Tech’s Impact on a Global Climate Emergency

It's no silver bullet, but it could help

Key Takeaways

  • The world is in a “climate emergency,” according to the U.N., and consumers and governments must make changes to increase sustainability for the future.
  • Technological innovations in various sectors are likely to go unnoticed by consumers but could have the impact needed to mitigate climatological disaster.
  • Governments will have to move to an internationalist view of politics and economic development to alleviate human-caused climate change for the next generation, experts say.
Floating solar panels installed on water supply of neighbouring greenhouses, elevated view, Netherlands.
Mischa Keijser / Getty Images

Scientists believe the world is on the cusp of a climate disaster, and experts suggest the adoption of increasingly extreme technological (and sociological) measures is the best way to avert the most likely outcomes. 

On December 12, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres urged world leaders at the Climate Ambition Summit to declare a state of climate emergency in hopes of getting key countries to adopt more comprehensive strategies. He cited the increase in carbon dioxide-intensive sectors by G20 countries in stimulus packages adopted to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. In step with scientific research, Guterres recommends prominent governments commit to efforts to counteract climate change including social reforms.

"We face a climate emergency, not a minor problem that is less important than building roads or restoring tourism to pre-pandemic levels. It needs the sort of focus applied in the U.S.A. after Pearl Harbor, which was recognized as an existential threat to the country," Ian Lowe, emeritus professor at Griffith University who specializes in sustainability and climate change consequences, said in an interview with Lifewire

Sustainability vs. Innovation                               

The debate between sustainability and innovation has continued as global leaders rethink economic development in a world experts claim is teetering on ecological collapse. Earlier this month, Japan promised to end the sale of petroleum-based vehicles, opting instead for the production of energy-efficient electric and hybrid alternatives. They hope to phase out gasoline-engine automobiles by 2035.

Other countries set to phase out gasoline-based automobiles include Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands, and Norway, as well as the U.K. For America, the first state opting for this commitment is California, which hopes to end the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars by 2035. The decarbonization of the automobile industry will likely be the most widespread, noticeable shift for consumers.

"The most enduring concern tackling climate policy adoption is whether countries are willing or able to adopt more politically-charged solutions."

The shift to more green energies and clean technologies will go unnoticed by the average person, Lowe said. These changes will help improve the longevity of our planet and have little to no impact on the everyday lives of Americans.

"The consumer won’t notice that their electricity is coming from clean supply technologies rather than dirty ones, the power will still flow from the sockets in the same way," he said. "If we had governments that were thinking ahead and mandating achievable improvements in appliance efficiency, consumers would certainly notice their power bills reducing."

Sustainability has long-produced more affordable energy alternatives. Renewables fell below the cost of coal back in 2018 and have only continued to decrease in price, hitting record lows in 2020. People could see their light bills reducing in the not-so-distant future, as more facilities and residential areas adopt green options like solar and wind energy.  

New Tech on the Horizon

Renewable energy has exploded in the wake of 2020. According to the latest data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), carbon-free electricity has accounted for upward of 90% of power capacity added this year, mostly solar and wind energy. This almost has doubled over the past five years; in 2015, renewable energy’s power capacity sat at about 50%. 

Researchers from the IEA suggest this could increase again in 2021. "The future looks brighter with new capacity additions on course to set fresh records this year and next," Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, said in a press release. In the next five years, the organization expects 95% of power capacity to be renewable.

Wind turbines on a a hilltop at sunset.
chinaface / Getty Images

Aside from new green energies, another emerging market refocusing the way people consume is lab-grown food products. Earlier this month, the first clean protein, known as no-kill meat, was approved for sale in Singapore. The food is a lab-grown chicken from California-based retailer Eat Just. 

Firms around the world are developing other lab-grown proteins, including beef and pork, with the expressed purpose of decreasing livestock production. The climate-change footprint of the livestock industry is enormous: accounting for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization. A dietary shift is one of the key ways society must change to meet the scientific demands.

We’re probably not going to see lab-grown beef on our plates anytime soon. But with an alternative to the massive livestock industry, consumers will soon be able to make more informed decisions about their consumption on a fundamental level.

"Collectively we need to move together to implement accelerated climate action," urban planning researcher Kathryn Davidson said in an interview with Lifewire. “The key issue is we trial, have ad hoc experiments around climate action (i.e. trial the technology maybe with waste [and] green roofs), but often these trials do not translate to scaling out the experiments across a city.”

Novelties like geoengineering with CO2 absorbing "green beaches," by Project Vesta, or cement-free concrete, by Carbicrete (cement production accounts for 10% of CO2 emissions), have hit the scene. However, these futuristic projects are largely seen as gimmicks unlikely to be adopted on the scale necessary to effect long-term change. The average person might not be able to afford a trip to a green beach and a municipality might not be able to opt for Carbicrete in-place of industrial concrete, but there is hope for urban planning.

Researchers have talked about smart cities to decrease air pollution in crowded metropolitan areas. German port city Hamburg was among the first to adopt mobile-operated generators. These allow for huge gas-guzzling ships to hook to the mainland power supply from a distance, decreasing harmful air emissions in a bustling port town. Adopting technological solutions in densely populated cities may also prove to be helpful.  

"Collectively we need to move together to implement accelerated climate action."

Global Economic Innovation

The most enduring concern tackling climate policy adoption is whether countries are willing or able to adopt more politically charged solutions. Guterres lamented the notion of self-interested governments in his speech to the U.N., saying the point is to fight for a global future for the next generations. 

Governments will need to understand the ripple effect of their policies and actions, and inaction is of top concern for scientists and activists.

To afford the development of new, green technologies, poorer countries may need serious economic aid from international bodies such as nations that belong to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, known as OECD. Technological advancements allow for a degree of cooperation and sharing between countries, but it can only go so far. To Lowe, that is not far enough.  

“It is almost impossible to see how technological improvements that are in the pipeline can achieve the emissions reductions needed to keep the increase in average global temperature below the less demanding Paris target of 2 degrees Celsius by 2030,” he said.

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