Fourth Industrial Revolution

Can this revolution save our warming planet?

A boy touches a wall lit by colour rays at an exhibition hall. Image: REUTERS/China Daily

Johan Rockström
Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)
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Professor Klaus Schwab argues convincingly we are on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution - the focus for discussions in Davos this year.

At the heart of this new revolution is the speed and global scale of exponential developments in digital, nano, materials and bio-technology that are already revolutionizing how societies and economies operate.

But this new industrial revolution occurs at a critical juncture for humanity on Earth and must occur within scientifically defined planetary boundaries for a stable Earth. And it must contribute positively to entrenched equity challenges.

It is essential to ensure that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a sustainable one for people and planet. It could even drive greater innovation not only for short-term benefits and solutions for human wealth, but also long-term solutions that benefit all and enable planetary stability.

From the long lens of deep time and geology this revolution is unique. The planet we are living on is undergoing a transformation – not just our world. Human development – from the agricultural revolution 8-10,000 years ago to the first industrial revolution in 1800 to the economic “golden age” of the 1950s – took place during a remarkable period of stability geologists call the Holocene. Global temperatures rose or fell by no more than 1°C. Resources were plentiful. We were a small world on a big planet.


In the last few decades we have accumulated overwhelming evidence that this Holocene stability is now in jeopardy. Earth has entered a new geological epoch where humans have become the prime driver of change in Earth’s life support system – the Anthropocene. We are changing the climate: it is now 1°C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures and heating up rapidly. 2015 was the hottest year on record beating the previous record holder – 2014. Already, meteorologists predict 2016 may beat 2015.

The oceans’ chemistry is changing. The carbon, water and nitrogen cycles have been pushed out of their natural boundaries. We are losing biodiversity at mass extinction rates. Earth has been pushed beyond the Holocene envelope.

Multiple exponential pressures means the planet has reached a saturation point with real risks of catastrophic tipping points, such as committing humanity to 6 meters sea level (when temperatures rise 1-2°C), water scarcity, and massive weather shocks. There is no more room for expanded resource exploitation – due to the almost certain rebound effects of an uncontrolled Fourth Industrial Revolution - that will undermine ecosystems and destabilize the climate system.

This revolution is also unique because never have ideas spread so rapidly. Never have individuals had so much agency. And never have new technologies not only had the power to change lives, economies and societies, but also to change Earth’s biosphere.

In the 1920s, new chemicals – CFCs - designed by US chemist Thomas Midgley to replace dangerous refrigerants seemed harmless at first, until scientists discovered they were rapidly eating a huge hole in the ozone layer. The ozone layer is essential for life on land to survive. Swift international action in the 1980s prevented catastrophe. Policy-makers followed science and set global rules to stay within the planetary boundary for ozone depletion (the Montreal Protocol). Business adhered to this rule, and created better technology, without the most damaging freons.

Now algorithms control the flows of stocks in financial markets and influence online buying behavior. In 2015, colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre published the Biosphere Code Manifesto arguing that algorithms “should serve humanity and the biosphere at large.” This can be applied to technology more broadly. Given the new responsibility humanity has for the long-term stability of Earth’s biosphere and the planetary scale at which a world which will soon number nearly 10 billion people operates, new technologies must be sustainable and based on principles of meeting planetary boundaries. But, better still, they should aim to enhance the resilience of societies, economies and Earth’s biosphere.

The start of the Fourth Industrial Revolution coincides with great changes in international politics which will send a powerful signal to entrepreneurs. 2015 was without doubt a historic year for humanity. The Sustainable Development Goals, agreed at the United Nations in September, provide a new vision that all nations have signed up to.

Seventeen goals, to be applied universally, mark the first time nations fully accept this new responsibility. And in December, the climate summit in Paris arrived at a momentous agreement to transform the world, in line with science, within a climate boundary of 1.5-2°C, which requires a global transformation to a de-carbonized world by 2040-2060. The age of fossil fuels is over.

Equity is at the heart of this historic vision. How can the world ensure all have the right to develop without jeopardizing the foundation for all development: a stable planet? World GDP is projected to grow by a factor of three by 2050. The rich minority - some 1.5 billion people in the OECD nations – will turn into a middle-class majority, essentially four to six billion people in rapidly developing nations.

The world has put in place the framework and vision for transformation. The goal of the Fourth Industrial Revolution must be to rapidly turn this vision into a reality. Many businesses such as Virgin, Puma and Unilever – under the umbrellas of the B Team, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and We Mean Business – fully support this vision and are providing essential leadership towards this goal. Many cities are committed to become fossil free and Sweden has declared it will become free of fossil fuels – by 2040 or earlier. The transformation is underway, but it needs to happen more quickly.

This is a remarkable moment for humanity. It is an opportunity for this generation to radically disrupt the status quo and create a paradigm for world development.

By connecting equity and planetary resilience to a Fourth Industrial Revolution we have a chance of a transition to a prosperous future for humanity. Keep them fragmented, and we risk rebound effects that will propel the world deeper into social-ecological turbulence and disarray. The new challenge for humanity? To set clear boundaries for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, within the safe operating space for a stable and resilient planet, and with a strong emphasis on a fair sharing with all co-citizens in the world.

In 2015, the cornerstones for this revolution were put in place. Davos must be where we start implementing it.

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