Need to stay focused on Green Technology

Need to stay focused on Green Technology

ZAWYA’s #TECHNOLOGY of 16 July, 2019 published this post on The need to stay focused on green technology. It is written by Mazen Al Saleh, Strategic execution manager in Refinitiv.

Actions by individuals and businesses, such as improving energy efficiency in the home or office, make a difference.

The role of technology in keeping climate catastrophe at bay is becoming ever more critical. The resurgence of protests around the world such as the civil havoc wreaked by Extinction Rebellion or the school strikes begun by Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has renewed pressure on governments to “do something”, no matter how unrealistic or economically ruinous.

The individual and political solutions usually meant by “doing something” are not as straightforward as they sound and may actually create more difficulties than they solve. Actions by individuals and businesses, such as improving energy efficiency in the home or office, make a difference, but this is still a drop in the ocean when put up against the output of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. They are also a bit hit-and-miss. Many of us are happy to do our bit of recycling or to stop the tap running while we brush our teeth, but how many of us are prepared never to fly again or to take up a vegan diet?

Similarly, swingeing political solutions such as carbon and fuel taxes can jolly things along, but such taxes inevitably hit the poor hardest and contribute to their own political unrest, as seen with the Yellow Vest movement in France, which could backfire by encouraging the election of more climate-sceptic leaders such as Donald Trump.

Technology presents only opportunities
Yet where individual and political solutions pose their own problems, the technological approach presents only opportunities. The growing recognition of the essential role played by green technology is highlighted by the fact that the World Green Economy Summit held in Dubai last year included a discussion on the role of technology in the green economy, this year it will be the summit’s overarching theme. 

One example of the win-win nature of technological solutions to green issues is renewable energy. In its early days, renewables were seen by many as nothing more than a way for governments to spend taxpayers’ money on switching to more expensive energy. But we hung in there and the fruits are beginning to show. Prices of renewables, particularly solar, are through better technology being brought to a point where not only do they no longer require public subsidy, but turn a profit enough that they become an attractive business proposition. 

Two years ago the World Economic Forum reported that solar and wind power had fallen to the same price or even cheaper than new fossil fuel capacity in more than 30 countries. This was a crucial tipping point for renewable energy, and has led to a big increase in its use by corporates in particular around the world. A report produced last year by FTSE Russell found that the green economy was outperforming much of the rest of the global economy, making green technology an increasingly appealing investment prospect. 

Much still to be done
Still, despite renewable power having accounted for 70 percent of net additions to global power generating capacity in 2017, greenhouse gas emissions edged higher that year nonetheless, showing there is still much work to be done. The main laggards were the heating, cooling and transport sectors, which account for about 80 percent of global energy demand.

This shows that although technological breakthroughs in areas such as renewable energy can have a win-win impact – reduced emissions and cheaper energy – the road ahead isn’t easy. For example, if there is a greater take-up of electric cars this might cause oil prices to fall, which in turn could increase demand from the aviation sector that would push up emissions.

Despite advances in green technology such as the smart grid, electric vehicles, bioplastics, carbon capture and storage, green computers and green packaging, some critics insist that these advances are not nearly enough. They say that although we have been led by some of the modern world’s amazing inventions into believing that technology can achieve anything that simply isn’t true. They contend that future advances in green technology cannot be blindly relied upon to save the planet, and that essential breakthroughs such as improved battery efficiency in electric vehicles may still be a long way off. 

Technology predicted to potentially cut emissions by 64 percent by 2050
But if there are problems with green technology, they are considerably less than those created by a purely political approach, which will inevitably lead to punitive, and polarising, taxes. Governments would do better to ease the path for innovative firms and startups through funding and supportive legislation so they can find the myriad solutions that will be needed to meet or go beyond the carbon targets of the Paris Agreement. ING in a report issued last year predicted that such an approach could result in a 64 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

To conclude, while the political pressure intensifies to enact all sorts of rash and damaging ecological measures, it is best to keep our heads and do all we can to back and push forward the technological innovations that may not just combat climate change, but do so while strengthening the global economy.

