Technological initiatives for climate action have swooped in claiming that they’ll be the saviour of people and the key to the survival of the planet, but will they?
From Tesla's electric vehicles to billionaire investments going into space, we’ve seen how most technological attempts at saving the planet have resulted in more emissions, populations exploited, and solutions for the elite rather than for those most likely to face the negative effects of climate change. Technology is the cool kid in high school: popular for good reason, but sometimes their ego causes more harm than good. So it's important not to overlook the smartest student in school: nature.
The rise of electric
Fossil fuels are amongst the most damaging sources to the environment and they’re deeply ingrained in our society. They power our world—from producing electricity to fuelling our transportation, as well as heating and cooling our homes. Fossil fuels generate greenhouse gas emissions, warming our planet and further accelerating climate change, which is why when the Paris Agreement was established in 2015, there came the boom of green technology to save us from fossil fuels.
This accessible green technology, first released by Tesla in the automobile market, allowed drivers to charge their cars using clean energy derived from wind and solar power and offered people the ability to reduce their footprint while on the road. The aim is to also develop an electric grid which will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in the home as well.
As transportation and homes electrify, oil company revenues will continue to drop, calling out to large corporations and government that green energy is where the consumer wants us to move. If it’s out with fossil fuels and in for greener technology, we’ve won, right? Climate experts and scientists don’t think so.
Environmental damage in electric innovations
In order to meet the Paris Agreement, we could see 245 million electric cars added to the road by 2030, and experts have started questioning where the resources will come from. The technologies required to produce, store and utilize renewable energy require mining materials like lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper, which are found in predominantly environmentally sensitive areas and often in economically marginalized regions of the world. As the demand for electric vehicles goes up and subsidies drive prices down, making electric cars more attractive for the everyday user, pressures on these regions are amplified.
Along with regions on land being at risk for mining, recent advancements have led certain developers to avoid mining on land and begin a “less environmentally damaging” type of mining in the deep sea. Though they say it’s the cleanest path towards electric vehicles, conservationists say that sea mining poses a considerable risk to deep-sea ecosystems that help to regulate our climate, maintain global fisheries, and contribute to elemental cycling. Mining would damage these ecosystems to a point where they could never recover and would be irreversible on a human timescale, as nodules take millions of years to form and they provide essential habitat for life in the deep ocean.
The potential waste that will come with electric advancements is also coming to light in recent news where we’re finding the sheets of solar panels are coming to the end of their lifecycles. By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their lives, generating about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually. When these materials wind up in the landfill, we’ll have a completely new environmental hazard that will be released from these toxic materials.Photo by Nuno Marques on Unsplash
So who are we “saving” with tech solutions?
Technocratic solutions are rooted in the belief system that things are bad now, but advancements in technology will save us later. It’s been a constant bouncing from utilizing one resource space to another once the previous has depleted—but what happens when all of our “safety banks” have been withdrawn?
Billionaires and other elite are putting a further strain on resources with their mission to take humans to space instead of using grassroots solutions and putting that energy into mitigating climate change on a planet that already exists for the needs of humanity.
Technocratic approaches focus on the immediate win, the innovative solutions, and the outlandish discoveries that put them on the map, but they’re leaving out the many who will be affected by climate disasters. These solutions ignore systemic inequities, further perpetuate them, and they don’t address the root causes of climate change which lie in the very overconsumption and exploitation of our land and people. If we don’t go grassroots and include the communities most impacted by the effects of climate change, technology won’t save the planet, just the elite few.
Climate change has and will continue to affect regions based on their dependence on natural resources for everyday life, and the more technology that’s used at the expense of those areas, the more depleted those environments will be and the more limited local folks will be in adapting to their changing environmental conditions.
For change to happen on a personal and grassroots level for the everyday person, it has to be done by the everyday person. This starts by widening the umbrella of the climate movement and intersecting areas such as social justice work and including exploited and intentionally marginalized groups in order to reach a comprehensive solution.
Large-scale solutions often can’t make change because even though they start with the right intentions, as they scale up, in order to make more profit they tend to cut corners. We’ve seen this happen in the mass introduction of electronics, in the processed food sector and in the fashion industry. Technology and innovation is trying to sell a product, an idea, and prestige and power in which large corporations benefit from at the planet and people’s expense. Technology may temporarily accelerate economic activity and be seemingly making change and connecting us, but it’s like lighting the candle at both ends: at some point, we reach the burning middle.
Grassroots or nature-based solutionsPhoto by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash
Nature-based solutions (NBS) have emerged as a cost-effective mitigation and adaptation strategy that not only provides the same benefits to society, but boosts resilience amongst all people. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (USCN), international use of nature for sustainably managing ecosystems will help to tackle socio-environmental challenges. These NBS appear as if we’re going backwards in order to move forward, but have been proven to protect, restore and sustain our ecosystem while also addressing the threat of climate change.
Examples of nature-based solutions are:
- Creating smaller, walkable communities
- Improving soil conditions in damaged and degrading areas
- Substituting in bamboo (which is fast-growing and drought-resistant) and leaving mature trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere
- Applying green roofs to insulate homes and reduce energy consumption, and using them to absorb and filter rainwater which reduces floods, minimizes the urban heat island effect, serves as a carbon sink, and allows us to capture rainwater for dry periods.
It’s not true to sustainability to move forward in the technocratic way we have been or by viewing and exploiting natural systems for development. We’re heading towards the burning middle at the rate we’re processing foods, manufacturing goods, distributing world-wide, and consuming resources at rates we’ve never done before. With green technology, we’ve fallen into the traps of capitalism with a greener hat, where we need to use nature as the real measure.
No human technology can fully replace the work that nature has perfected over hundreds of millions of years. Utilizing Indigenous knowledge and applying community and nature-based solutions can empower us to live and exist outside of modern ways of living, adapt towards climate change, mitigate further harm, and work with natural systems that help all people thrive, not just the wealthy few.