Ensuring the environmental sustainability of emerging technologies

New technologies are being developed to provide various benefits to our society. While there has been some attention given to the possible adverse societal impacts of emerging technologies, for example in digitalisation, not enough attention has been paid to the long-term risks that some emerging technologies could pose to the natural environment or the climate.

Emerging technologies 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 practice. These challenges are compounded by ambiguity due to different interests and views.

Rapidly developing and implementing solutions to well-identified problems can 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.

In October 2021, IRGC convened an expert workshop, bringing together an international and interdisciplinary group to discuss concerns about the environmental sustainability of some 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 discussions focused on five distinct technology domains:

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

The goal of the workshop was to explore the possibility of developing some form of cross-sectoral guidelines (perhaps in the form of a compass to indicate the direction of environmental sustainability) to ensure:

  • that an emerging technology does not cause risks to environmental sustainability, or
  • that potential adverse effects are identified and addressed early in the development process.

A workshop report will be published in spring 2022. Deepdives into a selection of emerging technologies will then be conducted, before a policy brief provides recommendations to technology developers, policymakers, funding agencies and investors. A summary of the workshop outcome, including reasons of concern and draft recommentations, is available below.