The key to our survival: a green planet or green technologies?

The UN Global Compact Network UK’s Climate Action Summit explored how businesses can address climate change through nature-based solutions and the circular economy. Alexandra Ranft, Climate Action Project Manager at UN Global Compact Network UK, reflects on the arguments and outcomes of the concluding debate, held at Foresight Group.

The current state of our climate is dire. We know that average global temperatures are increasing, and yet we are not reducing carbon emissions quickly enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Solutions are desperately needed to scale the reductions required to maintain a habitable planet. In a world with limited resources, we must decide where to invest our time and money to avoid climate catastrophe. Which solutions hold out the most promise? Where should we focus our efforts?

Many would argue that technology holds the key. A report by Allied Market Research estimates that the global green technology and sustainability market will be valued at over $74 billion by 2030. Green technology has the potential to ensure a more sustainable future by creating low-carbon alternatives to current industrial processes; facilitating renewable energy systems; artificially sequestering carbon; reducing, reusing, and recycling waste – the list goes on.

Nature already provides many of these benefits and services free of charge, but sadly the degradation of the planet and its resources means that these processes may be limited or not occurring at all. However, nature and natural capital provide the means for life on Earth – something that green technology will likely never be able to replace. It is vital that we preserve nature to protect the ecosystems and organisms upon which we rely.

To explore either end of this spectrum of solutions, the UN Global Compact Network UK hosted a formal debate to deliberate the following motion:

Green technologies cannot substitute for nature in supporting life on Earth. Therefore, this house believes that in our efforts to tackle climate change, investment in the protection and restoration of nature must be prioritised over the development of novel technologies.

Dan Wells, Partner at Foresight Group and Chair of the debate, framed the topic using Charles C. Mann’s vision of Wizards and Prophets – Wizards believe that science and technology allow us to solve our way out of our problems, while Prophets believe that there are natural limits to the world and we “transgress these limits at our peril”.

Our Wizards, arguing in favour of investment in novel technologies, offered strong points against our motion. Made up of three sustainability experts from CGI, Sedex, and Suez, they were well-placed to understand the power of technology and how its applications can move us towards a more sustainable world.

They noted that although nature is vitally important, it cannot provide carbon removals at the scale or pace required to keep up with the rate that humans are putting carbon into the atmosphere. Instead, the Wizards highlighted the potential of carbon capture and storage technologies, citing that although these projects require further investment, they are a promising solution for limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Additionally, they pointed out that to achieve net zero and reduce our carbon emissions, we must employ renewable energy technologies, electric vehicles, material recycling systems, etc. – which all require significant investment. It is simply not possible for us to tackle climate change without these solutions.

It was emphasised that green technologies provide new opportunities for not only supporting the planet, but also people. Opportunities for job growth, more efficient cities, reducing poverty, and increasing food production. Our Wizards stressed that technology is a tool, and we must carefully develop this tool if we want it to be as useful as possible. Investing in technology already has a level of buy-in that nature does not, and this can be used to our advantage to mobilise solutions quickly that enhance the world, rather than simply maintain existing conditions.

Our pro-tech team also highlighted the key role that technology has to play in nature-based solutions, especially in the area of measurement and data. Our knowledge of nature and its intricacies only scratches the surface, so mapping its potential and measuring our impacts can help us utilise nature more efficiently, and even improve the performance of ecological services. Nature is currently operating in a degraded state, so technologies could be used to collect more accurate data about the processes that drive our planet. For example, peatlands are a large natural carbon sink. CGI is developing new technologies to monitor peatland health in Indonesia and provide information to policymakers so that they can restore these valuable areas at the rate required to prevent ecological collapse. Without this data, the damaged peatlands could have reached the point of no return before adequate investment in their restoration was realised. In this way, technology can be used to serve our planet and allow nature the time it needs to rebound to its full capacity.

While they made strong points, the Wizards were well-matched by our team of Prophets, consisting of experts from Arup, Bioregional, and London Wildlife Trust. They used the above reasoning – that we’re only beginning to understand nature’s complex systems – to argue that our lack of knowledge is reassurance of our need to invest in nature-based solutions – because no man-made systems will be able to replicate what nature does on its own. The Prophets referenced mangroves as a prime example of this. Mangrove forests on the west coast of Madagascar support local communities by providing livelihoods, food, and timber for houses, all while protecting from storm surges and sea level rise. They also sequester huge amounts of carbon and help save approximately $65 billion a year in weather-related loss and damage. The Prophets stressed that to think that technology could seamlessly replace all these benefits would be indicative of human arrogance.

The Prophets also raised an important rebuttal that although technologies may have the ability to artificially sequester carbon, there is significant embodied carbon associated with the sourcing, manufacturing, transport, usage, and disposal of those technologies. This directly negates their purpose. Additionally, technologies are often designed to solve specific problems, and therefore, can have an array of unintended consequences. For example, lithium mining for electric vehicles has severe environmental and human rights implications. This indicates that green technologies might not be the silver bullet we hope them to be.

While nature-based solutions may take some time, we will not have a planet fit to live on if we don’t invest in them. To preserve our natural carbon sinks and avoid the knock-on and uncertain detrimental effects that could arise from ecosystem collapse, we must scale finance to make this a priority. The Prophets highlighted that this is not without benefit to investors – nature-based solutions have been underway for over 30 years and provide substantial returns when implemented correctly. For this reason, they are the most viable solution for tackling climate change, while also supporting local communities, biodiversity, and other resources which we desperately require for survival.

Our teams were highly successful in articulating their arguments. In a narrow audience vote – 54% to 46% – the pro-nature Prophets came out victorious. However, the tech Wizards were successful in swaying more people away from the initial audience consensus (58% to 42%).

While the Wizards and Prophets might disagree, it is not so important who won the debate. We hosted the event to encourage both our debaters and our audience to step outside of their comfort zones, and ultimately illustrate that investing solely in one side is irrational – a multifaceted approach is required. It does not make sense to strive for a natural paradise or a tech utopia, we should be aiming to design a world where nature is thriving, and technology is an integral part of supporting that goal.

We must break out of our siloed thinking and consider the wider systems in which we live. Technology cannot replace nature, instead, it should be utilised to enable nature to successfully perform its functions. The only way forward is to invest in all the tools at our disposal to develop holistic solutions that preserve our planet for generations to come.

Alexandra Ranft is a Climate Action Senior Project Manager at UN Global Compact Network UK, part of the world’s largest responsible business initiative connecting companies and other organisations in a global movement dedicated to driving more sustainable growth.  

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