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4IR and the Environment: How the Fourth Industrial Revolution can curb air pollution and decarbonise the economy

This report focuses on the role that Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies can play in improving the environment.

In particular, it explores the role of 4IR in reducing air pollution and decarbonising the economy. It is the fourth in a series of SMF reports on 4IR, following our 2018 reports on the use of 4IR in the home and the workplace, and our report earlier in 2019 on 4IR in local government.

This report identifies a number of channels through which 4IR technologies can tackle the environmental challenges associated with air pollution and global warming. These include:

  • Better monitoring of air quality, using affordable low power wide area networks (LPWANs) to track air quality.
  • More personalised advice on air pollution.
  • Using technologies to remove pollution and carbon from the air. Emerging technologies include robotic trees, parasitic drones, air-cleaning buses and air separation plants.
  • Cleaning up transportation through a shift toward electric & autonomous vehicles, car sharing, smart public transportation and dynamic road pricing.
  • Using big data and blockchain-based solutions to encourage environmentally-friendly decision-making by consumers and businesses. This can allow customers in stores to see the carbon emissions of their purchases at the point of sale.
  • Decarbonising industry through green commercial vehicle fleets, cloud-based computing, virtual & augmented reality and 3D printing

Policy recommendations:

  1. Ensure that fairness is a key component of environmental tax design. A new road pricing system should include a free allowance of road usage each year, to help reduce the burden of taxation on lower income households.
  2. Require large companies to collect and provide information on the environmental impact of their operations. Building on mandatory carbon reporting, this information should include effects on air quality, use of plastics and primary materials. Such data should be publicly available.
  3. National government to commit to installing air pollution monitors in every postcode area of the UK, as requested in The Times’ “Clean Air for All” campaign.
  4. Ensure that air pollution data gathered from these monitors is open source and accessible through an application programming interface (API), to support the development of apps providing personalised advice on air pollution.
  5. Develop a planning strategy to ensure that homes being built today are suitable for a carbon “net zero” world of lower rates of private car ownership. This includes ensuring that new homes are well-served by public transport, electric vehicle charging facilities and access to car sharing clubs.

In addition, set a target for reducing rates of car ownership, and increasing the proportion of journeys made on foot, bike and public transport. Cities and large towns should aim for a quarter of journeys to be made by bicycle – a similar proportion to the Netherlands.

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