Technology is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, relate to one another and to the external world. The speed, breadth and depth of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent and is disrupting almost every sector in every country. Now more than ever, the advent of new technology has the potential to transform environmental protection.
The hunt for new smarter ways to support our development has always been a key driver of technological advancement. Today as our civilisation faces a new unprecedented challenge, technology can play a crucial role in decoupling development and environmental degradation.
Let’s be clear. No human technology can fully replace ‘nature’s technology’ perfected over hundreds of millions of years in delivering key services to sustain life on Earth. A productive, diverse natural world, and a stable climate have been the foundation of the success of our civilization, and will continue to be so in future. A fundamental issue in previous technological revolutions has been the lightness with which we have taken for granted healthy natural systems like forests, oceans, river basins (all underpinned and maintained by biodiversity) rather than valuing these as a necessary condition to development.
We consume more natural resources than the planet can regenerate
On 1 August, the world hit Earth Overshoot Day, the point in our calendars when we tip into consuming more natural resources than the planet can regenerate in a year.
Global Footprint Network, an international non-profit that calculates how we are managing ― or failing to manage ― the world’s resources, says that in the first seven months of 2018 we devoured a year’s worth of resources, such as water, to produce everything from the food on our plates to the clothes we’re wearing – a new unwanted record.
At present, we are using resources and ecosystem services as though we had 1.7 Earths and such an ecological overshoot is possible only for a limited time before ecosystems begin to degrade and, ultimately, collapse.
As global biodiversity continues to decline steeply, the health and functioning of crucial ecosystems like forests, the ocean, rivers and wetlands will be affected. Coupled with climate change impacts which are evident in warnings from scientists and the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events worldwide; this is going to be disastrous for the ecological balance of the planet and for our survival. Earth Overshoot Day is a stark reminder of the urgent actions individuals, countries and the global community must take to protect forests, oceans, wildlife and freshwater resources and help achieve resilience and sustainable development for all.
We have a critical window of opportunity between now and 2020 to put in place commitments and actions to reverse the trend of nature loss by 2030 and help ensure the health and well-being of people and our planet.
This is not just doom and gloom, the risk is real
The failing of natural systems is not without consequences for us.
Every day new evidence of our unsustainable impact on the environment is emerging. The last five years have been the warmest five-year period on record, the Arctic warmed much faster than predicted and the UN estimates that in the last 10 years, climate-related disasters have caused $1.4 trillion worth of damage worldwide.
In just over 40 years, the world has witnessed 60% decline in wildlife across land, sea and freshwater and is heading towards a shocking decline of two-thirds by 2020 if current trends continue. This has happened in less than a generation. A blink of the eye, compared to the hundreds of millions of years some of these species have lived on our planet.
Forests are under pressure like never before with unabated deforestation and at sea, 90% of the world’s fish stocks are overfished. All indicators point toward our planet being on the brink.
Why does this matter? It matters because we will not build a stable, prosperous and equitable future on a depleted planet.
The ‘battle of technologies’
It is time to focus on the solutions which we know exist or have the potential to be developed and this is where technology, along with behavioural change, can help us reboot the health of our nature and planet.
From the high seas to the depths of the world’s most dense forests, technology can transform how we identify, measure, track and value the many services and resources nature provides us with.
Blockchain to revolutionize the commodity markets
Earlier this year, WWF in Australia, Fiji and New Zealand joined forces to stamp out illegal fishing and slave labour in the tuna fishing industry using blockchain technology. “From bait to plate”, the advances in blockchain technology can help consumers track the entire journey of their tuna – and potentially other agricultural commodities and fish – revolutionizing systems of certification and traceability. We can also use satellite data and cost-effective GPS tracking devices to ‘see’ and understand global fishing and global vessel traffic.
Remote sensing in planning and monitoring
On land as well, remote sensing plays an important role in planning, monitoring, and evaluating impact on the ground. It has enabled WWF to monitor the developments of extractive industries in socially and ecologically-sensitive areas, including World Heritage sites.
We’re also partnering with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and UCLA to develop an algorithm that enables the detection of deforestation from palm oil expansion using remote sensing data, and we’re exploring the potential to expand this technology to other commodities.
Drones and crowdsourcing help monitor forest health and detect illegal logging
Protecting the world’s forests means ensuring land—in the right places—is protected or restored as well as healthy, providing people and wildlife what they need to survive, like clean air and water, food and jobs. And that’s where drones come in to play, acting as our eyes on the forest. And it’s not just WWF that is using this technology.
WRI (World Research Institute) has developed Global Forest Watch (GFW), an online forest monitoring and alert system that uses crowdsourcing, to allow anyone to create custom maps, analyse forest trends, subscribe to alerts, or download data for their local area or the entire world.
Thermal imaging to combat poaching
Every night, park rangers patrol the pitch-black savanna of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. They search for armed poachers who spill across the border from Tanzania to hunt for bush meat and ivory. For years the number of poachers overwhelmed the relatively small cadre of rangers. Technology is now helping to turn the tide. Thermal imaging video cameras enable rangers to catch poachers at record rates and deter many more from even making the attempt.
Beyond direct interventions to stop poaching, WWF also uses technology to go after wildlife traffickers. To that end, we’re working with a coalition of leading e-commerce and social media giants in the US and China to root out the sale of illicit wildlife products on their platforms.
AI to track wildlife
It is hard to think of technology and nature together but even advances like Artificial Intelligence (AI) that could not be further removed from the natural world are helping conservation efforts.
In China, WWF and tech giant Intel are harnessing the power of AI to help protect wild tigers and their habitats, while also protecting countless other species as a result while helping carbon storage, vital watersheds and communities in the area.
An engaged public is critical
As we engage new partners and pursue novel applications of technology, we believe an informed and engaged public is critical to this work and we are constantly looking to make people aware of the challenges facing our planet and what we’re doing to solve them. In 2016, we partnered with Apple to create an Apps for Earth campaign that raised $8 million and educated millions of people around the world about core conservation issues. More recently, we leveraged Apple’s augmented reality tools to launch the “WWF Free Rivers” app that invites people to experience the importance of free-flowing rivers for nature and for humans, and demonstrates how ill-conceived economic development endangers them both.
The possibilities for technology partnerships to reboot nature are endless. Our challenge now is to scale this work beyond a few test sites and into all of the places we are working to protect the planet. More than technology, we need a fundamental shift in mindset and understanding of the role that nature and biodiversity plans in our lives and businesses.
If we continue to produce, consume and power our lives the way we do right now, forests, oceans and weather systems will be overwhelmed and collapse. Unsustainable agriculture, fisheries, infrastructure projects, mining and energy are leading to unprecedented biodiversity loss and habitat degradation, over-exploitation, pollution and climate change.
While their impacts are increasingly evident in the natural world, the consequences on people are real too. From food and water scarcity to the quality of the air we breathe, the evidence has never been clearer. We are however, in many instances, failing to make the link. Alongside the technological revolution, what we need is an equally unprecedented cultural revolution in the way we connect with the planet.
This article is part of the World Economic Forum’s Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth series, which explores how innovative technologies are beginning to transform the way we manage natural resources and address climate change and other environmental challenges caused by industrialization.