Can tech deliver a sustainable future for Planet Earth?

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Sustainability means many things to many people, but it boils down to this: saving Planet Earth.

Mankind, as a species, has been too successful for its own good – the global population is forecast to top nine billion by 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

As a result, there is already a strain on the planet's essential natural resources, particularly food and water, which population growth can only exacerbate.

Meanwhile, our demand for energy – and the life enhancing technologies it powers – has led to the plundering of the earth's hydrocarbons oil, gas and coal, ultimately leading to potentially catastrophic climate change.

In a month-long series of features on the theme of sustainability, Technology of Business will be examining the main challenges facing businesses and asking whether technology – which some would say got us into this mess in the first place – can help get us out.

Business imperatives

Most companies are already being affected by climate change today, directly or indirectly, says the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a global not-for-profit organisation specialising in measuring business environmental impact.

Extreme weather, drought and flooding can disrupt production capacity and affect supply chains for a whole range of businesses.

For example, in a CDP survey of 70 European companies, 83% said they had operations in "water-stressed" regions, while 73% said water shortages posed risks to their own operations or those of their suppliers.

"Many businesses rely on basic natural resources like water to make their products," says Zoe Arden, director at think tank SustainAbility. "But it's a depleting resource. The water table in China is plummeting alarmingly and large areas of the country are in drought situations."

In an increasingly globalised economy, few businesses can isolate themselves from the impacts of climate change, population growth and resource depletion, says Emma Price-Thomas, head of sustainability strategy at charity Business in the Community.

"The world is changing very fast. Global megatrends are markedly affecting the business environment. If firms don't address these and think longer-term, they may end up putting themselves out of business," she argues.

A lot of technology and research is being directed towards reducing water usage in industrial processes and designing products that need less water to work, she says.

Fish fingers

For companies with long supply chains, like supermarkets, the challenge comes down to: "How can we make sure there are enough fish in the sea so we can make our fish fingers?" says Mike Peirce, director of strategy and communications at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

Businesses need to adapt to changing consumer demand and become more efficient if they are to survive "the severe challenges" coming their way, he argues.

Justin Keeble, managing director of consultancy Accenture's sustainability services division, agrees: "The business imperative is about mitigating risk and making your business more resilient against resource scarcity and energy insecurity."

Sustainable value

But a persistent problem for many businesses has been putting a value on "going green" and justifying the expense of investing in new technologies.

A major survey of 1,000 global chief executives by United Nations Global Compact and Accenture found that nearly two-fifths of bosses thought that the failure to link sustainability with business value was hampering progress.

This is despite the fact that the vast majority understood its importance and the new business opportunities it presented, the survey suggested.

But Accenture's Mr Keeble argues: "It is possible to put numbers on the risks and opportunities associated with sustainability.

"We estimate that UK business could make £100bn [$169bn; 122bn euros] in productivity savings and that there is a £200bn opportunity for businesses offering sustainable products."

Written By: Matthew Wall
continue to source article at bbc.com

12 COMMENTS

  1. @OP- Meanwhile, our demand for energy – and the life enhancing technologies it powers – has led to the plundering of the earth’s hydrocarbons oil, gas and coal, ultimately leading to potentially catastrophic climate change.

    In a month-long series of features on the theme of sustainability, Technology of Business will be examining the main challenges facing businesses and asking whether technology – which some would say got us into this mess in the first place – can help get us out.

    I gave a list of the energy generating and energy saving technologies we need in this recent discussion:-

    http://www.richarddawkins.net/news-articles/2014/4/28/uk-centre-to-shoot-for-nuclear-fusion-record#comment-box-13

  2. Yes. The technology is all there, ready to go within the next decades.

    But before it can, two things must change. A new kind of political courage is needed to contemplate the needs of tomorrow’s societies and act now to make plans with hundred year outcomes. It is a brave politician that speaks for our childrens children. And the whole timescales that economies work on must be re-imagined to strongly favour long term investment and to favour investment in much much higher value infrastructures and the cash streams they will generate rather than fantasy financial instruments that serve the needs of gamblers. Sexy banking has to go and this will take politicians to put the mechanisms in place to favour the long term.

