The Hot New Sector in Greentech: Adaptation

The modest agreement that came out of the Cancun climate talks this weekend points tells me one thing: It’s time to start talking a lot more about adaptation to climate change. While most of the work of the greentech sector is focused on mitigation technologies that can reduce carbon emissions, from clean power to energy efficiency, given that this latest agreement will not prevent the rise of global temperatures within the range that scientists say is needed (though it made some progress on other key issues), perhaps it’s time for those in the greentech industry to start betting that adaption will one day be a hot market.

Adaptation technology has long been a slightly taboo subject, with the idea that technology should be used to stop global warming, not help humans deal with it. But more and more scientists, companies and pundits are taking the subject seriously in recent weeks, including an excellent article in The Economist last month. As The Economist article points out, the world will warm by 3.5 degrees C by 2100, and that’s if countries hit the emissions reductions targets put forth in the Copenhagen Accord. The much-discussed 2-degree safe temperature rise is now a joke we can’t realistically hit.

So, in the face of us all crying into our pillows every night, here are 10 technologies we’ll need to help the world adapt to climate change over the next century. In Cancun, governments agreed to supply $100 billion via a Green Climate Fund for climate change adaption by 2020. Many of these technologies will be used by the world’s poorest, by farmers, and by country’s that already are facing droughts or extreme weather conditions:

1. Innovations around infectious diseases. Hotter global temperatures will lead to the spread of more infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue, tick-borne encephalitis, and Lyme disease, according to the UNFCCC. Most of this will happen in regions that are tropical and close to tropical geographies. Higher temperatures will also lead to increases of food-born diseases like Salmonella in more developed regions. Innovations in drug delivering, drugs themselves, and prevention will be needed.

2. Flood safeguards. Building owners and farmers in vulnerable regions will increasingly look to technologies that can help them adapt to potential floods. Those could include building homes on stilts, to crafting barriers around rivers in populated regions, and using seeds and crops that are more resistant to floods.

3. Weather forecasting technologies. Extreme weather conditions, from massive floods to hurricanes, will become more common in certain regions because of the warming of the Earth. Weather forecasting has been an area of little innovation (as Google pointed out to me recently), and will depend heavily on information technology tools (satellites, software, computing, sensors) to inject some much-needed innovation into the sector.

4. Insurance tools. To help spread the risk of extreme weather events and higher temperatures, farmers and governments in developing countries could invest in insurance programs that would pay out when poor conditions happen. Already, insurance companies in some areas are seeing more events around flooding due to climate change. In particular, look to insurance tools that came out of the Internet industry — like WeatherBill — to find solutions.

5. More resilient crops. High temperatures can cut annual crop productivity dramatically, can lead to droughts or more rain fall, and can lead to longer or shorter crop seasons. Farmers that grow crops on risk-prone lands will be looking for seeds that can withstand higher temperatures, more or less water, and fluctuating crop cycle times. Genetically modified crops could play a key role in this movement, which will be a controversial point, given countries in Europe, and Japan, are opposed to GMO crops.

6. Supercomputing. Weather forecasting and climate change data will benefit immensely from more powerful and faster supercomputers that can crunch data and make important predictions in real time. Can exascale computing save us?

7. Water Purification. Harsher and more wide-spread droughts will lead to a strain on communities and farmers that need fresh water. At the same time, rising sea levels will affect coastal regions, potentially leading to an increase of salt in ground water. So-called desalination technology has seen an under-investment by the venture capitalist community, as VCs are unfamiliar with the markets for water technology.

8. Water Recycling. Beyond desalination, other water technologies include using gray water and harvesting rain water, for crops and everyday human uses. The key to this type of technology is that it has to be cheap, cheap, cheap.

9. Efficient Irrigation Systems. While it’s not cutting edge technology, farmers in affected regions will be quick to embrace irrigation systems that are much more efficient than they currently use. Packaging a product attractive to this segment could be popular.

10. Sensors. With all the potential problems and fluctuations in the environment due to global warming, there will be a growth in the need for accurate environmental data, particularly from sensors. Whether these are located in the ocean, in the atmosphere, in soil, in flood zones or in arid drought-stricken lands, organizations, governments and companies will want to track the changes in order to develop solutions to deal with the problem.

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Image courtesy of John Bruckman.