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.
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 help reach the goal of environmental sustainability. The report 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.
In 2022, IRGC invited authors to produce papers about specific emerging technologies, where concerns of environmental sustainability may manifest when those technologies reach deployment, and instruments or approaches to identify and address potential adverse consequences on the environment early in the design process.
A compilation of all papers (edited volume) is available for download in PDF format here, and each individual paper can be downloaded separately below.
- Introduction. Common themes (Marie-Valentine Florin)
- Learning from the past. Risk governance of emerging technologies: Learning from the past (Rainer Sachs)
- Gene drives. Gene drives: Environmental impacts, sustainability, and governance (Jennifer Kuzma, North Carolina State University)
- Chemicals. Smart materials and safe and sustainable-by-design — a feasibility and policy analysis (Steffen F. Hansen and Freja Paulsen, Danish Technical University, and Xenia Trier, University of Copenhagen)
- Using bio-based residues. Ensuring the environmental sustainability of emerging technologies applications using bio-based residues (Christian Moretti, ETH Zurich)
- Electric batteries. Lithium-ion batteries for energy and mobility: Ensuring the environmental sustainability of current plans (Andrea Vezzini and Priscilla Caliandro, Bern University of Applied Sciences)
- Space technologies. Ensuring the environmental sustainability of emerging space technologies (Romain Buchs, ClearSpace)
- Carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Ensuring the environmental sustainability of emerging technologies for carbon dioxide removal (Benjamin Sovacool and Chad M. Baum, Aarhus University)
- Cultured meat. Is cultured meat environmentally sustainable?(Christian Schwab and Marine Boursier, EPFL)
- Ex-ante life cycle assessment. Practical solutions for ex-ante LCA illustrated by emerging PV technologies (Stefano Cucurachi and Carlos Felipe Blanco, Leiden University)
- Anticipatory life cycle assessment. Anticipatory life cycle assessment for environmental innovation (Thomas P. Seager, Arizona State University)
- Liability systems. Liability’s role in managing potential risks of environmental impacts of emerging technologies (Lucas Bergkamp, Interlex)
- IRGC’s guidelines. Ensuring environmental sustainability of emerging technologies — the case for applying the IRGC emerging and systemic risk governance guidelines (Rainer Sachs)
Learning from these case studies helps 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.
In 2023, IRGC produced a guidance document consisting of specific recommendations targeting lawmakers and regulators, technology developers, research funding organisations, technology investors, industry and standard setting organisations. Each set of recommendations aims to ensure that respective actors do not create or aggravate threats to environmental sustainability or contribute to avoiding or mitigating the risks.