Opinion Column

Technological Innovation Alone Will Not Solve the Triple Environmental Crisis

Published August 12, 2021
  • This column was published in the Diario Financiero.

In the wake of the alarming report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regarding the drastic consequences of climate change, UN Secretary General António Guterres is emphatic in stating that “The warning bells are deafening and the evidence is irrefutable.” Limiting global warming to 1.5°C is an enormous challenge and has never been more urgent, but the consequences of an escalating climate crisis are confronting the world with far greater challenges. Fires, floods, and droughts are increasingly frequent, costing human lives, destroying natural spaces and habitats, and causing enormous economic damage.

Technological innovation is now considered an important ally in combating climate change. It is an attractive scenario that offers the illusion of carrying on with business as usual, just more efficient and with new, cleaner technologies. It promotes the dream of a simple decoupling: to reduce the use of resources, materials, energy, etc. and therefore the environmental impact, without sacrificing abundance.

Technological progress alone is neither good or bad. It is and will be critical to transform our linear economy into a circular one, and for the energy transition. But its main goal must be the resolution of the environmental and social crisis and not only the generation of more economic growth; without this approach it can even lead to what is known as the Jevons paradox or rebound effect: the savings per productive unit achieved are compensated at the aggregate level by an over-demand of the resource. This occurs, for example, when water savings achieved through irrigation efficiency in agriculture is used to expand the plantation area, instead of making it available for other sensitive (or vulnerable) uses or, for the ecosystem. We therefore require in first place a clear overview to guide the implementation and use of these technologies, and to ensure that innovation does not simply become a giveaway/2 x 1.

But even if this rebound effect fails to occur, it is important to keep in mind that more and more people in the world have access to products and services that were previously unavailable to them, and that we are increasing our individual consumption levels. This increase in consumers and consumption alone will generate an additional increase in emissions.

Given the above, in addition to a clear vision for innovation and technological change, it is necessary to reduce the material wealth of each of us and move towards social and economic change. This path is of course much less attractive than the previous one, because it requires us to consume less and also to change our behavior and habits.

Reducing production and consumption is an effective and safe way to reduce GHG emissions, because it does not depend on the success of the required technological innovations, as forcefully demonstrated during the COVID crisis. The key question is whether we can imagine a scenario in which this reduction is not accompanied by crises and social hardship. The goal then, must be to achieve a social transformation that seeks to produce and consume less, but at the same time satisfies concrete human needs and serves the common good.

For the desired effect of social and economic changes to happen, it is not enough for a group of individuals to voluntarily change their behavior. Although there has been a trend to privatize the responsibility for environmental protection by transferring it to the consumer, this cannot depend solely on the voluntary decision of each individual and their economic capacity to make a sustainable purchase. On the contrary, it is necessary to carry out a structural transformation modeled by the State, leading to social, economic, and ecological balance, including greater well-being and a better quality of life for everyone.

Both paths must be implemented. The path of innovation and technological change, and the path of reducing our consumption and changing our behaviors and habits, in order to achieve the path to net zero by 2050. As the IPCC report puts it: every tonne of CO2 matters.

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