The World Green Economy Summit (WGES) this year will be held at the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre, UAE on October 20th-21st. To learn more about the World Green Economy Summit, please visit the following link http://www.wges.ae/

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Colleges and Universities Declare Climate Emergency

Colleges and Universities Declare Climate Emergency

Published on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 by Common Dreams is this story titled “7,000+ Colleges and Universities Declare Climate Emergency and Unveil Three-Point Plan to Combat It,” reproduced here for obvious reasons with our courtesy to all in Common Dreams.

“We all need to work together to nurture a habitable planet for future generations and to play our part in building a greener and cleaner future for all.” by Jessica Corbett, staff writer.

climate emergency sign
Civic intelligence requires citizen engagement. (Photo: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

More than 7,000 colleges and universities across the globe declared a climate emergency on Wednesday and unveiled a three-point plan to collectively commit to addressing the crisis.

“Young people around the world feel that schools, colleges, and universities have been too slow to react to the crisis that is now bearing down on us.”
—Charlotte Bonner, SOS

The declaration came in a letter—which other education institutions are encouraged to sign—that was organized by the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), U.S.-based higher education climate action organization Second Nature, and U.N. Environment Program’s (UNEP) Youth and Education Alliance.

The letter, according to a statement from organizers, “marks the first time further and higher education establishments have come together to make a collective commitment to address the climate emergency,” and outlines the three-point plan:

  1. Committing to going carbon neutral by 2030 or 2050 at the very latest;
  2. Mobilizing more resources for action-oriented climate change research and skills creation; and
  3. Increasing the delivery of environmental and sustainability education across curricula, campus, and community outreach programs.

“The young minds that are shaped by our institutions must be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and capability to respond to the ever-growing challenges of climate change,” the letter says. “We all need to work together to nurture a habitable planet for future generations and to play our part in building a greener and cleaner future for all.”

The letter, which calls on other institutions and governments to declare a climate emergency and pursue urgent action to combat it, was presented at a Wednesday eventhosted by the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative—a partnership of various United Nations agencies—at U.N. headquarters in New York City.

“The expectation is that over 10,000 institutions of higher and further education will come on board before the end of the 2019, with governments invited to support their leadership with incentives to take action,” said the organizers’ statement. So far, the letter has been signed by 25 networks that represent approximately 7,050 institutions and 59 individual institutions that, combined, have about 652,000 students.

The individual institutions that have joined the declaration include five in the continental United States and two in Puerto Rico as well as colleges and universities in Argentina, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, Germany, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Kenya, Kuwait, Mauritius, Mexico, Nigeria, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela.

“Young people are increasingly at the forefront of calls for more action on climate and environmental challenges. Initiatives which directly involve the youth in this critical work are a valuable contribution to achieving environmental sustainability.”
—Inger Andersen, UNEP

“What we teach shapes the future. We welcome this commitment from universities to go climate neutral by 2030 and to scale-up their efforts on campus,” said UNEP executive director Inger Andersen. “Young people are increasingly at the forefront of calls for more action on climate and environmental challenges. Initiatives which directly involve the youth in this critical work are a valuable contribution to achieving environmental sustainability.”

The declaration follows months of students—from all levels of education—taking to the streets around the world as part of the school strike for climate movement, which calls on governments and powerful institutions to pursue bolder policies targeting the human-caused climate crisis.

Praising the college and universities’ letter on Wednesday, Charlotte Bonner of Students Organizing for Sustainability (SOS) said that “young people around the world feel that schools, colleges, and universities have been too slow to react to the crisis that is now bearing down on us.”

“We welcome the news that they are declaring a climate emergency, we have no time to lose,” Bronner added. “We will be calling on those who haven’t yet supported this initiative, to come on board. Of course, the most important element is the action that follows.”

Read more on Common Dreams.

