How do we get 9.7 billion people to live well and within the boundaries of the planet 30 years from now? Considering that we are at 7.8 billion people now and are already struggling on many fronts, this question should trigger some anxiety.
The current level of consumption in developed economies is made possible through the intensive use of domestic resources, plus the ongoing flow of resources from developing economies. Assuming that this level of consumption should be made available to all people on earth is an obvious impossibility, even more so with the two billion additional inhabitants forecasted by mid-century.
The transition to a sustainable world by 2050 is a task that demands bigger and more ambitious transformational thinking than we have ever exhibited before. Transforming systems globally at the scale and speed required (exponential progress) to realise sustainable development calls for unprecedented levels of action and coordination across all industries and sectors of society. John Elkington and other prominent sustainability experts concluded that “achieving exponential progress requires a scale of collective effort rarely seen outside wartime conditions”.
As one’s knowledge of sustainability grows, the realisation of how much there is still to know may be overwhelming. It is relatively straightforward to develop vertical expertise on specific issues. What is way more challenging is to create a helicopter view. As I got my teeth into some of these verticals, I began to realise that no matter where you pull the blanket towards, some parts of the body are likely to be left uncovered.
In other words, sustainability issues are heavily intertwined and cannot be tackled in isolation from one another. There is no silver bullet or overnight solution. There are holistic approaches that require consultation with many stakeholders and carefully planned transitions to allow new ways to phase in, as “business as usual” phases out.
For example, consumers’ refusal to buy products containing palm oil in Europe as a measure to induce palm oil manufacturers and supply chain actors to be more sustainable may be viewed by some as the ultimate solution to Borneo’s deforestation and orangutans’ population decline.
However, this drastic measure may trigger several serious unforeseen accessory issues. Under pressure to sell their stock, palm oil producers may turn to markets where sustainability considerations, regulations and standards are more relaxed. A decrease in sales and profit may induce producers to create further savings in production that may affect the quality of output and workers’ wages, leading to the worsening of working conditions of foreign workers in producing countries.
A product boycott in Europe may also trigger retaliatory actions in the producing countries, which could impact the imports of other products, destabilise trade practices or stop or delay free-trade-agreement negotiations. And this is to mention but a few. When planning or executing any interventions, it is important to do no harm, which involves taking a step back and looking at the broader context and mitigating potential negative effects on the social fabric, the economy and the environment.
In the context of policymaking at an international level, the blanket analogy is more pronounced. Why would the citizens of a country commit to hard climate change mitigation policies if they do not know whether other states will implement similar policies and whether they will eventually ever see the benefits of these policies at all? If a nation does not believe that justice should guide international relations, why should it not try to free-ride other nations’ hard work?
In the post-Covid 19 recovery, it is important to make sure that whatever policies and investments are made, they are equitable and conducive to the systemic transformations necessary to transition to a more sustainable world.
Key transformations include: advancement in human capacity through improvement in education and healthcare; responsible consumption and production; decarbonisation of energy; access to nutritional food and clean water for all; building smart cities; and digitalisation.
Digitalisation is an essential enabler of transformation, and it needs to be carefully driven to maximise its benefits. Digitalisation is not a blessing in itself, as it can exacerbate social divides, compound environmental risks and destabilise societies. On the other hand, digitalisation can fast-track the green economy by connecting people around the world and encouraging a culture of global cooperation.
To denote the intricate relationship between digitalisation and sustainability, the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research and Innovation Campus Bonn (ICB) have coined the noun “digitainability”. They have also set up a project that investigates possible positive and negative impacts of the rapid progress in digitalisation and artificial intelligence (AI) on sustainable development.
Digitalisation creates great social change and, as such, it has to be sustainable, fair and relevant to all people. It must work for the common good. Digitalisation will have impacts — some of them helpful, others harmful — on every sustainable development goal (SDG) of the United Nations. Integrated well, the two megatrends of digitalisation and sustainability could help positively shape the 21st century. They might create a model of human prosperity that may recouple economic growth and social progress.
The European Commission has recently reached an agreement on the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), which is the key instrument at the heart of the EU’s plan for emerging stronger from the current crisis. It will make €672.5 billion (RM3.29 trillion) in loans and grants available to support reforms and investments undertaken by member states. A minimum of 20% of expenditure on investments and reforms in each national plan should support the digital transition. The EU Commission has established that it is vital to link any financial investment in the recovery to sustainability objectives and the digital transition.
Why not go a step further? Why not drive the digital transition to boost the sustainability agenda in the pursuit of the SDGs? There are plenty of examples where digital innovation can be put to the service of projects that directly impact the SDGs.
