The key to climate progress in the digital age

On the VERGE

The key to climate progress in the digital age

More often than not, the conversation about climate action is focused on decarbonization — on investing in and deploying the emission-reducing technologies needed to keep us under 2 degrees Celsius of global warming — a.k.a., averting catastrophe

But what if unlocking climate progress requires a different kind of key?

Don’t get me wrong: Not only is deep decarbonization critical, it’s also possible. After all, over 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from just five sectors — electricity, industry, agriculture and land use, transportation and buildings — and we’ve pretty much got most if not all of the solutions to do what scientific consensus tells us is needed: cut global emissions in half in the next decade and get to net zero by 2050.

The question is: Why aren’t we doing this? Why are global emissions still increasing? Why is it that we’re still on the trajectory towards a 4 or 5 degrees Celsius warmer world by the end of the century? What will it take — as in really, truly take — to set business, government and society on an inclusive deep decarbonization path?

Enter the D^2S Agenda — short for Digital Disruptions for Sustainability — a report (PDF) published this week by international research organization Future Earth as part of its initiative, Sustainability in the Digital Age. The interconnected premises on which it is based are as insightful and relevant as they are downright fascinating. And they link beautifully with the underlying premise of our annual VERGE event.

Premise I: Addressing climate change is, perhaps more than anything else, a social challenge. As systems change pioneer Donella Meadows taught us, the most effective leverage points for creating transformative change in social systems are actually at the level of the mindset or paradigm — the basic, shared assumptions about how things should be done, made or thought about
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That’s why the D^2S Agenda isn’t just focused on the technology and policy solutions needed within high-carbon-emitting sectors, but instead on what it will take to change the mindsets of the people who govern and participate in them. There’s a difference, for example, between using fossil fuels more efficiently and transitioning off them completely or between climate stabilization and actually reversing global warming. In both cases, the latter is what’s needed, and represent the kind of paradigm shift the D^2S Agenda is working to unlock.

Premise II: Thanks to our new capabilities in this digital age, we have a shot at driving the kind of unprecedented societal transformations needed to address the climate crisis. The report focuses on the importance of responsibly steering four "digital disruptors" that are fundamentally altering the power, rules and mindsets of society today. 

Digital disruptors chart

As outlined in The D^2S Agenda:

  • Unprecedented transparency: Satellites and other remote sensors in cell phones and elsewhere are making transparency the norm and privacy harder to protect.

  • Intelligent systems: Big data, machine learning and cloud computing have enabled smart systems that combine human and machine intelligence.

  • Mass collaboration: The social web and the rapid global spread of mobile devices are giving rise to new ways to collaborate.

  • Mixed reality: Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR, for short) are merging the physical and virtual worlds, shifting how we engage with each other and the environment.

Regardless whether these digital disruptors result in a more "climate-safe, equitable world," as D^2S calls it — or the contrary — is the crossroads of possible futures at which we stand.

"The initial promise of the digital revolution was democratized information, more accountable governments through broader citizen participation and the growth of a more equitable and greener economy," said Amy Luers, executive director of Future Earth and the project’s leader, in the report’s introduction. "Yet many of these aspirations have not been realized, because society failed to anticipate how the digital revolution would unfold. As a result, today the digital world threatens individual rights, human dignity, social justice, the future of democracy and environmental sustainability."

That’s why the overarching aim of Sustainability in the Digital Age is to ensure that we consciously deploy these digital capabilities to enable rapid, deep and inclusive climate action. The D^2S Agenda outlines a framework for this collective work, including the new forms of collaboration it will require among policy and business leaders, tech innovators, scientists and citizens.

For example, says Lucas Joppa, chief environment officer at Microsoft and an adviser on the D^2S Agenda: "By accelerating investment and deployment of AI solutions, we have the potential not only to mitigate climate-related risk for our businesses but to fundamentally transform how we manage Earth’s natural resources for a more prosperous and climate-stable future."  

No matter the industry or sector in which you operate, I urge you to read the report or, at minimum, review the summary (PDF) of research, innovation and actions needed. You’ll likely be left with more questions than answers, but deep inquiry into such a complex and critical issue is a good place to start.

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's newsletter VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here