Joining forces to save Red Sea coral reefs

Joining forces to save Red Sea coral reefs

Scientists from Israel and neighbouring Arab countries are joining forces to save Red Sea coral reefs from the threat of climate change.

The World Economic Forum post dated 14 June 2019 by Johnny Wood, Senior Writer, Formative Content, elaborates on this alliance against a common enemy that is threatening everyone’s very existence.

Is there however any need to say that the reasons for this alliance are above and beyond any other human-based justification(s).

A still image taken from underwater video footage shows corals and fish near barrels, as divers from Israel Nature and Parks Authority remove corals from objects which are part of industrial debris left by Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) after it scaled back its operations, in the Red Sea, near Katza beach in Eilat, Israel March 10, 2019.  Courtesy Omri Omessi/Israel Nature and Parks Authority/Handout via REUTERS
Political differences are being put aside for the sake of the Red Sea’s coral reefs.

Israel is joining forces with Arab states to save coral from climate change destruction

The alliance is the brainchild of Moaz Fine, an Israeli professor at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, who invited marine experts from the countries that border the Red Sea to collaborate at a new research centre. The team will comprise representatives from Israel, Eritrea, Jordan and Egypt, with scientists from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti, which do not recognise Israel.

The countries have put aside political differences in the interests of protecting the natural world they share.

Coping with stress

Scientists, ecologists and oceanographers will come together at the new research centre, based in Bern, Switzerland, to study the impact of bleaching on the Red Sea reefs.

Bleaching occurs when coral reacts to changes in sea temperature, light conditions or nutrients. As global warming increases water temperatures, the delicate balance of reef ecosystems is disrupted, forcing coral to eject the algae that live and feed on them.

What is coral bleaching?

The stressed coral turns white and although it isn’t dead at this point, if the algae loss is prolonged it becomes vulnerable to disease and can eventually die.

But it’s not just coral that is affected when bleaching occurs, as algae forms the foundation of multiple food chains. When algae disappears, creatures higher up the food chain disappear too, turning bleached reefs into underwater deserts.

A climate of change

Although global warming is increasing the scale and frequency of mass bleaching events, coral in the Red Sea has suffered less damage than reefs in other parts of the world, such as in Hawaii and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The research team will investigate studies that suggest Northern Red Sea corals and those in the Gulf of Aqaba are able to withstand higher sea temperatures than in other places, which could help the fight to save the world’s reefs.

Have you read?


Bleaching events have already devastated large parts of the Great Barrier Reef, which is the world’s largest. Within the last five years, more than 30% of the vast reef system is either dead or is threatened with extinction due to rising sea temperatures. That’s an area equal to the size of Italy.

On a global scale, climate change, overfishing and destructive fishing, coastal development and ocean pollution are putting the very existence of our reefs at risk.

As the chart shows, more than half of the Earth’s reefs could be under threat by 2030, and without drastic action, most of our reefs could be gone by mid-century.


As well as hosting millions of plant and marine species, reefs often support employment and tourism in coastal communities. The Red Sea reefs attract diving enthusiasts from all over the world, attracted by colourful marine life and indigenous red and black corals. Their loss could have devastating environmental and economic consequences for current and future generations.

It is hoped that the new research centre will help develop more resilient corals, which will protect reefs and the livelihoods of people who depend on them.

A New Way to Keep Buildings Cool

A New Way to Keep Buildings Cool

The MENA countries could quite happily do with what these researchers at Columbia University are developing, i.e. a new way to keep buildings cool. Here is a story narrated by Diana Madson.

Paint-like material inspired by a heat-tolerant desert Ant could keep buildings cool

It could one day reduce the need for air conditioning.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Researchers at Columbia University are working on a new way to keep buildings cool. They drew inspiration from an unlikely source: a heat-tolerant species of ant called the Saharan Silver Ant. It lives in the scorching desert.

Saharan silver ant

Yu: “They are only active in the middle of the day when the surface of the desert is the hottest.”

