The world is under increasing pressure to find sustainable options to reduce emissions or mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Technology entrepreneurs from around the world claim to have the solutions – not just now, but soon. The biotech sector in particular is now using climate change as an urgent argument more government money, public support and fewer regulatory hurdles for their industry.
But the urgency of climate change increases the risk of superficial claims and actions. In our new Researchwe describe how the current technology push cycle continues to promise to save humanity from climate change, thereby delaying real progress.
The rescue technology pipeline is long and the benefit is hypothetical. Like the Popeye character Wimpy, tech developers want their burger today, but will repay society with climate solutions on a future Tuesday.
Climate change is an existential threat, but it is just one of many symptoms of environmental damage we have caused. Humanity has pushed Earth beyond multiplicity border borders and the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is just one indicator of the many excesses of human activity.
Technological solutions not only rarely lead to sustainable solutions, they can also exacerbate the damage. Lulled into complacency by ‘technological ideas’, we delay too long in coming up with difficult but effective solutions.
Technical solutions only address symptoms
Biotechnologies can make valuable contributions to halting or mitigating the effects of climate change. Contributions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or better adapt plants to the changing climate would help. However, these address the symptoms, not the cause of environmental degradation.
Climate change is an ‘appealing’ problem because there are so many technological ways to solve it. That quality makes societies vulnerable to the siren song of technology pushers.
For example, if climate change is described as a threat to food production, then technologies that promise to increase food production despite climate change would be attractive. One of those prospects is to increase photosynthesis. Genetic modification of the key enzyme in photosynthesis (RuBisCO) could improve carbon dioxide binding. More plant biomass may be the result.
However, increased photosynthesis may not increase yield, nutritional value or levels of micronutrients in crops. Even if this approach worked outside the lab, the plants wouldn’t be any less vulnerable to increasingly frequent droughts and floods. These plants will also demand more nitrogen fertilizerleading to more greenhouse gas emissions.
Maybe we can have more biomass, but not better or more food for people. Some of our crops could make better use of the extra carbon in the atmosphere, but the lack of access to sufficient and desirable food would continue. If we don’t address this fundamental problem, we will need more crops and livestock, undermining any efficiency gains.
Technologies are not alternatives to action
Implementing such technologies also extends colonial dependency on richer countries and overlooks the rights and inputs of indigenous and local peoples.
Identifying the fundamental social purpose, rather than the proximate technological purpose, is essential to achieving sustainability. “Goal pull” rather than “technology push” approaches do this.
Climate change is a symptom of environmental degradation and the multifarious complexity of poverty. These are malignant problems that societies find difficult to solve, making technologies increasingly attractive as an alternative to action. The market is good at trading technology futures.
Try rephrasing the goal as food security as measured by indicators of reduced hunger around the world. Governments now have solutions at their disposal that include both social and technological options.
For example, reducing food waste so that more nutritious food reaches people who need it reduces the demand to produce more food in the first place. Food waste alone will cause 5.7–7.9 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The excess nitrogen used in agriculture to produce food is also a major source of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
Reducing food waste depends on detailed planning to leverage technologies that are useful by design rather than opportunity. More random production can result in competition with food. For example, excess corn production in the US has led to a large share of corn being used for non-food purposes such as bioethanol, despite the intensive use of resources required to produce these calories.
Failure to meet the target of feeding more people also provides useful feedback on the adequacy of the strategy or measures chosen. For example, if available calories have increased but nutrition has not improved, it may be because farmers need support to develop polycultures, or healthier options need to be made more accessible.
The goal pull approach takes us to feedback-optimized combinations of social and technological innovation that solve root problems.
To save a patient’s life, it may be necessary to treat the symptoms of the disease. With climate change, we are forced into the same situation. Nevertheless, we should not use the urgency of climate change to delay breaking habits that will lead to future environmental and social catastrophes.