06/23/2016 11:00 EDT | Updated 06/23/2016 11:00 EDT

Can We Count On Technology To Address Our Environmental Challenges?

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By Livia Bizikova and Peter Denton

How much can emerging technologies help change our environment, and will they alone help address some of the environmental challenges we are faced with?

This question was the focus of a Global Environmental Outlook launched by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in May, alongside six Regional Assessments.

The North American Assessment summarizes current trends in key environmental issues (such as water and land biodiversity), along with policies aimed at managing them. It concludes with an Outlook section that provides a snapshot of how emerging technologies could significantly change our environment.

So what does the assessment tell us?

On current trends, the report identifies continued improvements in air quality, access to safe drinking water, and land resources. Future challenges are related to climate change and other pressures such as urbanization, pollution and invasive species. These pressures will lead to water scarcity and increasing drought; a degrading coastal and marine environment; considerable groundwater depletion; chemical pollution; and increasing waste generation. Many of these challenges are magnified in a warming Arctic.

The report emphasizes past successes of policy-making in both countries, with long traditions of legislation in areas such as air pollution; biodiversity protection; and ensuring quality of drinking water. Yet the relevance of previous policies to future problems remains uncertain, as the challenges ahead are increasingly complex and involve many unknowns.

Do we have the right tools, the right technologies, to make a difference?

The Outlook section of the report outlines how emerging technology and new policies an address these challenges -- promoting cleaner, less resource-intensive production systems in areas such as agriculture; reducing packaging waste; green construction; new modes of transportation; and sustainability certification schemes. Specific trends include considerable growth in organic production systems; green construction and building operations especially to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and water use; car-sharing and public transportation systems; renewable energy systems and increasing consumer awareness about the environmental impacts of products combined with interest in greener, more sustainable goods.

All of these trends are promising and encouraging, but we don't know whether these efforts will be enough to shift North American lifestyles in a sustainable direction -- and in time to mitigate or manage the effects of a changing climate.

Do we have the right tools, the right technologies, to make a difference? And are we using them in the right ways? This is where technology shows its limits.

First of all, studies that project the impacts of future technologies are often isolated from current trends and very narrowly focused on only a specific sector or issue. Most of the work has involved detailed projections of different technological solutions toward greenhouse gas reduction. Nor is it easy to foresee the uptake and large-scale spread of new innovations, however promising they might seem in theory.

Secondly, even in this era of high technology, we have limited data on complex environmental problems and their multiple causes, such as those affecting coastal areas, groundwater resources and the implications of extreme climate change. This effectively means we don't know how bad things really are, nor whether we are actually improving the situation with the tools we are using.

Thirdly, we must better connect accounting for the environment with assessments of production and economic growth. Are changes in technology and production efficiency in fact reducing natural resource depletion and pollution or not? How do we understand sustainable production and consumption in ways that emphasize personal and social well-being?

Comprehensive (or inclusive) wealth is an emerging measure with great promise as a basis for evaluating sustainability. IISD is currently preparing a report on comprehensive wealth in Canada that will be one of the first anywhere to showcase the connection between well-being and produced, natural, human and social capital. Such a measure will provide clear indications as to whether current patterns of economic growth are sustainable in the long run or if, instead, we are merely depleting our capital base -- in particular, our natural capital -- for short-term gain.

The regional assessment ends by exploring the use of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) to provide reference points as to what we need to do and how we should do it. Thus far, however, there is very limited interest in Canada and in the United States to consider the SDGs as a serious guide to prioritizing either policy or practice.

We need to do more than just hope for a sustainable future, or the world we want will simply become a further depleted version of the world we already have.

To ensure that technological progress will contribute to truly sustainable development, we must make wise choices, choices that will create and preserve ecological and social wealth for generations to come.

Livia Bizikova is Director, Knowledge for Integrated Decisions, at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD); Peter Denton is an independent consultant based in Winnipeg. Livia Bizikova and Peter Denton authored various parts of the North American GEO 6 Regional Assessment, most significantly the last section on Outlooks: Megatrends, Emerging Issues, Technologies, and Sustainable Development.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

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