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Quantum technology: Is it a part of the solution for some of our biggest sustainability challenges?

Gireesh Kumar Neelakantaiah
23 Nov 2022

Society must find a way to act on climate change, deliver on net-zero ambitions and meet long-term goals for sustainable development.

We believe quantum technology could be a crucial tool for creating a step change in our approach to sustainability. However, we must set the right expectations for the role quantum can play.

In 2015, the United Nations (UN) and its member states defined a collection of 17 global goals designed to be a “blueprint for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all.” These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address global challenges, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice.

Seven years later and the recent COP 27 conference in Egypt has highlighted once again the urgent need to act on these goals. The world faces a confluence of ever-increasing pressures, from continued global warming and increasing carbon emissions, to fears over rising poverty and inequality due to macro-economic and geopolitical tensions. Unless we act effectively, our attempts to achieve these SDGs could be thwarted.

We believe that one of the solutions is quantum technology, which offers a range of levers to help societies act on sustainability. Right now, it’s crucial to emphasize the watchword is potential. We are a long way from meeting net zero ambitions or achieving our SDGs through the application of quantum.

Yet we also believe it’s crucial to explore every avenue. Quantum is one long-term route to change – and we should start investigating this technology at the earliest opportunity.

Why emerging technologies can be part of the solution

Quantum is the latest in a long line of emerging technologies that will change how we interact with the world, and how it interacts with us. Just like cloud and big data before it – and alongside artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the metaverse during the next decade – quantum technology is likely to have a transformative impact on society.

But before we talk about how, it’s crucial to recognize that society’s application of technology also needs to change. For all the millions of people that have been empowered by easy access to information on computing devices, there remain large swathes of the global population that are unconnected and unaffected by the information revolution.

What’s more, technology remains one of the big contributors to global emissions. The scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions generated by the IT industry are responsible for about 4% of CO2 emissions globally – one and a half times more than those generated by the aviation industry. Worse still, this level of emissions is projected to grow steadily in forthcoming years.

We must do all we can to slow this trend. If we are to deliver sustainable development, then we must think much more carefully about the technologies we use and the impact they have on society and the environment. When we introduce quantum technology, the goal must be to deliver a positive result for sustainable development, where the key is mindset.

How quantum technologies can help us deliver on our SDGs

Quantum comes in three main forms: quantum computing, which promises exponential increases in processing power at scale; quantum communication and security, which offers new mechanisms for data protection and secured communication; and quantum sensing, which involves a class of sensors that promises higher levels of measurement sensitivity.

These technologies are at varying levels of maturity, but they’re also moving out of the laboratory and into real-world applications. This applicability to the UN SDGs is stronger in some goals than others, and we believe quantum could deliver a big impact in several key areas and the related industry sectors. Here are some use case examples and potential applications:

  • Affordable and clean energy – Simulation using quantum algorithms for research and development in battery, solar, and nuclear power; optimization of power grid and energy operations to improve performance; and quantum-based machine learning in energy management, power generation, and predictive maintenance.
  • Good health and well-being – Improving the process of in silico drug discovery for the design and development of new drugs; optimize chemical and biological processes; enhance automation of pathology and imaging analysis as part of the diagnostics process.
  • Industry, innovation, and infrastructure – Optimization of transport, utility, and telecommunications systems; real-time optimization of production flows, demand forecasting, and supplier risk modelling; and using quantum simulation to create stronger concrete, find efficient catalysts for manufacturing, and boost fluid dynamics.
  • Sustainable cities and communities – Optimizing traffic routes, public transport, and resource usage in smart cities; using algorithms to build efficient buildings and simulate healthier environments; and applying machine-learning capabilities to equipment maintenance, intelligent surveillance, and crowd management.

Conclusion: A plea for consideration

Other potential applications include using quantum computing to improve the process of fertilizer production, applying quantum simulation to advance research into water filtration, and using quantum technologies to monitor environmental impact and decarbonize air.

Let’s be clear: we are a long way from finding a quantum solution to the world’s biggest sustainability challenges. However, we also believe it’s crucial to start planning for a quantum advantage now and to think about funding mechanisms for explorations.

There is already significant industry and government interest in research and development. The Capgemini Research Institute reveals that almost a quarter (23%) of organizations plan to leverage quantum technologies within the next five years. And Horizon Europe, the EU research and innovation program, is funding quantum research in air foil aerodynamics, battery and fuel cell design, and space mission optimization, that could have a longer term impact on sustainability.  At Capgemini, our dedicated lab, a team of global quantum experts, is also exploring the potential impact of this emerging technology.

These kinds of initiatives are crucial. Indiscreet use of technology has sometimes been a hindrance to sustainability, especially when it comes to carbon emissions. We can’t allow this to continue. We all have a role to play, and we should explore every potential avenue for change, including the promise of quantum.

So, rather than a “call to action,” consider this as a “plea for consideration.” Join us as we help you find out more about the fast-evolving area of quantum technology and its potential impact on delivering sustainable development.

To find out more read our point of view on Sustainable development and quantum technologies.

Gireesh Kumar Neelakantaiah

Global Strategy, Capgemini’s Quantum Lab
Leading go-to-market initiatives for the Quantum Lab, including solution development, strategic planning, business and commercial model innovation, and ecosystem partner and IP licensing management; Skilled in Quantum computing (IBM Qiskit), Data science, AI/ML/Deep learning, Digital manufacturing & Industrial IoT, Cloud computing.