Opinion: Digital tech could help save us from climate catastrophe - or make it worse
Published Thursday, November 4, 2021 12:13PM EDT Last Updated Thursday, November 4, 2021 12:13PM EDT
MONTREAL -- Climate change and the digital revolution are perhaps the two greatest forces shaping our world today.
But it’s up to us to decide whether digital technologies help solve, or further exacerbate, our sustainability challenges.
On one hand, remote sensing equipment, supercomputers and AI help us track, analyze and predict everything from carbon emissions to patterns of deforestation and impacts on biodiversity.
What’s more, according to the Digital Disruptions for Sustainability Agenda, the digital world creates “systemic opportunities for driving the large-scale societal transformations needed to build a climate-safe and equitable world.”
In a recent project, researchers from Sustainability in the Digital Age and Future Earth, supported by ClimateWorks Foundation, compiled a database of 200 digitally enabled climate-change mitigation initiatives.
They showed how these tools could foster data-informed policy and climate leadership through: data mobilization to strengthen decision-making; digital optimization of existing strategies; incentivizing and automating behavioral change; and enhancing participation and empowerment.
However, we know digital technologies also have profoundly negative environmental and societal consequences. Using AI to improve oil and gas exploration, extraction and production, or to nudge us toward unsustainable levels of consumption, and the consolidation of economic and political power in the hands of the digital elite, are but a few examples.
Beyond how they are used, digital technologies themselves carry an environmental cost. Estimates from 2015 showed that information and communication technology accounted for up to 5 per cent of global energy demand.
Since the pandemic has shifted so much work online, some of it irrevocably, that share is growing quickly. Reducing the carbon footprint of the world’s computer technologies – by increasing societal use of renewable energy, designing energy-efficient algorithms, greening data centres, and countless other optimization options – is critical.
But in this decade of action, we also need to harness digital capabilities to help change the norms, rules, power dynamics and mindsets that continue to limit transformative action on sustainability.
Across rich nations, citizen-voters consistently rate climate change as an urgent priority – even during a pandemic. We expect our governments to regulate sectors (including technologies) that raise health, safety and moral concerns. We need to include climate and other environmental issues among them.
Two of digital technology’s greatest strengths – the capacity to collect data and to share it in real time – have the power to shift market forces to promote transparency and collective engagement locally and globally.
Just as activist shareholders pressure companies to green their operations today, increasing transparency according to FAIR and CARE principles would uncover how, and how much, digital technologies are being used, thereby increasing accountability.
Well-informed citizens could then spot greenwash and influence service providers – and eventually firms across the financial and other industries – to choose objectives and energy sources that are healthier for people and the planet. Transparency means accountability.
Rather than wait for governments to act decisively, some major technology companies are already working to decrease their environmental impact and help their clients do the same.
But most companies and large organizations still haven’t acknowledged how new technologies have contributed to accelerated global environmental damage, nor prioritized climate action at the level needed to avoid catastrophic impacts.
Meanwhile, the planet warms and storms. Government incentives and regulations around digital sustainability and clear signals around the development of data standards for monitoring, reporting and verification will lead to better outcomes sooner.
Given the all-encompassing nature of digital technologies, new evidence-based regulatory frameworks must involve multiple stakeholders. Data is not in short supply, but to design new standards, we first need to achieve a fundamental understanding of how to evaluate the intent and impact of digital technologies and their applications.
The Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability is well placed to begin this work by convening governments, industry, the research community and citizen groups.
Digital technologies have already demonstrated their undeniable power. Harnessed properly, they put the power to create greener, inclusive economies in our hands.
Eliane Ubalijoro is Global Hub Director, Canada, for Future Earth, the UN sustainability-research consortium, and Executive Director at Sustainability in the Digital Age.
Damon Matthews is Concordia University Research Chair in Climate Science and Sustainability in Montreal.
Graham Carr is President and Vice-Chancellor of Montreal’s Concordia University.