    Bankers and politicians will need science degrees to understand what they are dealing with. Very few financial institutions have a root and branch understanding of the high tech assetts we need them to fund. Too often the executive summary is seen as the macho desicion-making tool to go with the Buy-Sell mentality.

    We need to start by voting for the smartest most science educated people we can. We need science graduates to consider they have the perfect qualification to go into politics and science advocacy. We need Dara O’Brien, and the plethora of science and reason advocates amongst popular entertainers, ridiculing the luddites. We need to realise the threat and accept the adventure.

    Oh, we also need stability, the sort that can only come about by pulling the poorest out of poverty, saving their children and educating women, so we can finally put an end to population growth.

    This is all in my great grand daughters very best interests. I hope she’ll be proud of my efforts, if she is ever born.

    • In reply to #2 by phil rimmer:

      Yes. The technology is all there, ready to go within the next decades.

      I don’t think this is primarily a question of technology and that’s where I think articles like this are misguided, they help frame the debate in the wrong direction. It’s about political will and how we structure our economies and what kinds of incentives governments create for which industries. Technology is crucial of course but the most important thing are the non-technical issues, political and social.

      Bankers and politicians will need science degrees to understand what they are dealing with.

      I don’t think a “science degree” is any guarantee or even a requirement for making the appropriate decisions here. I think there is an analogy to the world of high tech venture startups. I’ve seen a lot of them and been in on lots of meetings where people discussed the merits and chances of some startup based on some new technology. In my experience the best and most pointed questions weren’t from the technical people but from the people who could understand the intersection between business and technology. Those people could have degrees in anything from engineering to history, seriously one of the best technical people I ever knew had a degree in history, what mattered was being able to do critical thinking which you can learn or not learn regardless of what subject you study.

      • In reply to #3 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #2 by phil rimmer:

        It’s about political will and how we structure our economies and what kinds of incentives governments create for which industries.

        Completely agree, but I think that was entirely the point of my post.

        I think there is an analogy to the world of high tech venture startups. I’ve seen a lot of them and been in on lots of meetings where people discussed the merits and chances of some startup based on some new technology. In my experience the best and most pointed questions weren’t from the technical people but from the people who could understand the intersection between business and technology.

        I too have been involved in many such start ups, and still am, but this time, I disagree with your disagreement. I find business folk who have come up through a science education path have altogether a more complete set of capabilities. An accountancy route by contrast is more often a recipe for disaster. The model is mostly a European (particularly German and Scandinavian) one where most tech company bosses have an appropriate science degree. There are, of course, notable exceptions.

        We are in this for the long term and it is entirely the northern European model that demonstrates the necessary longevity of commercial commitment and intellectual investment of investors to put alongside their money.

        I have split my time in the last three decades between US and European innovation. I agree with your assessment of US technical folk who more often than not have been unimpressively narrow and mostly been groomed for the silo approach to human resource deployment, typical of GE, GM, UTC, and the like traditional tech companies. There are important and impressive differences to this on the west coast with modern flat structured tech start ups, with spectacular successes. Your description does not fit these so well. The west coast rediscovered a proud tradition of innovation.

        Noyce, Grove, Gates, Marconi, Edison, Siemens, Wedgwood, Brunel, Larry Page. The big stuff, the world changing stuff needs all the boxes checked at start up.

        Don’t get me wrong. I have profound respect for those mega bright people without a science degree who seem truly up to speed, but they tend not to be part of a major tech start up, but come later in the roll out.

        I might have shot off on a tangent here, sorry.

        It was specifically the scientific capacities of politicians I was bemoaning. (Though accountancy skills could be quite an improvement for some.)

  3. “Sustainability means many things to many people, but it boils down to this: saving Planet Earth.”

    I don’t think sustainability means saving planet Earth. This planet will survive and life will continue. However, we (and many other species of animals) may not be part of its future.

    “Technology got us into this mess; can it get us out?
    Mankind, as a species, has been too successful for its own good – the global population is forecast to top nine billion by 2050…”

    Human population cannot expand indefinitely. We might argue about the timescale but, at some point, an expanding human population will expand beyond its food (and water) supply.

