Environmental Technology for Peace

By Johan Bergenas and David Michel

As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres closed out 2020, he offered a searing indictment of the global community’s treatment of our planet.  “Humanity is waging war on nature,” he warned, driving “instability, displacement, and conflict.” Indeed, global warming, dying oceans, declining biodiversity, and degraded ecosystems now endanger world peace and prosperity.

The Secretary-General painted a dire picture of the planet today and he is right to do so. Growing demand for resources and legal but unsustainable consumption patterns increasingly strain global food, water, and land supplies. Climate change is exacerbating floods, droughts, and wildfires that destroy communities and displace millions from their homes each year. And illegal activities and illicit exploitation involving the theft of some of the world’s most important natural resources – water, fish, forests, and minerals — raises the very real prospect of armed conflict over them and allows the undermining of the rule of law globally by transnational organized crime and violent extremism.

Responding to these challenges will not be easy in 2021 and beyond. To date, the necessary political will, policy reforms, and market behavioral changes have been insufficient. But there is a reason for hope. What human actions – and inaction – have imperiled, innovations and technology can help safeguard and restore. In the search for transformative solutions, as Secretary-General Guterres aptly noted in his speech, “Technology is on our side.”

Science, innovation, data, and technology possess a proven track record of delivering game-changing solutions to societal challenges at unmatched speeds and scales. It took the United States less than 10 years in the 1960s to put a man on the moon, only a few years for the iPhone to go global at the end of the 2000s, and most recently less than one year to develop and deliver the first COVID vaccine.

Indicators such as the exponential expansion of renewable power generation suggest that innovative technologies have the potential to revolutionize the environmental sphere. Still, technology has not yet realized its potential to redress the massive degradation of our vital environmental life-support systems. In part, this is because global leaders, governments, and investors have not given environmental science, innovation, and technology the policy interventions and resources to flourish. The next 10 years must be different.  And the signs so far are good that they will be

This year, the United Nations is launching its Decade of Ocean Science with an emphasis on learning what we don’t know about the oceans – the most unexplored part of the planet – yet. Britain’s Prince William will be awarding the first Earthshot winners, including to innovators from around the globe harnessing technology in new ways.  And incoming U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is planning to bet big on technology and innovation to avoid, mitigate, and adapt to the threats stemming from climate-related challenges.

Focusing on environmental innovation, data and technology is the right move for both global growth and security. Technological innovations can help energize political movements, enable policy transformation, and empower individual action to improve the environment. At the same time, innovative applications can target enforcement actions against environmental villains, verify collective commitments, and deter noncompliance, facilitating cooperation and helping avert conflicts around shared natural resources.

So, what are some of the most exciting technology and innovation sectors to watch in the next decade?

  • Major advances in clean energy from land and ocean sources, battery technology, smart transportation, and carbon capture are obvious starting points to combat global warming and pollution.
  • Innovations in water treatment and waste disposal technologies will usher in a new era for the circular economy and ensure clean water for all as a human right.
  • And revolutions in remote sensing, big data, and supply chain traceability that can be harnessed securely and at scale to monitor and measure sustainable resource management, halting plunder of fisheries and forests, would protect nature from being ravaged.

Of course, rapid innovation and expansion of environmental technology for peace do not come without challenges. The accelerated mining of rare earth metals to meet the needs of electric vehicles and renewable energy industries demonstrates that technological innovations can also generate potentially detrimental environmental – and geopolitical – risks. Environmental technological innovations, too, must be implemented and managed sustainably to fulfill their promise.

Indeed, the global transformation has already begun. A global green energy transition worth trillions of dollars is well underway thanks to market forces and technological innovation. Beyond the U.S., other countries, including China, Germany, South Korea, and Japan, have national strategies and investments in place to capture shares of those growing green markets. But this is only one sector – and many others like agriculture, fisheries, transportation and logistics, building and manufacturing, and environmental health will follow.  And market-driven technology and innovative solutions to environmental issues that create jobs, wealth, and health are goals shared across the political spectrum, particularly as we emerge from the COVID pandemic and rebuild our economies more sustainably.  Nothing is better for peace and security than stable and sustainable global economic growth.

As we begin the new year and a new decade, the way ahead to ensure a peaceful world going forward is clear.  Technology and innovation have stepped up over and over again to help overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. If technology and innovation deliver for the environment, it will be its greatest triumph yet.

Johan Bergenas is Vice President of Technology at Waxman Strategies.  David Michel is a Senior Researcher at the Environment of Peace 2022 Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 

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