Technology Tipping Point that Could Save the Planet within Humanity's Grasp

19 Sep 2017

Fon Mathuros, Head of Media, Public Engagement, World Economic Forum, Tel.: +41 (0)79 201 0211;

· A new World Economic Forum initiative aims to harness game-changing innovations and technologies to transform how environmental issues are tackled.

· It comes in response to warnings from scientists that human activity has pushed the Earth beyond four of nine “planetary boundaries”, meaning the planet could cease to be a “safe operating space” for humans.

· Technology holds great potential to unlock new solutions but also poses new risks to the environment, people and societies.

· The initiative was announced at the Forum’s first Sustainable Development Impact Summit. Follow the conversation using #wefimpact and for more information

New York City, USA, 19 September 2017 – A new initiative to identify, fund and scale new ventures that harness technologies that could transform how the world tackles environmental issues was launched today at the World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit.

The 4IR for the Earth initiative – in partnership with Stanford University and PwC and with funding from the Mava Foundation – will bring together technology entrepreneurs, environmental experts, policymakers and industry to identify and scale innovative new ventures, partnerships and finance and policy instruments that harness Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) innovations to tackle environmental challenges.

This includes identifying the investment opportunities for commercial, impact and blended finance; supporting governments to develop policies; and assisting entrepreneurs to implement innovative solutions at scale.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution provides an opportunity to fix the world’s burgeoning environmental challenges – but they need to be tackled by design,” said Dominic Waughray, Head of Public-Private Partnerships and Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum.

“It is possible that a tipping point of widespread innovation to tackle some of the Earth’s most urgent challenges is within humanity’s grasp. There is great potential – and increasing interest – in exploring how innovations could also be applied to improve our environmental and natural resource security, including through technology and system innovations that we might not yet be able to even imagine.”

The announcement follows warnings from scientists that human activity has pushed the Earth beyond four of nine “planetary boundaries”. At the rate things are going, the Earth in the coming decades could cease to be a “safe operating space” for human beings, according to researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Center trying to gauge the breaking points in the natural world.

It also comes as technology companies are under increasing scrutiny and a realization that some advances could also have unintended negative consequences for the environment and society. These include e-waste and unsustainable demand for materials like cobalt, nickel and lithium, through to biotech and the potential for autonomous AI-powered drone fishing fleets to rapidly deplete global fishing stocks beyond recovery.

For the Fourth Industrial Revolution to be the first sustainable industrial revolution, the right enabling environment – including safeguards, investment, partnerships, policies and oversight – needs to be put in place.

The 4IR for the Earth initiative will support public and private stakeholders to build this through:

- Insight papers to highlight specific opportunities for applying 4IR innovations to environmental solutions in climate change, oceans, biodiversity, the sustainability of cities, air pollution, food systems, water resources and sanitation.

- New networks of practitioners to co-design and innovate for action on the environment in each of these areas, leveraging the latest the 4IR has to offer.

- Developing a public-private accelerator for action, enabling government, foundational, research organization and commercial funds to be pooled and deployed into scaling innovative 4IR solutions for the environment.

- Helping government stakeholders develop and trial the requisite policy protocols that will help 4IR solutions for the planet to take root and scale.

Despite the fact that humanity has already pushed the planet to its limits, a growing population means that more people than ever will demand secure supplies of food, energy and transportation.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global demand for food will increase 60% between 2006 to 2050; while the International Energy Agency says energy consumption will increase by at least 48% between 2012 to 2040. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s International Transport Forum forecasts there will be 2.5 billion cars on the road by 2050, up from just over 1 billion today.

Innovative approaches will be required to meet these demands in a sustainable manner.

The World Economic Forum is convening its first Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York on 18-19 September 2017. The Summit is dedicated to accelerating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the Paris Climate Agreement through public-private cooperation and the application of technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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All opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Economic Forum Blog is an independent and neutral platform dedicated to generating debate around the key topics that shape global, regional and industry agendas.