Ensuring the environmental sustainability of emerging technologies

New technologies are being developed to provide various benefits to our society. However, while some attention has been given to the possible adverse societal impacts of emerging technologies such as in digitalisation, there is relatively lower attention to the long-term risks that some emerging technologies could pose to the natural environment or the climate. The rapid development and implementation of solutions to well-identified problems may lead to the pursuit and promotion of technologies without an appropriate impact assessment and due consideration of possible undesirable side effects. The ‘rush for solutions’ to immediate problems may overlook countervailing risks to environmental sustainability.

Phase 1

In October 2021, IRGC convened an international and interdisciplinary group of experts to discuss concerns about the environmental sustainability of emerging technologies, and the extent to which these concerns are considered during the technology design and development stages, and in guidance from public policy. The workshop discussed these concerns, reviewed various response strategies and formulated some generic recommendations across technology domains:

  • chemicals (advanced materials and smart nanomaterials)
  • synthetic biology (gene editing and gene drives)
  • digital technologies (machine learning, cloud computing and blockchain),
  • carbon dioxide removal and sequestration, and
  • space technologies.

Emerging technologies in these domains pose unique challenges to risk assessors and managers because there is a general lack of tools and data to evaluate their potential adverse impacts on the environment, and often pervasive uncertainty on how they will be deployed in the real world. Early-stage technology assessment and prospective life cycle assessment are not common practices. These challenges are compounded by ambiguity due to different interests and views.

Based on the workshop discussions, IRGC published in March 2022 a report describing the current attitude towards these issues, and instruments available or considered to reach the goal of environmental sustainability. In addition, it suggests ways to address ex-ante environmental risks that might manifest only after design choices for a technology are already made. The report and the executive summary are available below.

Phase 2

In 2022 IRGC continues to explore the possibility of developing some form of guidance to ensure that applications of an emerging technology do not contribute to deteriorating environmental sustainability and that potential adverse effects can be identified and addressed early in the development process.

For this purpose, we are developing deep dives into certain emerging technologies and case studies about specific instruments and approaches to identify and address potential adverse consequences on the environment early in the design process. The list currently includes (other cases will be added later):

  • Learning from past examples: Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), biofuels, neonicotinoids (Rainer Sachs)
  • Gene drives as a promising emerging technology with uncertain impact in the open environment (Jennifer Kuzma, North Carolina University)
  • Smart nanomaterials: safety and sustainability by design (Xenia Trier and Steffen Hanssen, EEA)
  • Emerging technologies application using bio-based residues: prospective LCAs (Christian Moretti, ETH Zurich)
  • Electric batteries for energy storage and mobility: sustainable and circular business models (Andrea Vezzini and Priscilla Caliandro, BFH)
  • Space technologies (Romain Buchs, ClearSpace)
  • Carbon removal and sequestration (CDR) (Benjamin Sovacool and Chad Baum)
  • Cultured meat (Christian Schwab, EPFL)
  • Practical solutions for ex-ante LCA of emerging PV technologies (Stefano Cucurachi, Leiden University)
  • The role of liability regimes in managing the risks and benefits of emerging technologies (Lucas Bergkamp, Interlex)
  • Applying IRGC guidelines for the governance of emerging and systemic risks (Rainer Sachs)

Learning from these case studies will help us understand the extent to which concerns about potential risks to environmental sustainability are or could be taken into account earlier, with specific approaches or dedicated instruments. The purpose is to refine the development of possible response strategies that could guide technology developers, research funders, financial investors, grant-making organisations, policymakers, regulators and the industry.