Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Aug 23, 2022 Updated 29 Days ago
As nation-states and Big Tech firms continue to make advances in quantum computing, the ethical use of technology must be streamlined with R&D to combat climate change.
Qubits for climate change Technology-driven solutions to mitigate the adverse impact of climate change have become increasingly significant. At present, nation-states and tech firms alike are deliberating the use of emerging technologies to respond to rising temperatures, unusual rainfall patterns, depleting water tables, and extreme weather conditions. However, technological solutions will not work in silos. While global leaders and corporate giants have pledged immediate action to tackle climate change, innovation must be driven by political will. Quantum technology has immense potential to power solutions for the climate crisis. Quantum applications and processes can play a critical role in our sustainable future, ensure compliance with emission standards, improve climate-related decision-making, and provide long-term solutions for a better environment. As the advances in quantum computing continue to soar, it is imperative that the investments expand and the ethical use of technology is streamlined with research and development to combat climate change. The world stands on the cusp of the second quantum revolution and the time is ripe for thought leaders, civil society, politicians, industry experts, and academicians to chart the course of quantum technologies in combating the ongoing climate crisis.

Pragmatic applications of quantum technologies in climate action

Quantum computers deploy qubits rather than classical logical bits that aid in magnified computing power, exponential processing capabilities, and outcomes that are based on probabilities rather than binary decisions. This makes it easy for quantum computers to generate simulations that are otherwise complex and beyond the scope of classical computers. For instance, when coupled with Artificial Intelligence (AI), a quantum computer can assist in simulating tests for a water quality innovation with far more accuracy. They can also help in improving sustainability across the spectrum of the economy. A few ways in which quantum computers can reduce global warming are discussed below.

Quantum computers deploy qubits rather than classical logical bits that aid in magnified computing power, exponential processing capabilities, and outcomes that are based on probabilities rather than binary decisions.

Power storage and supply

Electricity generation is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and a practical application of quantum computing in the realm of energy could be its ability to optimise power generation through simulations and map demand/supply with more accuracy. In addition to this, quantum capabilities can also identify leaks and gaps in power supply, dramatically impacting how it is stored, transmitted, and distributed. In India, 15 percent to 20 percent of renewable energy is wasted every year as the grid cannot manage energy fluctuations. These issues arise because of the variation in the wind speed and solar intensity, which can be predicted only up to a certain accuracy right now. Similarly, nearly 20 percent of electricity is lost in transmission. Smart grids that use quantum algorithms can help reduce AT&T losses. Quantum applications based on more incisive optimisation algorithms can reduce the wastage of power. The emerging technology can also be deployed to produce more effective solar panels by cutting solar losses and helping in the green energy transition.

Construction materials

The construction and building sector accounts for nearly 40 percent of the GHG emissions around the world. This opens up avenues for designing new sustainable materials, bringing down emission levels, and helping reduce pollution. Quantum technologies can aid in the design of such materials. Error-corrected quantum computers, which are at least 10 years away from now, can help synthesise new molecular structures that result in a low carbon footprint. Models derived from quantum chemistry can be useful in replacing materials like cement, aluminium, and steel that are energy intensive, account for high emissions in their production, and produce a large number of emissions while in use. These new materials would be lighter and more robust, improving the longevity of infrastructure and reducing the frequency of maintenance and replacement.

Transportation and logistics

Transportation of goods and materials with the help of trucks, trains, aeroplanes, and waterways and the movement of people via cars, buses, trains, and other private vehicles accounts for nearly 20 percent of the global GHG emissions. Modern-d transportation involves the use of fluid dynamics which gets restricted in efficiency because classical computing cannot simulate large surfaces. This implies that a lot of such simulations are to be carried out as physical prototypes, which not only lead to GHG emissions but also are limited to only a few use cases. Such problems can be rectified by the use of quantum simulations which can provide better designs and reduce losses based on the system's constraints. Aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus are also contemplating quantum-led innovation which can reduce fuel consumption.

