Envisioning a carbon neutral world through technological innovation

Written by Li Cheng, Chief Technology Officer of Alibaba Group

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. Fortunately, governments and corporate organizations around the world are increasingly aware of their responsibilities in protecting the environment. According to the United Nations, over 110 countries have made the pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. To achieve this collective aim, many responsible companies across multiple industry sectors have launched initiatives aimed at promoting sustainable development and reducing carbon emissions.

Utilizing technological innovation to support energy conservation and reduce emissions is increasingly recognized as an indispensable tool in achieving carbon neutrality. One compelling aspect of this is the growing market demand for green technology which, in recent years, has accelerated innovation and catalyzed collaborations across different industries. This trend for change and development was further accelerated during the pandemic, most notably as lockdown restrictions created explosive growth in both online meetings and remote working. 

Cutting-edge technologies such as data analytics and AI are also helping to drive a more sustainable future. One example is the use of AI technology to resolve traffic congestion. This is especially important in densely populated cities, in order to reduce carbon emissions and provide greater convenience for citizens. Carbon reduction initiatives have also been supported by smart grids, as well as the growing number of drivers making the transition to electric vehicles.

It is fair to say then that from back-end infrastructure and data centers to front-end algorithms and applications, technological development is at the forefront of the drive towards carbon neutrality. 

The ambitious aim of achieving net zero seems possible thanks to technology. Many more people from all corners of the world can now access green technology thereby helping them to live a low-carbon lifestyle and participate in the building of a sustainable global community. Businesses from all industries and of all sizes can also contribute to a greener future in the following areas: 

Using Clean Power to Reduce Energy Consumption at Data Centers

A strategic approach to energy consumption needs to be a part of every corporation's business development plan, as should the use of innovative technologies that support conservation. Some measures already deployed widely include using wind and solar photovoltaic power in high consumption facilities such as data centers, and implementing green architecture in office building design.

As an ever-expanding number of companies embrace digital transformation – and, in many cases, look to leverage cloud computing - an area that has received increased attention is how service providers are reducing energy consumption at their large-scale data centers.

In response to this important concern, Alibaba Cloud has launched a series of innovative solutions. For instance, Alibaba Cloud’s data center in Hangzhou has one of the world’s largest server clusters submerged in a specialized liquid coolant, which quickly chills the IT hardware. This reduces energy consumption by over 70% and brings the server cluster’s power usage efficiency (PUE) closer to the ideal target of 1.0.

In comparison to the levels seen in traditional data centers, Alibaba Cloud’s Hangzhou data center can save up to 70 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, which is sufficient to cover the energy consumption of more than 78,000 Filipinos in a year.

Supporting Organizations with Carbon Reduction through Technology Innovations

Technology companies have a role to play in helping organizations achieve their carbon reduction goals. While many businesses have realized that the low-carbon benefits generated from digital transformation will ultimately support the long-term growth of their operations, the road to digitalization is never easy. But through full collaboration, technology companies can provide specialist insight, guiding organizations to implement the right technologies to achieve their environmental objectives. 

With this responsibility in mind, Alibaba Cloud has developed intelligent industrial solutions for a large-scale steel maker in mainland China. The solutions have enabled the steel maker to save 1.28 kilograms of iron for every ton of steel it produces. This has also reduced its costs by RMB17 million per year.

We have also helped GrandBlue Environment Co., Ltd., a leading Chinese waste-to-energy plant, to apply AI technology in its operations. By integrating AI algorithms and manual operation, the company has been able to maintain higher stability in energy conversion during waste combustion. 

Encouraging a Low-Carbon Lifestyle

As consumers become more aware of climate change and concerned about environmental protection, making purchasing decisions that support a low-carbon footprint has gained traction. The demand for ‘green’ products has skyrocketed; not only from consumers, but throughout the supply chain, too.

The result of this is an opportunity for innovative businesses to design tools that engage individuals in all aspects of green consumption. For example, Alibaba’s online food delivery platform, Ele.me, launched a feature to encourage consumers to reduce the use of disposable cutlery. The platform has since delivered 400 million orders without single-use cutlery, which is equivalent to a 6,400-ton reduction in carbon emissions.

The role that technological innovation plays to support the efforts around the world to achieve carbon neutrality is undeniable. The same is true for cloud computing, because without this enabler of digital transformation, technological innovation cannot flourish. Yet, achieving net zero emissions is an ambitious target that technology alone cannot support; instead, it requires involvement and commitment from all of society and across all business sectors. From energy to industry, transportation, architecture and retail, a net zero future is only possible if everyone works together.