In 2015, physics professor Nanfang Yu discovered that this ant’s silvery coating of hair reflects sunlight and radiates heat back to the sky.

Now, he and his colleagues have developed a paint-like material that mimics these functions.

Yu: “So this coating doesn’t heat up under the Sun.”

When applied to a rooftop, it reflects up to ninety-nine per cent of sunlight and emits heat back to the atmosphere.

Yu says that helps cool the building underneath. And it does so far more effectively than white paint, which only reflects certain wavelengths of solar radiation.

If successful, this technology could help reduce the need for energy-intensive air conditioning. Click to Tweet

Yu: “If you put this coating on the top of the roof, that may translate into a saving of electricity in the summertime.”

He says more research and testing is needed before this technology is widely available. But if successful, it could help reduce the need for energy-intensive air conditioning.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.

Iran undertaking measures to boost its green energy

Iran undertaking measures to boost its green energy

International Institute for Non – Aligned Studies came up with the following article that was published on May 27, 2019, by The New Delhi Times. It is all about Iran undertaking measures to boost its green energy programme with obviously the aim to maximise its chances in these days of maximum US administration pressure.

Non-Aligned Movement has called upon the Member States to develop renewable energy and thereby boost green energy. Green energy may be defined as any such energy which comes from natural sources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, plants, algae and geothermal heat.

Iran undertakes measures to boost green energy

These energy resources are renewable, meaning they are naturally replenished and also have a much smaller impact on environment than those caused by fossil fuels.

NAM has thus stressed on the need to accelerate the development, dissemination and deployment of affordable and cleaner energy efficiency and energy conservation technologies, new and renewable energy technologies.

Iran has undertaken a number of measures to boost green energy. Policy makers in Iran have realised that long-term investment in the renewables sector would lead to greater self-sufficiency and address the challenges of climate change. According to the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, Iran has pledged to reduce greenhouse emissions by 4% in 2030. The Government has identified promoting a low-carbon economy as one of its priorities in its 6th Five-Year National Development Plan.

Data on the Iranian energy sector show that 42 percent of the country’s renewable energy comes from solar energy, 41 percent from wind power plants, 13 percent from HPPs, two percent from heat recovery and two percent from biomass.

Iran has produced more than 2.83 billion kWh of electricity from renewable sources since an attempt was made in mid-2009 to shift the focus from fossil fuels to more environmentally friendly types of energy.

This amount of clean energy was produced from July 2009 to the end of February 2019, which reduced the consumption of 804 million cubic meters of fossil fuels. It also saved 623 million litres of water. In addition, the use of clean energy has helped the country reduce emissions of 1.95 million tons of greenhouse gases over the past nine years.

According to a recent comparative study published by Iran’s Renewal Efficiency and Energy Efficiency Organisation (SATBA) and the University of Tehran, there are 19 wind power plants with the capacity of 282.6 MW installed in Iran and about 100 MW are being installed. The report also mentions that employment rate of wind power plants in Iran was higher than the global average. As per the report, employment during the value chain of a-50 MW wind power plant resulted in the creation of 668 direct jobs and 1670 indirect jobs at the installation stage and also 48 direct jobs and 120 indirect jobs were created at the time of operation, repairs and maintenance respectively.

Iran has also embarked upon an ambitious project of setting up solar power plants. In April 2019, Iran launched a 10 megawatt (MW) solar power plant in Abadeh in the southern Fars province. Accord to SATBA, Abadeh solar power plant is one of the largest power plants in the south of Iran.

It is constructed with 100% Iranian design and localized technology for the first time. It should be noted that the construction of the power plant is done by the private sector with an investment volume of over 500 billion Rials and the employment of 64 people at the time of construction and operation. Large swathes of Iran’s Fars province are suitable for producing renewables, particularly for setting up solar farms. Last year, the first major photovoltaic power station in the province, with the capacity of 10 MW, came on stream.