So far, progression towards a more circular economy has been limited to innovators and early-adopter global companies as there are several hurdles to mainstream its acceptance and adoption. Some of these hurdles include the geographic distribution of supply chains, the complexity of materials and the end-of-life dismantling of products.
Digital technologies are providing companies with the opportunity to overcome such barriers. Machine learning and data analytics enable companies to match the supply and demand for underused assets and products. A real boost to a circular economy can be generated through digital matching platforms that can identify new high-value reuse options for materials or waste products across industries, using a combination of AI and human expertise.
As reported by the World Economic Forum, there is the potential to avoid an estimated 26 billion metric tons of net CO2 emissions from just three industries — electricity (15.8 billion metric tons avoided); logistics (9.9 billion) and automotive (540 million) — from 2016 to 2025.
In the energy sector, peer-to-peer (P2P) energy trading is the buying and selling of energy between two or more parties connected to a grid. Through P2P secure trading platforms, any excess energy, often in solar or wind power, can be sold to other users. In this way, energy users become prosumers — producers and consumers. Energy users without solar panels or a wind turbine can still access renewable energy from their neighbours at a reasonable price. Through P2P platforms, selling excess energy can be done at a higher price than feed-in tariffs.
What if smallholder farmers in Asia and around the world could harness the power of digital technology to access solutions that were previously within reach of only wealthy, large-scale farmers and agribusiness corporations?
Some of these solutions would be of great help. For example, a tech-enabled tractor and harvester rental service platform connecting growers with harvesting machine owners. Or an app that links farmers with agronomists who provide help to solve farming issues such as pest infestations, fertilisers and crop growth rates and offers ad-hoc advice on how to maximise farming yields. Or a service that integrates satellite data and innovative agronomic models to provide necessary information such as weather forecasts, the market prices of crops, farming tips and water risk warnings.
With today’s rapid urbanisation, cities are constantly expanding to make space for a growing number of inhabitants. It is estimated that globally, cities will add another 2.5 billion new residents by 2050. However, along with this rapid rate of
expansion, cities need to deliver facilities and infrastructure support to provide residents with a good quality of life that is both sustainable and environmentally friendly. Digital technologies can be harnessed to help cities manage their energy needs by deploying smart grids.
Increasing urbanisation, rise in pollution levels, after-purchase costs of vehicles such as insurance and maintenance, and parking issues are among the main factors that define the large growth potential of the “mobility as a service” (MaaS) market. Digital technologies can also enable this opportunity.
Through sustainability reporting, organisations report to the outside world on environmental and social performance. At the centre of report creation lies the data collection process and the management and usability of this data. Advanced digital technologies such as data mining, AI and blockchain can be applied to improve the quality and reliability of reporting and increase corporate transparency.
AI and machine learning (ML) can be formidable tools for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping society adapt to climate change. Through automatic monitoring and remote sensing, ML can provide vital information on pinpointing deforestation, on the state of buildings, or how to assess damage after disasters. ML can accelerate the process of scientific discovery (for example, by suggesting new materials for batteries, construction and carbon capture). ML can optimise systems to improve efficiency (by consolidating freight, designing carbon markets and reducing food waste). And it can accelerate computationally expensive physical simulations through hybrid modelling (for example, climate models and energy scheduling models).
Transparency is essential for good stewardship of the world’s oceans — to fight illegal fishing, protect fish stocks and livelihoods, and increase the safety and well-being of fishermen. By harnessing cutting-edge technology, mapping platform Global Fishing Watch (GFW) allows anyone to view and study global fishing activity in near real-time, for free.
GFW was founded in 2015 through a collaboration between Oceana, SkyTruth and Google. Countries like Indonesia, Peru, Chile, Panama and Costa Rica publicly share their vessel data in the platform and help create a more complete and connected picture of global fishing activity. Law-abiding fishermen are tracked easily and openly, demonstrating their compliance.
In the Covid-19 era, connectivity is necessary as most human activities — commerce, education, healthcare, politics and socialising — seem to have moved online. However, the digital world presents many challenges for human rights and democratic governance. State and non-state actors in many countries are now exploiting opportunities created by the pandemic to shape online narratives, censor critical speech and build new technological systems of social control. Digitalisation and AI can monitor social media to spot patterns and motives related to the spread of fake news. Harnessing the power of such tools and channelling it in the right direction is paramount.
Digital technologies can significantly affect the achievement of the SDGs by both facilitating and impeding progress. The net effect will depend on policy decisions taken at national and international levels. Developing economies can create policies that encourage digital innovation in sustainability to offer a plausible integration with the SDGs. This approach can create a competitive advantage that will be spendable in the transition to a greener economy.
Roberto Benetello is the executive director of the Business Council for Sustainable Development Malaysia, a global network partner of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. He led the EU-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry for almost four years.
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