How can science help to progress toward economics systems that would be more sustainable (and more fair)?
The second Entry point for Sustainable Development inthe report The Future is Now is Sustainable and just economies. Here, the part dedicated to science is rather short, and insists on one main point: how to reconcile a growing economy, with more goods for the poorer people, and the environment needs?
Technologies may help resolve trade-offs, but holistic assessments are needed. Many new technologies have the potential to mitigate trade-offs between production and the environment.
Reducing energy consumption
If you look at the figure above, that summarizes the facts about a sustainable and just economy, you may consider that there are two main point where science (and technology) can act. The first one is energy consumption and greenhouse gasses emissions.
For example, energy production is becoming more sustainable and cheaper through innovation in, for instance, nanotechnology for solar panels. Solar power is now cost-competitive with energy generated from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, renewable off-grid solutions provide alternatives to costly network extensions and can therefore electrify remote areas more efficiently and quickly. Hence energy production is becoming more equitable and sustainable.
On the demand side, a smartphone, for example, can now provide in one machine the services previously offered by numerous separate devices, thus potentially reducing total energy demand, if also serving to replace the use of those devices by the consumer.
Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the “Internet of things” and blockchains are bringing forward applications that can accelerate the transition away from inefficient and polluting production and consumption – for example, through electric vehicle fleets or improved, remotely controlled thermostats that manage household heating and cooling more efficiently.
Considering side effects
Here, also, a holistic assessment is needed. Taking one innovation at a time, as good as it can be, without considering its impact on other aspects of the economic life on health or on environement, could lead to unwanted side effects (as pharmacists use to know). That is where scientists should stay humbles : there is no « magic bullet » that would solve all SDGs challenges at the same time
But such innovations need not translate into reduced aggregate demand if consumers respond to greater efficiency by simply consuming more or if they come with damaging side effects. For example, a car-hailing service operating with electric cars should reduce the carbon footprint per ride. But it may add to total emissions if it draws passengers away from more efficient and more broadly accessible public transport systems and increases traffic congestion.
Sparing materials and avoiding new pollutants
The second point where science (and technology) can act is materials consumption. Here, there is a fundamental challenge for scientists (especially for material scientists and chemists, but not only). it is not really new: the 12 principles for Green Chemistry have been proposed 22 years ago by Paul Anastas and John Warner. Certainly they can be discussed, and their applications and interpretations are not one sided, but certainly also they could guide a lot more of chemistry works than they do today.
Before inventing new materials and new molecules, scientists should think ahead about their impact on Sustainable Development. it is the same in other fields. Algorithms designers for instance, could also rely on some green principles, that would take into account energy consumption.
New technologies, including smartphones, may also introduce new pollutants – novel substances – into the Earth system, for which existing processing capacities may be inadequate. Applications such as blockchain and cloud computing also make large energy demands.
To be continued.