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Digital disruption holds virtual key to climate action, researchers say

Mon, 2nd Mar 2020 17:04

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, March 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As the
digital revolution hurtles on at breakneck speed, states,
businesses and individuals should work together to harness
technology to create low-carbon, fairer societies - or risk that
vision being undermined, a research group warned on Monday.

Future Earth said in a report that the digital age had
developed so fast that policies to govern it had been unable to
keep up, while discussions around tackling climate change had
focused more on sectors such as transport or electricity.

"Today we live in a digital age that threatens privacy,
human dignity, social justice, the future of democracy, and
environmental sustainability," Future Earth Executive Director
Amy Luers wrote in the report.

"But it is not too late. The potential to leverage the
digital age to benefit society and the planet is massive."

With climate-heating emissions still rising, the realisation
has dawned that eliminating greenhouse gas pollution will
require wholesale shifts in world views, mindsets, power
dynamics and social rules, the report said.

Those are highly influenced by technology and how it is used
- from social media to satellite imagery and artificial
intelligence, it added.

So far those working on climate change and sustainability
have paid insufficient attention to how the digital world should
be governed to support their efforts, Luers said.

"It actually should be part of our discussion. It is one of
our issues because it is such a lever of societal
transformation," the former senior environmental programme
manager at Google told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The "Digital Disruptions for Sustainability" report,
developed with input from more than 250 technology and
environmental experts, highlighted four main areas shaping the
social agenda that could be steered towards greener outcomes.

Satellites and other remote sensors, in cell-phones and
elsewhere, are making transparency the norm and privacy harder
to protect - for example, showing where and how deforestation is
occurring in corporate supply chains.

Social media networks and the rapid spread of mobile devices
have enabled climate activists and young people, like the
"Friday for Future" school strikers, to collaborate in new ways.

Big data, machine learning and cloud computing have led to
smart systems that allow more efficient energy use or the
provision of climate services like insurance for poor farmers.

And virtual and augmented reality can merge the physical and
cyber worlds, enabling people to "see" what a location would
look like under different climate-change scenarios in future.

But whether the world will make the most of technology's
potential for good and ensure its benefits are distributed
evenly remains far from certain, Future Earth warned.

CONSUMER NUDGING

Owen Gaffney, a global sustainability writer at the Potsdam
Institute for Climate Impact Research, said technology giants -
from Microsoft to Apple and Facebook - had started to tackle the
impact of their own activities by cutting emissions and using
renewable energy.

Now, "that conversation needs to move on very quickly to the
increasing influence they have over consumer behaviour", he
added.

Gaffney, an advisor on the report, said Silicon Valley
companies could potentially agree to "nudge" users of their
services by promoting low-carbon products and healthy diets
while charging more to advertise high-carbon goods and services.

But it was still unclear whether the digital revolution
would contribute to driving the world towards highly risky
global warming of at least 3 degrees Celsius, or help support a
transformation to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, as
governments are aiming for, he noted.

"That should be alarming to people, given (technology
companies') influence over 4 billion people online," he added.

Luers said the time was ripe for dialogue, with many tech
firms having grasped the extent of their social power and
wanting to work out how they could be a "force for good".

Climate activists have criticised technology firms for
continuing to provide services to clients in the fossil fuel
industry, and supporting business models like online shopping
that promote wasteful consumerism and high-emission shipping.

Lucas Joppa, chief environment officer at Microsoft and an
advisor on the report, said the digital sector had to take
"swift and concerted action" to curb its emissions and scale up
clean energy.

Microsoft in January pledged to cut carbon emissions by more
than half by 2030 across its supply chain and remove as much
carbon from the atmosphere by 2050 as it has emitted in its
45-year history.

"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," Joppa said in the report.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie
Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of
people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.
Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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