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August 2014

Part 2: Does automation provide any environmental aid? How can innovation lead to a better environmental picture? (Article Series)

In our latest article series, Automation GT takes a look at the role played by manufacturing and automation in climate change throughout history. Rachel Greenberg writes technical and marketing content for Automation GT.

In Kasa’s essay, referenced in our last article, Kasa makes the point that when we develop as a technological society, we hope that our new technologies in each era will provide address of the environmental issues of the industrial era that preceded it. If innovation is meant to do anything, it should be addressing things that compromise and complicate our own welfare. It is in our own best interest to innovate in such a way that we are protecting, not damaging, our environment.

However, as Kasa notes, “As new industrial revolutions often supplied technologies that eased existing environmental problems, this relief was often only partial. Exploiting the benefits of new technologies for environmental improvements has always been dependent on complimentary socio-political changes.”

Indeed, the drive to produce technologies that can contribute in a significant way to easing climate change and other environmental problems relies heavily on funding and research interest, which in turn rely on popular interest. Fortunately, popular interest is beginning to turn in favor of projects that support environmental change.

Thus, it is worth looking at the projects that already support environmental change and the ways in which industry actually benefits our environmental situation.


Renewable Energy, Alternative Economies, and Innovation


As is likely apparent from the first article in this series, industry can damage the environment in the following key ways:

  • Burning of coal and use of oil create air pollution.
  • Reliance on finite supplies of oil and coal for energy have sparked unsustainable hunts for new sources of energy. The methods by which resources are located, extracted, and transported have large environmental and human costs. In addition, even with “clean” fuels that do not pollute the air as much, these fuels virtually always contribute in some way to global warming.
  • Manufacturing processes that require lots of use of chemicals (including factory farming) contribute to pollution of surrounding bodies of water, and may also put dangerous pollutants into the air, soil, and locally grown food.
  • Manufacturing with low overhead cost has given rise to a widespread consumerist culture. Coupled with a rising population, this trend has created a dramatic and extreme need for goods and resources. Depending on the materials, labor, and resources needed to create a particular good, this can represent a significant total environmental cost between locating, mining, refining, transporting, and processing materials.


While we have reduced air pollution as factories have come to rely less on wood for fuel, today fossil fuels represent one of our greatest obstacles against achieving a carbon-neutral economy.

In 1949, American geophysicist M. King Hubbert predicted that our use of fossil fuels would peak from 1970, and from that point, commercial and industrial use of fossil fuels would be on the decline. Of course, as we have seen, by the year 1970 fossil fuels had become a cornerstone of our way of life in the developed world, and efforts to decrease our dependence on oil and coal would prove monumental.

The most viable and most frequently discussed alternative energy sources are nuclear, solar, and wind power. However, in each case, there have been barriers, either social or practical, that have prevented manufacturers from embracing these energy sources outright.

Nuclear power continues to be available only in certain areas. Each time disaster strikes as a result of human error in nuclear power (as most recently in Fukushima), the public tends to lose its taste for nuclear power for some time. However, according to EDF Energy, nuclear power plants produce as little as “16 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent for each kilowatt-hour of electricity it generates (gCO2/kWhe)” compared to 1001 gCO2/kWhe for coal power plants.

Solar power and wind power boast low carbon rates of 22 gCO2/kWhe and 12 gCO2/kWhe respectively. And some companies have made recent success with alternatively fueled factories. For example, last year Apple announced plans to construct a solar powered plant in Arizona.

Consider the numbers below based on data from Wikipedia:

Type of Power Emissions in gCO2/kWhe
Hydroelectric 4
Wind 12
Nuclear 16
Biomass 18
Solar thermal 22
Geothermal 45
Solar PV 46
Natural Gas 469
Coal 1001


It is the same type of scientific innovation that imagined the means of industry and automation as imagined this variety of alternative energy sources to combat our reliance on fossil fuels. However, if scientists have given us perfectly good means of reducing our carbon footprints through manufacturing, why have we failed to pursue these options on a wider scale?


The Role of Population Growth


There are an approximate 7 billion people living in the world today. Simultaneously, the average person in the developed world now tends to live longer and to expect more in terms of goods and services. This is good from an ethical standpoint: we are doing a better job at guaranteeing a basic quality of life for a larger percentage of the world.

However, by current standards the average American would require approximately 9.6 hectares (24 acres) of land “required for carbon sequestration, production of resources, and assimilation of wastes (not including pollution and water).” A sustainable amount is closer to 2 hectares per person.

Countries including the United States, China, India, and Mexico continue to grow, and while these are some of the countries that people often consider when thinking of global population growth, the countries with the highest rates of growth are actually Uganda, Nigeria, and Bangladesh. In fact, most population growth occurs today in Africa and Southern Asia. In some of these countries, populations may even triple in the coming years.

This is a common phenomenon in countries experiencing increases in wealth and stability: populations which had otherwise been relatively low will grow rapidly for a number of years before leveling out at a more sustainable population. However, with the definition of what it means to achieve basic subsistence ever growing more complicated, we will likely end up with a very large number of people who expect a very high quality of goods including cars, which represent a very serious economic toll, and foods that because of our unsustainable farm factory methods, will also create a significant environmental burden.


Economic Factors


In a very general way, manufacturing and industry tend to give us several things which, when considered in a void, seem unequivocally good:

  • Greater access for more people to cheap goods including food, clean water, and medicine.
  • Lower infant and childhood mortality rates and eventually longer lifespans as well.
  • Better likelihood that more people will be able to get at least a basic education.
  • Greater access to transportation and industry usually means more people can get jobs which contribute to better local economies, better family finances, and higher personal feelings of purpose and job satisfaction.
  • A stronger local economy is more likely to bring greater likelihood that more people will be able to reach the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, including many of the requirements for self-actualization and esteem: creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, acceptance of facts, self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, and respect by others.
  • Decrease of highly stratified local class systems. For example, in the US, because a very large number of people make fairly similar incomes and because goods are so widely and cheaply available, in 2009 as many as 83% of people considered themselves middle class or upper-middle class.

Henry Ford was a revolutionary in his industrial design that ensured that all of his employees would make enough to be able to afford the cars that they manufactured. This was one of the first steps towards the creation of the American working class and middle class, and the creation of the American consumerist culture. It is very important that the product in question was the car, which in many ways contributed to the popularity of the suburb, which reinforced a need for a car.

Eventually, we managed to develop an economy that was entirely dependent on fossil fuels. We have factories that run on fossil fuels producing goods that require fossil fuels, which require workers living in houses that run on fossil fuels, traveling to work with cars, buses, and trains that require fossil fuels, and buying goods and foods that require fossil fuels for transportation and production. And with more people all over the world living longer and having more children who live longer, we need evermore goods to support them, which requires a still greater investment of energy and resources.

Divorcing ourselves from fossil fuels is one of the most important things we can do to build a more sustainable manufacturing industry, but because fossil fuels are so tightly interwoven with our economy on so many levels, it is virtually impossible to simply remove them. Rather, the best we can do is slowly remove them, one at a time, from our homes, cars, and factories.

Part 1: The Industrial Revolution, Climate Change, Global Environmental Problems, and Manufacturing

Part 2: Does automation provide any environmental aid? How can innovation lead to a better environmental picture?

Part 3: Is automation a better environmental option than the alternative? Can we keep people at work while also saving the environment?

Part 4: How do global politics and other factors affect the environmental situation of manufacturing?

Part 5: What can we conclude from all of this, and what can everyone do to contribute to a greener world?