those metals is a polluting process itself, and properly disposing of batteries at the end of their shelf life is a looming issue.

The European Union has already prepared to deal with the deluge of dead batteries and last year passed legislation requiring battery manufacturers to stamp each battery unit with a unique digital “passport” tag that allows the battery to be tracked throughout its lifetime. Lee sees the passport scheme as an opportunity for digital tech to provide a solution.

“Something like blockchain actually allows you to do that almost absolutely and track that product to make sure that product isn’t ending up being broken down in some countries in the developing world where it’s doing huge environmental and health damage,” Lee says.

Climate activists have scorned blockchain technology—or, specifically, cryptocurrency mining—for the pollution produced in order to power the data centers that sustain the blockchain. But René Arnold, vice president of public affairs strategy at Huawei Technologies, says that the overall benefits of digitalization will outweigh the cost of its energy demands.

“Information communication technology (ICT) and digitization is really one of the very few examples where you can see that the indirect abatement effect is actually far bigger than its individual energy impact is in a direct sense,” Arnold says, meaning that the energy saved by efficiencies introduced through digitalizing will offset the energy consumed by digitalization.

Such “abatement effects” would come from actions like energy suppliers utilizing remote sensors and A.I. oversight to monitor power demand and distribute electricity efficiently.

“If we use the potential that ICT provides us [then digitalization] will have a positive impact on the environment and help us achieve the climate targets we have set,” Arnold says.