Models derived from quantum chemistry can be useful in replacing materials like cement, aluminium, and steel that are energy intensive, account for high emissions in their production, and produce a large number of emissions while in use.

Quantum computing for improved environmental decision-making

Quantum computers can be used with other emerging technologies like AI and machine learning to improve evidence-based decision-making. They can run a high number of simulations in parallel that allows for swift testing, comparison, error correction, and deployment of a product or a service. For instance, many nations in the European Union are opting for cleaner fuel by replacing coal with liquified natural gas (LNG) which emits 40 percent less GHGs compared to black coal. However, most of the European states have to import LNG which poses challenges around finding the most optimal route, frequency of shipments, and employing the best possible ways that reduce transportation losses. Since classical computing is faced with limitations, tech giants like IBM have stepped in to assist oil and gas conglomerates like ExxonMobil to work on quantum computing-based decisions. This will save many natural resources and cut down on losses that otherwise are detrimental to the environment. When quantum computing algorithms are used along with predictive data modelling, forest fires can be pre-empted and flood mitigation can be scaled immensely. Other than this, extreme weather conditions that often impact power supply and surge in demand can also be predicted and addressed accordingly. At present, batteries of electric vehicles, whether acid-based or Li-based, have limited storage capacities and need to be replaced regularly. Further, their disposal has led to a severe environmental challenge as most of them are discarded without due caution, leading to soil, air, and water pollution. Quantum computers can suggest methods to improve the efficiency of power storage and also store power for longer periods, thereby cutting down on the need for replacing these batteries often. This would be critical to kekeepinglobal warming levels at less than 2℃ by 2050.

Most of the European states have to import LNG which poses challenges around finding the most optimal route, frequency of shipments, and employing the best possible ways that reduce transportation losses.

The emerging technology will also be useful for the fertiliser industry. At present, fertiliser production accounts for nearly 2 percent of the global GHG tally. And with the use of quantum computers, the process of nitrogen fixation can be made more sustainable and eco-friendly. Researchers and scientists are using quantum modelling to fathom the process of natural nitrogen fixation used by soil bacteria which can later be developed synthetically to curb soil pollution and lower the energy demand in the production of chemical nitrogen-based fertilisers.

The way ahead

At present, there is only limited discussion on the use of quantum technologies to mitigate the climate crisis. While governments have rolled out strategies, missions, and programmes for advancing quantum technologies, most nation-states have not concluded on the practical applications of the technology. Whether the focus will be on near-term applications or long-term applications is still undecided. Plaguing issues linked to climate change cannot be addressed by any one nation-state and it is the responsibility of global first movers in quantum technology space to lead these conversations. Political leaders should be aligned toward solving these pressing issues with the help of quantum technologies. In this matter, multilateral groupings like the QUAD and G20 can provide a platform for deliberation and discussion. At the same time, Quantum tech solutions will require extensive training and skilling of technology professionals, civil society experts, climate change agents, and civil servants. This will help all the stakeholders to ensure that tech solutions can be tailored contextually. Nation-states which have a quantum advantage will have to be more inclusive in sharing best practices and knowledge to build a quantum-ready global workforce. When it comes to financing quantum technologies, most nation-states have devolved funds for the purpose but there is a need to ensure that the quantum industry can thrive on its own. For this special investment vehicles can be set up and global banks and financial institutions can provide funds for research and development that tackles climate change. Along with technological development, working on ethical frameworks for the use of quantum technologies will also be important. With a few tech firms and a handful of nation-states leading quantum technological development, there is a need to ensure that they do not exert dominance in key environmental decisions and quantum tech trends. Instead, the quantum community should work alongside environmentalists and decision-makers to lay down frameworks, accords, rules, and guidelines for the ethical use of quantum technologies.
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Contributor

Prachi Mishra

Prachi Mishra

Prachi Mishra is a Young Leaders in Tech Policy Fellow at the University of Chicago presently working at CSST for their quantum meta-ethics project.

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