The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), a concept developed by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum (WEF) as a roadmap for the 21st century, has applications across all aspects of human life, from the way we communicate with each other to our relationship with the physical world.
The 4IR forum taking place in Riyadh under the auspices of Saudi Arabia and the WEF has highlighted some of the ways 4IR principles can be applied in the Kingdom and transform it “into an economy based on technology, information, capabilities, and skills,” in the words of Haytham Al-Ohali, vice minister at the Saudi Ministry of Communications and Informational Technology.
But for an energy hub like the Kingdom, one of the most important ways in which 4IR principles can be applied is in the field of energy. Especially considering the big issue facing the world over the coming decades — the need to reduce harmful emissions in the atmosphere and mitigate global warming.
As Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman made clear in his remarks at the forum, 4IR has direct practical
applications in energy. The Kingdom has already made big advances, for example in the installation of 10 million “smart” meters to help with the drive to greater efficiency in the use of electricity.
Automation and the Internet of Things can facilitate efficient energy logistics, while drones can monitor facilities that would be inaccessible or even dangerous for human inspectors, reducing the possibility of damage and leaks that could be environmentally damaging.
But the technologies of the 4IR can also be used in a more strategic way, too. It can speed the energy transition and help the Kingdom, and indeed the world, meet the targets of the Paris Agreement for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Saudi Arabia has pioneered the framework of the Circular Carbon Economy (CCE) as a way of overcoming the climate change challenge. This approach was endorsed unanimously last year at the G20 summit of world leaders held under the Saudi G20 presidency.
CCE advocates the reduction, recycling, and reuse — the 3 Rs — of carbon emissions across industrial processes, which are goals that are now familiar and accepted across the world as a way of mitigating harmful emissions.
Carbon capture, utilization, and storage are essential if greenhouse gasses are to be gradually eliminated as a threat to the atmosphere and the environment.
But the crucial fourth R — removal — is the one where new technologies and innovative approaches are the most important and most challenging. There are already technologies available that can actually remove CO2 emissions directly from the air, but they are small in scale and costly.
Making these technologies bigger scale and economically viable will require multibillion-dollar investment in research and development, but the end result will be well worth it.
Despite what the radical environmentalists say, hydrocarbon fuel is the most efficient and powerful energy resource humanity has ever invented. It is responsible for all the economic advances and reduction in poverty we have enjoyed over the past 150 years since the beginning of the age of oil.
Life without hydrocarbons, which some of the more extreme activists seem to be suggesting, would be very uncomfortable indeed — virtually a return to the stone age.
If the technology of the 4IR can help alleviate the harmful side effects of hydrocarbon fuels, while allowing us to continue to enjoy its economic benefits, that would be a huge step forward for the whole of mankind.
• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai
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