    As a result, there is already a strain on the planet’s essential natural resources, particularly food and water, which population growth can only exacerbate.

    Quite.

    Meanwhile, our demand for energy – and the life enhancing technologies it powers – has led to the plundering of the earth’s hydrocarbons oil, gas and coal, ultimately leading to potentially catastrophic climate change.

    If we alter our climate enough to cause such a catastrophe then our population will, of course, be vastly reduced. But I don’t think our species will be wiped out completely. A fraction of our species will survive and most of our technology will survive with us. I say “us” but I will not be part of this future. I will have passed away long before the catastrophe occurs.

    The problem is to convince my generation to make the necessary changes to create a sustainable existence for future generations. I don’t think we have a cat in hell’s chance.

    I’m off to burn some more fossil fuels.

    • In reply to #5 by hemidemisemigod:

      The problem is to convince my generation to make the necessary changes to create a sustainable existence for future generations.

      Future generations? What have they ever done for us?

      ;-)

      Steve

      • In reply to #7 by Agrajag:

        In reply to #5 by hemidemisemigod:

        The problem is to convince my generation to make the necessary changes to create a sustainable existence for future generations.

        Future generations? What have they ever done for us?

        If we keep wasting, polluting and destroying our planet’s resources, they’re likely to ask the same question about us.

      • In reply to #7 by Agrajag:

        In reply to #5 by hemidemisemigod:

        The problem is to convince my generation to make the necessary changes to create a sustainable existence for future generations.

        Future generations? What have they ever done for us?

        ;-)

        Steve

        Given us purpose?

  4. Sustainability means many things to many people, but it boils down to this: saving Planet Earth.

    It is probably better defined as a balanced load on resources (and food-chains) , which avoids the boom and bust of population and consumption explosions overloading the life support structures, and thereby causing crashes! (Locally or globally.)

  5. Sustainability means many things to many people, but it boils down to this: saving Planet Earth.

    Nope, planet earth is doing just fine. Unless we will invent some kind of death star weapon in the future I’m not worried about saving planet earth. I’m not even worried about saving life on earth. Life has survived disasters of a magnitude humans can’t possibly generate even if we had a few billion Stalins living on this planet. The asteroid that allegedly killed the dinosaurs delivered an energy estimated about two million times the biggest nuclear bomb ever created by humans (the Tsar bomb), and that asteroid was not even close to exterminating all life on earth. Even if we used all the uranium and plutonium on earth to build nuclear bombs and detonated them simultaneously it would still not really affect life on earth as a whole. Sure we would kill ourselves and most mammals, but life would go on.

    On the other hand I’m quite worried about the survival of this (only a million year old) species we call humans.

  6. We can advance in science and technology greatly if we band together politically and are ready to save our only planet which we are lucky to have. If we utilize science we will find, as in the past, that it will do more for us than all the prayers in history. While solar technology, power saving, electric based transportation etc are in there infancy we can still harness nuclear energy despite its risks at the moment to supersede fossil fuel and its pollution of the environment.
    There is some evidence to suggest that businesses will increasingly deal with this by going online and in the future online delivery ordering and delivery systems (drones, droids etc) will replace manpower and manual labour and industrial
    capitalism. Of course this a double edged sword.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xOK2aJ-0Js

  7. In reply to #11 by Sir Lancelot the Skeptic:

    While solar technology, power saving, electric based transportation etc are in there infancy

    Actually many of these are much further established than is widely known. Tidal and solar thermal energy can provide a substantial power generation base.

    electric based transportation

    Electric trains, trams, and trolley-buses have been used for years, and with electronic points switching on overhead power-lines, this can eliminate some of the earlier trolley-bus limitations in cities.

    we can still harness nuclear energy despite its risks at the moment to supersede fossil fuel and its pollution of the environment.

    The risks and waste-storage can be massively reduced by developing thorium nuclear generators http://www.itheo.org/thorium-energy-conference-2012, in place of uranium and plutonium.
    (Until we can get fusion generators up and running in the more distant future.)

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