Iran has also begun development of their first geothermal power plant in Meshkinshahr. This pilot project is expected to have an initial 50MW capacity with a further potential of 250MW. A further 14 sites of potential for geothermal power have been identified and agreements are reportedly being signed with international energy companies to accelerate their development.

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

Twitter : @iinsNAM

Email : iins@iins.org

A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself

A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself

Climate change: ‘We’ve created a civilisation hell bent on destroying itself – I’m terrified’, writes Earth scientist James Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter

The coffee tasted bad. Acrid and with a sweet, sickly smell. The sort of coffee that results from overfilling the filter machine and then leaving the brew to stew on the hot plate for several hours. The sort of coffee I would drink continually during the day to keep whatever gears left in my head turning.

Odours are powerfully connected to memories. And so it’s the smell of that bad coffee which has become entwined with the memory of my sudden realisation that we are facing utter ruin.

It was the spring of 2011, and I had managed to corner a very senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during a coffee break at a workshop. The IPCC was established in 1988 as a response to increasing concern that the observed changes in the Earth’s climate are being largely caused by humans.

The IPCC reviews the vast amounts of science being generated around climate change and produces assessment reports every four years. Given the impact the IPPC’s findings can have on policy and industry, great care is made to carefully present and communicate its scientific findings. So I wasn’t expecting much when I straight out asked him how much warming he thought we were going to achieve before we manage to make the required cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

“Oh, I think we’re heading towards 3°C at least,” he said.

“Ah, yes, but heading towards,” I countered: “We won’t get to 3°C, will we?” (Because whatever you think of the 2°C threshold that separates “safe” from “dangerous” climate change, 3°C is well beyond what much of the world could bear.)

“Not so,” he replied.

That wasn’t his hedge, but his best assessment of where, after all the political, economic, and social wrangling we will end up.

“But what about the many millions of people directly threatened,” I went on. “Those living in low-lying nations, the farmers affected by abrupt changes in weather, kids exposed to new diseases?”

He gave a sigh, paused for a few seconds, and a sad, resigned smile crept over his face. He then simply said: “They will die.”


This article is part of Conversation Insights

The Conversation’s Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges. In generating these narratives we hope to bring areas of interdisciplinary research to a wider audience.

You can read more Insights stories here.


A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself
Untold devastation awaits us if radical action is not taken. Frans Delian/Shutterstock.com

That episode marked a clear boundary between two stages of my academic career. At the time, I was a new lecturer in the area of complex systems and Earth system science. Previously, I had worked as a research scientist on an international astrobiology project based in Germany.

In many ways, that had been my dream job. As a young boy, I had lain on the grass on clear summer evenings and looked up at one of the dots in the night sky and wondered if around that star a planet orbited with beings that could look up from the surface of their world and similarly wonder about the chances of life being found within the unremarkable solar system we call home in the universe. Years later, my research involves thinking about how surface life can affect the atmosphere, oceans and even rocks of the planet it lives on.

That’s certainly the case with life on Earth. At a global scale, the air we all breathe contains oxygen largely as a result of photosynthetic life, while an important part of the UK’s national identity for some – the white cliffs of Dover – are comprised of countless numbers of tiny marine organisms that lived more than 70m years ago.

The chalk is made up of ancient pulverised shells of tiny organisms called coccolithophore. John Hemmings/Shutterstock.com

So it wasn’t a very large step from thinking about how life has radically altered the Earth over billions of years to my new research that considers how a particular species has wrought major changes within the most recent few centuries. Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.

Change within a lifetime

I was born in the early 1970s. This means in my lifetime the number of people on Earth has doubled, while the size of wild animal populations has been reduced by 60%. Humanity has swung a wrecking ball through the biosphere. We have chopped down over half of the world’s rainforests and by the middle of this century there may not be much more than a quarter left. This has been accompanied by a massive loss in biodiversity, such that the biosphere may be entering one of the great mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth.

