Nature and Biodiversity

Here are 6 big ideas to help the environment

On World Environment Day 2018, it’s time to inject some hope and inspiration

On World Environment Day 2018, it’s time to inject some hope and inspiration into the mix. Image: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Jahda Swanborough
Lead, Environment Initiatives, Environment Initiatives,World Economic Forum
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Future of the Environment

Sometimes the news about our environment can feel a little monotonous. We read the same old headlines about how important the environment is, how the situation is getting worse, and how ‘we’ (whoever that is) need to do something about it.

On World Environment Day 2018, it’s time to inject some hope and inspiration into the mix. It’s time to ‘go big’ and work together to transform current thinking and operating models, especially since it’s now clear these models have not worked well enough, and have often only produced incremental change.

In that spirit, here are 6 big ideas that could create a more sustainable relationship between our economic markets, natural environment, and communities. Some are early-stage ideas being explored, and others are ready for implementation. All of them will need cooperation between technology innovators, policymakers, businesses, environmental experts, and investors and funders. If successful, we could soon be reading less depressing and monotonous headlines on future World Environment Days.

1. Micro-investment for mega infrastructure

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that to limit global warming to 2°C, renewable energy will need to provide 65% of the world’s energy in 2050, up from around 15% today. In dollar terms, this will require around $700 billion to be invested in renewable energy every year. Last year, the total invested was $279.8 billion. Unfortunately, many institutional investors find it difficult to invest in renewable energy projects as they tend to be too small. Other sources of investment may need to be found.

Global new investment in renewable energy by region, 2017 $bn Image: Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment Report 2018

In some places, local communities have banded together to build community wind farms or solar farms to supply clean energy to their local communities. Residents share the investment costs and then either share in the energy generated, or the profits, or both. However, this model is incredibly difficult to scale, because the administrative effort to track everyone’s capital investment and verify their share of proceeds makes it inefficient and costly.

Enter blockchain-enabled management of asset investment.

Like crowdfunding and distributed microfinance loans, the idea is relatively simple. It uses blockchain technology to record and verify investments in revenue-generating assets, such as new renewable energy power plants. Investors could potentially invest a few hundred or a few thousand dollars in a project anywhere in the world, knowing their capital investment is clearly recorded and verifiable, and their proceeds processed automatically.

This could open up a new class of investment assets to ordinary people. It also has the potential to reduce financial costs for project developers by spreading the risks across a larger group of investors. This would avoid the high ‘risk premiums’ sometimes applied to finance terms when only one or two large financiers are involved.

2. AI dashboard for the Earth

A real-time, open API and digital dashboard for nature could dramatically improve efforts to protect global environmental systems.

One of the current challenges to managing environmental resources, such as forests, water resources, biodiversity, air, and oceans, is that they cut across different national boundaries and industrial supply chains. What happens in one location affects conditions in another.

An AI dashboard for Earth could draw together existing data and use new processing capabilities, cloud, and AI computing resources to provide near real-time transparency of shared environmental systems at a scale not previously possible.

Developed fully, this approach could allow decision-makers to monitor, predict, and respond to changes in environmental conditions, or real-time incidents such as illegal fishing, poaching, coral bleaching, forest fires, or disease outbreaks. It could provide an irrefutable evidence base that informs policies and actions, reducing the uncertainty that often prevents effective collaborative action.

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3. Science-based targets for companies and cities

In 2015, the international community adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals to protect the planet while ensuring prosperity for all.

However, accelerating human development within a safe operating space for the planet will likely require an overhaul of how we produce and consume food, energy and materials. It may also require us to rethink the way we design and operate our cities.

These are formidable tasks and well beyond the scope or authority of any individual government or company. An alternative approach is to work from the bottom-up, mobilizing companies and governments to take individual actions that collectively build new norms and expectations.

One way to do this is to define planet-wide science-based targets (quantitative estimates of a safe operating space for human development on a stable Earth) and then to translate these into specific goals for industries, companies, countries or cities.

This model is proving successful in driving climate action, with hundreds of global companies committing to setting science-based climate targets. The approach could now be scaled across other environmental issues.

4. 'See-through' supply chains

Global supply chains are complex and opaque. It is hard for consumers (and even regulators) to see from one end to the other. This means it is difficult for a consumer to know how their consumption habits and purchasing decisions are affecting the environment, or working and living conditions, along the supply chain.

This will change rapidly.

The combination of technologies such as the Internet of Things, advanced satellites and earth observation, portable DNA barcoding, artificial intelligence and blockchain is on the verge of creating unprecedented accountability in markets.

Imagine being able to scan an RFID tag or product label with a mobile phone while doing your grocery shopping, to receive instant information confirming the product’s origin, legality, processing plant and safety.

Initial candidates are likely to include seafood, metals and minerals, cotton, and agricultural products such as palm oil, cocoa and soy.

5. A global alliance to save the oceans

You’ve probably heard the statistics: there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now twice the size of Texas; and the number of oxygen starved 'dead-zones' has quadrupled since 1950. Or maybe you’ve seen the photos of the 80 plastic bags found inside a pilot whale in Thailand.

Regardless, there is no doubting that the world’s oceans are under threat.

The oceans are a classic example of a 'global environmental common' - a shared resource that no one person or organization has exclusive rights over, but which affects us all. Until now, this lack of responsibility has created a disincentive for action, especially against a backdrop of ongoing geopolitical tension and fragmentation.

Overcoming these challenges requires a global alliance of committed and influential leaders from science, technology, business, non-governmental groups and international organizations, working together.

Admittedly, such an alliance was announced in Davos this year and is well underway. But because it’s so encouraging to see the growing global momentum for action to protect our oceans, it makes the list anyway.

6. An Earth Bank of Codes

The world is losing its biodiversity at unprecedented rates. One of the main drivers for the loss of species and their habitats is the destruction of tropical forests, which are home to more than 80% of known land-based species. The Amazon alone hosts at least 15% of the world’s land-based species.

A new project aims to build a database of biological assets about the Amazon basin using a blockchain record of the provenance, rights and obligations associated with genetic assets. When companies subsequently use these assets to create value, such as for a new antibiotic, or in an algorithm for self-driving cars, smart contracts would facilitate the fair sharing of benefits to the local community from which these assets originated. This new form of financing could then be used for the sustainable development and protection of nature.

It’s an ambitious project. But if successful, it could redefine the economic equation around nature, and provide a much greater incentive for preserving habitats and ecosystems, rather than clearfelling them in the pursuit of short-term profit.

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