5 Ways Edge Computing Will Help Protect the Environment

Why digital exchange at the edge is essential for advancing environmental use cases

Jim Poole
Maurice Mortell

The theme for this year’s Earth Day is “Restore Our Earth” which is about reducing and reversing our environmental impact on the planet. To see what this impact has been over the past 40 years, NASA’s Climate Time Machine and Google’s Timelapse in Google Earth provide excellent visual perspectives of humanity’s adverse effect on the earth.[i]

At the same time, the COVID-19 global pandemic provided an unexpected perspective on what happens when we come together to meet a common goal. Universal social distancing lockdowns brought cleaner air in major cities and reduced carbon emissions across the globe as the chart below shows. Climate scientists estimated that CO2 emissions fell by 2.4 billion metric tons in 2020, the steepest decline seen over the past century and 7% lower than 2019.[ii]

Source: Nature.com[iii]

Throughout the lockdown, digital technologies played an increasingly visible role in keeping society going by enabling virtual interaction for everything from remote work to online learning to telemedicine to entertainment on demand. This in turn yielded a positive environmental impact in terms of reduced travel, pollution, waste and improved efficiencies.

However, while virtual interactions have a much lower carbon footprint than traveling to meet in person, achieving further positive environmental impact will depend on improving the efficiencies of data exchange. As data volumes continue to grow, keeping digital exchange points at the edge, where data and content can be efficiently shared between users, clouds and partners, reduces the physical resources (network routers, servers, data centers, power, cooling) needed to support it. Multitenant data centers (MTDC) such as Platform Equinix® are well positioned to deliver efficiencies like these through aggregation of IT resources and best practices. Moreover, due to economies of scale, MTDCs have a better capacity to implement renewable strategies than individual enterprises. As a case in point, Equinix has achieved a 50% reduction in carbon emissions since 2015, even as our global footprint of data centers has doubled, due to our renewables purchasing strategy.

A drop of almost two and a half billion tons of CO2 this year is like taking 500 million cars off the world’s roads for the year. However, we need to reduce emissions more sustainably when economies and people are healthy.” Rob Jackson, Stanford University Earth Scientist

Gartner Research – 2021 Strategic Roadmap for Edge Computing

“Edge computing is entering the mainstream as organizations look to extend cloud to on premises and to take advantage of IoT and transformational digital business applications. I&O leaders must incorporate edge computing into their cloud computing plans as a foundation for new application types over the long term."

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In addition to enabling virtual interaction, here are four additional ways edge computing is helping to protect the earth:

  1. Reducing waste

Smart homes and buildings use internet of things (IoT) sensors at the edge to monitor and intelligently adapt to individual preferences and usage patterns for lighting, climate and more, saving energy and reducing waste. These systems can be integrated with smartphone apps, enabling users to turn off lights or control the temperature remotely. Robots paired with artificial intelligence (AI) can sort waste materials with a high degree of accuracy, accelerating end of life (EOL) recovery and recycling. For example, ZenRobotics uses AI visual recognition to sort through different waste materials ranging from plastic packaging to construction waste.

  1. Advancing smart city and energy innovation

Smart cities leverage digital technologies at the edge to improve services and citizen welfare, generally with positive environmental impact. For example, in one U.S. smart city use case, Pittsburgh, PA was able to reduce intersection wait times by 41% and emissions by 21% by deploying a network of connected traffic lights that logged traffic and adapted sequencing to minimize congestion. Another U.S. city, Palo Alto, CA was able to cut down on the amount of time that citizens drove around looking for parking spaces by deploying a digital twin of city parking spaces that monitor occupancy through a low cost sensor network. Citizens can check parking availability through a website or app, reducing congestion and traffic emissions.

Digital technologies at the edge are also making energy smarter and more efficient, supporting use cases such as smart meters and smart grids, microgrids and power co-generation, failure detection and pipeline management. Digitization enables energy and utility companies to manage supply and demand more efficiently, not only reducing energy waste but also helping to move the needle forward on renewable energy and climate neutrality.

  1. Responding faster to environmental harm

Interconnected IoT sensors, satellites and drones play a critical role in helping organizations detect and respond to environmental harm faster, whether that is air pollution from traffic congestion, natural disasters or infrastructure failures such as leaks. For example, methane leaks from natural gas pipelines are a potent source of emissions and air pollution. To address this challenge, IBM is developing a methane-leak detection system leveraging low-cost IoT sensors over a self-organizing mesh network to find and repair leaks more quickly.[iv]

In another example, contextual AI brings a new level of precision in managing natural disasters like wildfires or protecting natural resources and wildlife. Real-time data about fire conditions from drones can be combined with forecasts on wind, humidity and temperature to help determine where to dispatch fire personnel and when and where evacuations should be ordered. Intelligent systems like Global Forest Watch, EarthRanger, Connected Conservation and Global Fishing Watch provide real-time insights on natural resources and protected areas in an integrated platform. By combining data from various sensors with field observations on harmful incidents (logging or poaching) as they are detected, these platforms can pinpoint and predict threats, enabling faster response.

  1. Reversing the effects of climate change

Many initiatives focused on reversing the effects of climate change depend on digital exchange at the edge with ecosystems of partners. For example, moving an entire city to clean energy would require collaboration and data exchange between government, utilities, clean energy suppliers, citizens and enterprises for two-way smart grids. By the same token, reforestation or re-wilding initiatives depend on digital intelligence at the edge to determine the optimal conditions, location and timing needed to succeed.[v]

How edge computing is helping to protect the earth:

1. Enabling virtual interaction
2. Reducing waste
3. Advancing smart city and energy innovation
4. Speeding up response to environmental harm
5. Reversing the effects of climate change
Interconnection enables public and private sector stakeholders to collaborate and securely exchange data in real-time at the digital edge to advance environmental use cases such as moving to a circular economy and clean energy, reforestation and conservation of biodiversity."
Jim Poole
Jim Poole Vice President, Business Development at Equinix
Maurice Mortell
Maurice Mortell Managing Director Ireland and EMEA Sustainability Lead