What makes this even more disturbing, is that these impacts are as yet largely unaffected by climate change. Climate change is the ghosts of impacts future. It has the potential to ratchet up whatever humans have done to even higher levels. Credible assessments conclude that one in six species are threatened with extinction if climate change continues.

The scientific community has been sounding the alarm over climate change for decades. The political and economic response has been at best sluggish. We know that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to rapidly reduce emissions now.

A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself
Required emissions reductions to limit warming to 2°C. Robbie Andrew

The sudden increase in media coverage of climate change as a result of the actions of Extinction Rebellion and school strike for climate pioneer Greta Thunburg, demonstrates that wider society is waking up to the need for urgent action. Why has it taken the occupation of Parliament Square in London or children across the world walking out of school to get this message heard?

There is another way of looking at how we have been responding to climate change and other environmental challenges. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because it offers a new perspective that could cut through inaction. Terrifying as it could, if we are not careful, lead to resignation and paralysis.


Read more: Climate change: seeing the planet break down is depressing – here’s how to turn your pain into action


Because one explanation for our collective failure on climate change is that such collective action is perhaps impossible. It’s not that we don’t want to change, but that we can’t. We are locked into a planetary-scale system that while built by humans, is largely beyond our control. This system is called the technosphere.

The technosphere

Coined by US geoscientist Peter Haff in 2014, the technosphere is the system that consists of individual humans, human societies – and stuff. In terms of stuff, humans have produced an extraordinary 30 trillion metric tons of things. From skyscrapers to CDs, fountains to fondue sets. A good deal of this is infrastructure, such as roads and railways, which links humanity together.

Along with the physical transport of humans and the goods they consume is the transfer of information between humans and their machines. First through the spoken word, then parchment and paper-based documents, then radio waves converted to sound and pictures, and subsequently digital information sent via the internet. These networks facilitate human communities. From roving bands of hunter-gatherers and small farming tribes, right up to the inhabitants of a megacity that teams with over 10m inhabitants, Homo sapiens is a fundamentally social species.

A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself
The techno-planet. Joshua Davenport/Shutterstock.com

Just as important, but much less tangible, is society and culture. The realm of ideas and beliefs, of habits and norms. Humans do a great many different things because in important ways they see the world in different ways. These differences are often held to be the root cause of our inability to take effective global action. There is no global government, for a start.

But as different as we all are, the vast majority of humanity is now behaving in fundamentally similar ways. Yes, there are still some nomads who roam tropical rainforests, still some roving sea gypsies. But more than half of the global population now lives in urban environments and nearly all are in some way connected to industrialised activities. Most of humanity is tightly enmeshed into a globalised, industrialised complex system – that of the technosphere.

Importantly, the size, scale and power of the technosphere has dramatically grown since World War II. This tremendous increase in the number of humans, their energy and material consumption, food production and environmental impact has been dubbed the Great Acceleration.

A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself
The great acceleration of the technosphere. Felix Pharand-Deschenes Globaia

The tyranny of growth

It seems sensible to assume that the reason products and services are made is so that they can be bought and sold and so the makers can turn a profit. So the drive for innovation – for faster, smaller phones, for example – is driven by being able to make more money by selling more phones. In line with this, the environmental writer George Monbiot argued that the root cause of climate change and other environmental calamities is capitalism and consequently any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will ultimately fail if we allow capitalism to continue.

But zooming out from the toil of individual manufacturers, and even humanity, allows us to take a fundamentally different perspective, one that transcends critiques of capitalism and other forms of government.

Humans consume. In the first instance, we must eat and drink in order to maintain our metabolism, to stay alive. Beyond that, we need shelter and protection from physical elements.

There are also the things we need to perform our different jobs and activities and to travel to and from our jobs and activities. And beyond that is more discretional consumption: TVs, games consoles, jewellery, fashion.

The purpose of humans in this context is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow.

