It is not too late to tap into the transformative potential of digital technologies to tackle the climate crisis, according to a new study by Future Earth. Initially trailed as holding the key to unlocking a new age of fairness and environmental progress, digital innovation has too often been diverted on to a regressive path, one generating outcomes at odds with the interests of humankind.
“The initial promise of the digital revolution was democratised information, more accountable governments through broader citizen participation, and the growth of a more equitable and greener economy,” said Amy Luers, Executive Director of Future Earth and the project’s leader. “Yet many of these aspirations have not been realised, because society failed to anticipate how the digital revolution would unfold. As a result, today the digital world threatens individual rights, human dignity, social justice, the future of democracy, and environmental sustainability.”
Europe is making big policy changes to realise this early promise to benefit both people and planet.
Robbert Fisher an expert contributor on AI and EU policy for Innovators Magazine, said: “The EU green deal addresses a broad range of policy areas, from clean and better use of energy to sustainable mobility and sustainable food systems. Most of these areas are increasingly data driven, and AI is essential to reap the full benefits of the massive amounts of data, make the required progress and reach the policy objectives.”
He added: “In other areas, AI will bring significant progress in fields such as climate modeling and simulation. For example, by offering climate disaster mitigation, where massive amounts of data exist and AI-based decision support systems will allow for faster and more accurate responses.”
The Future Earth report: Digital Disruptions for Sustainability (D^2S), compiled over a year by nearly 300 international experts from academia, business and civil society, sets out strategies for making the interconnections between humans, the digital world and natural world work better in delivering a ‘sustainable and equitable world’.
“Climate strategies tend to focus on targeting investments on emission reductions by sector,” said Amy Luers. “This sector-based work is critical, of course, but insufficient to meet our climate goals. This is because while research indicates that deep decarbonisation is technically possible, we have not yet figured out how to steer society onto a deep decarbonisation path. More research and innovation on this issue are urgently needed.”
Amy added: “This is the focus of the D^2S Agenda. It approaches climate as a social challenge. Rather than focus on the high carbon-emitting sectors, the Agenda focuses on the rules, norms, power structures, and mindsets underpinning all sectors and constraining climate actions.”
The paper investigates the hurdles and pathways for using tech to accelerate a societal global revolution that can mainstream habits robust enough to deliver the Paris Agreement climate goals. It proposes steps such as harnessing digital technologies to decentralise power, and that can inspire people to ditch their reliance on fossil fuels.
“We will only achieve our sustainability goals if digitalisation is consciously geared towards them,” said Dirk Messner, President of the German Environment Agency
The D^2S Agenda presents a framework focused on four digital disruptors: sensor technologies, social web and mobile devices, big data and mixed reality. Lucas Joppa, the Chief Environment Officer at Microsoft, who is an advisor on the D^2S Agenda said that ‘accelerating investment and deployment of AI solutions can ‘mitigate climate-related risk for businesses, and fundamentally transform how we manage Earth’s natural resources for a more prosperous and climate-stable future.”
Data is not the new oil – it’s the new plutonium.
Jim Balsilie Canadian Council of Innovators; member, Future Earth Advisory Committee, said: “Data is amazingly powerful, dangerous when it spreads, difficult to clean up and has serious consequences when improperly used. Data governance is therefore more urgent as a policy challenge than climate change because abuse of data compromises the very democratic processes on which we rely to intelligently and effectively address challenges like climate change. The Digital Disruptions for Sustainability Agenda provides a helpful framework for understanding the powerful connection between the data governance and the climate agendas, and highlights important work needed to move forward on both.”
Including the most marginalised in society is also highlighted in the report as being critical to any ambitions for growing digital solutions to the climate crisis.
“Sustainability calls for digital empowerment of the poor; not digital empowerment for the poor,” said Leena Srivastava, Deputy Director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and a co-chair of Future Earth Advisory Committee.
The D^2S Agenda is integral to the new Sustainability in the Digital Age initiative that is striving to spread the net and bring people from all backgrounds into this interconnected digital space to achieve transformational change on a scale that can build a sustainable world.