A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself
The growth of the economy is based on the growth of consumption. Roman Mikhailiuk/Shutterstock.com

The emergence and development of capitalism obviously lead to the growth of the technosphere: the application of markets and legal systems allows increased consumption and so growth. But other political systems may serve the same purpose, with varying degrees of success. Recall the industrial output and environmental pollution of the former Soviet Union. In the modern world, all that matters is growth.

The idea that growth is ultimately behind our unsustainable civilisation is not a new concept. Thomas Malthus famously argued there were limits to human population growth, while the Club of Rome’s 1972 book, Limits to Growth, presented simulation results that pointed to a collapse in global civilisation.

Today, alternative narratives to the growth agenda are, perhaps, getting political traction with an All Party Parliamentary Group convening meetings and activities that seriously consider de-growth policies. And curbing growth within environmental limits is central to the idea of a Green New Deal, which is now being discussed seriously in the US, UK, and other nations.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, champion of the US Green New Deal. Rachael Warriner/Shutterstock.com

If growth is the problem, then we just have to work at that, right? This won’t be easy, as growth is baked into every aspect of politics and economics. But we can at least imagine what a de-growth economy would look like.

My fear, however, is that we will not be able to slow down the growth of the technosphere even if we tried – because we are not actually in control.

Limits to freedom

It may seem nonsense that humans are unable to make important changes to the system they have built. But just how free are we? Rather than being masters of our own destiny, we may be very constrained in how we can act.

Like individual blood cells coursing through capillaries, humans are part of a global-scale system that provides for all their needs and so has led them to rely on it entirely.

If you jump in your car to get to a particular destination, you can’t travel in a straight line “as the crow flies”. You will use roads that in some instances are older than your car, you, or even your nation. A significant fraction of human effort and endeavour is devoted to maintaining this fabric of the technosphere: fixing roads, railways, and buildings, for example.

In that respect, any change must be incremental because it must use what current and previous generations have built. The channelling of people via road networks seems a trivial way to demonstrate that what happened far in the past can constrain the present, but humanity’s path to decarbonisation isn’t going to be direct. It has to start from here and at least in the beginning use existing routes of development.

This isn’t meant to excuse policymakers for their failure of ambition, or lack of bravery. But it indicates that there may be deeper reasons why carbon emissions are not decreasing even when there appears to be increasingly good news about alternatives to fossil fuels.

Think about it: at the global scale, we have witnessed a phenomenal rate of deployment of solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy generation. But global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This is because renewables promote growth – they simply represent another method of extracting energy, rather than replacing an existing one.

Renewable energy production has not led to a reduction in fossil fuel use. Thongsuk Atiwannakul/Shutterstock.com

The relationship between the size of the global economy and carbon emissions is so robust that US physicist Tim Garret has proposed a very simple formula that links the two with startling accuracy. Using this method, an atmospheric scientist can predict the size of the global economy for the past 60 years with tremendous precision.

But correlation does not necessarily mean causation. That there has been a tight link between economic growth and carbon emissions does not mean that has to continue indefinitely. The tantalisingly simple explanation for this link is that the technosphere can be viewed like an engine: one that works to make cars, roads, clothes, and stuff – even people – using available energy.

The technosphere still has access to abundant supplies of high energy density fossil fuels. And so the absolute decoupling of global carbon emissions from economic growth will not happen until they either run out or the technosphere eventually transitions to alternative energy generation. That may be well beyond the danger zone for humans.

A repugnant conclusion

We have just come to appreciate that our impacts on the Earth system are so large that we have possibly ushered in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The Earth’s rocks will bear witness to humans’ impacts long after we disappear. The technosphere can be seen as the engine of the Anthropocene. But that does not mean we are driving it. We may have created this system, but it is not built for our communal benefit. This runs completely counter to how we view our relationship with the Earth system.

Take the planetary boundaries concept, which has generated much interest scientifically, economically, and politically. This idea frames human development as impacting on nine planetary boundaries, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification. If we push past these boundaries, then the Earth system will change in ways that will make human civilisation very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. The value of, say, the biosphere here is that it provides goods and services to us. This represents what we can literally get from the system.

A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself
The planetary boundaries that are intended to help define a safe operating space for humanity. Steffen, W., et al, 2015. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223), p.1

This very human-centric approach should lead to more sustainable development. It should constrain growth. But the technological world system we have built is clever at getting around such constraints. It uses the ingenuity of humans to build new technologies – such as geoengineering – to reduce surface temperatures. That would not halt ocean acidification and so would lead to the potential collapse of ocean ecosystems. No matter. The climate constraint would have been avoided and the technosphere could then get to work overcoming any side effects of biodiversity loss. Fish stocks collapse? Shift to farmed fish or intensively grown algae.

As defined so far, there appears nothing to stop the technosphere liquidating most of the Earth’s biosphere to satisfy its growth. Just as long as goods and services are consumed, the technosphere can continue to grow.

And so those who fear the collapse of civilisation or those who have enduring faith in human innovation being able to solve all sustainability challenges may both be wrong.

After all, a much smaller and much richer population of the order of hundreds of millions could consume more than the current population of 7.6 billion or the projected population of nine billion by the middle of this century. While there would be widespread disruption, the technosphere may be able to weather climate change beyond 3°C. It does not care, cannot care, that billions of people would have died.

A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself
Fewer people would not necessarily mean a smaller technosphere. Gunnerchu/Shutterstock.com

And at some point in the future, the technosphere could even function without humans. We worry about robots taking over human’s jobs. Perhaps we should be more concerned with them taking over our role as apex consumers.

Escape plan

The situation, then, may all seem rather hopeless. Whether or not my argument is an accurate representation of our civilisation, there is the risk it produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if we believe we can’t slow down the growth of the technosphere, then why bother?

This goes beyond the question of “what difference could I make?” to “what difference can anyone make?” While flying less, cutting down on eating meat and dairy and cycling to work are all commendable steps to take, they do not constitute living outside the technosphere.

It’s not just that we give tacit consent to the technosphere by using its roads, computers, or intensively farmed food. It’s that by being a productive member of society, by earning and spending, above all by consuming, we further the technosphere’s growth.


Read more: Climate change: yes, your individual action does make a difference


Perhaps the way out from fatalism and disaster is an acceptance that humans may not actually be in control of our planet. This would be the vital first step that could lead to a broader outlook that encompasses more than humans.

For example, the mainstream economic attitude about trees, frogs, mountains, and lakes is that these things only have value if they provide something to us. This mindset sets them up as nothing more than resources to exploit and sinks for waste.

What if we thought of them as components or even our companions in the complex Earth system? Questions about sustainable development then become questions about how growth in the technosphere can be accommodated with their concerns, interests, and welfare as well as ours.

This may produce questions that seem absurd. What are the concerns or interests of a mountain? Of a flea? But if we continue to frame the situation in terms of “us against them”, of human well-being trumping everything else in the Earth system, then we may be effectively hacking away the best form of protection against a dangerously rampant technosphere.

And so the most effective guard against climate breakdown may not be technological solutions, but a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life on this particular planet. We may be critically constrained in our abilities to change and rework the technosphere, but we should be free to envisage alternative futures. So far our response to the challenge of climate change exposes a fundamental failure of our collective imagination.

A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself
We must start to see ourselves as a small part of a planetary natural system. Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock.com

To understand you are in a prison, you must first be able to see the bars. That this prison was created by humans over many generations doesn’t change the conclusion that we are currently tightly bound up within a system that could, if we do not act, lead to the impoverishment, and even death of billions of people.

Eight years ago, I woke up to the real possibility that humanity is facing disaster. I can still smell that bad coffee, I can still recall the memory of scrabbling to make sense of the words I was hearing. Embracing the reality of the technosphere doesn’t mean giving up, of meekly returning to our cells. It means grabbing a vital new piece of the map and planning our escape.


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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.