What role can technology play in protecting humanity and safeguarding the future of the planet? In the context of an increasingly polarized public debate about climate change, these crucial issues are often misconstrued as being black and white.
The conversation then becomes a simple back and forth between two diametrically opposed camps — the techno-optimists who believe that technology holds all the answers, and the techno-pessimists who favour a low-tech future and an end to growth.
I think it’s time to take another look at some of the more common arguments in this debate, which sometimes overlook the role of human creativity in environmental protection.
First, some people argue that technology cannot save the climate because it is precisely technology that got us into this rocky situation in the first place.
The post-war period is engraved in our collective memory as a time of blind faith in technical progress, with all its promise of prosperity and social advancement and the hope of a brighter future.
Today, we have a much more critical view of these years of growth and optimism, holding them responsible for creating an unsustainable, productivist society.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” said Albert Einstein. So common sense should tell us to reject the technological utopia that some observers see as the root of all evil in the world.
But this simplistic view overlooks one fundamentally important fact: technology is merely a tool that does what we want it to do.
After the Second World War, all our efforts were focused on creating material wealth and embracing the return of abundance after years of painful privation. This was the path taken by all the major nations of the world, followed by their companies, universities, research institutes, and so on.
Today, we are asking something quite different of our engineers and researchers. Technology has taken a new direction and is increasingly expected to be a driving force behind ecological transition.
Look at satellite technologies, for example: without them we would never have been able to understand or monitor climate phenomena in as much detail as we can today.
Look at the vast creative potential that researchers are unleashing in the search to make the world more sustainable. This is the case for two major pillars of the ecological transition that will be needed in the short and medium term, namely electrification (batteries, electric vehicles, solar energy, etc.) and optimised energy consumption (artificial intelligence and big data, recycling, eco-design, etc.).
But more broadly, what we are witnessing today is an upsurge of sustainable innovation in a huge number of areas: the quest for new energy sources (low-carbon hydrogen, osmotic power, bioluminescence, marine energy, etc.), the transformation of agriculture (drones, low-nitrogen fertilisers, cultured meat, etc.), carbon capture and sequestration, and so on.
Technological innovation today should not be confused with what it was yesterday, simply because it is not trying to solve the same problems.
The second argument commonly advanced by the techno-pessimists is that time is running out and the technologies that could be useful are not yet mature.
It is true that many promising solutions — carbon capture and even hydrogen, for example — are still at the development stage. But there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these technologies. There is simply a lack of political will. What the world needs today is massive government support for sustainable innovation so that these technologies can be developed at full scale more quickly.
This is what is happening today with electric vehicles, which are already more cost efficient than diesel or petrol cars, and will soon be cheaper to buy as well.
When that happens, the tide will turn and electric vehicles will have a huge impact on the CO2 emissions of the transport sector. They do raise environmental issues, but that is another debate.
We need to act now to ensure that other appropriate technologies follow suit. It is encouraging to see world leaders signing up to the COP26 Breakthrough Agenda, which aims to make sustainable solutions more affordable and accessible than their conventional counterparts.
There’s no doubt we still have a long way to go, but the technologies are already there. We are not waiting for a miracle to happen — we just need to accelerate the development process.
People also say that relying on technology to make the transition will consume vast quantities of energy and natural resources. Indeed it may seem contradictory to start a process of decarbonisation by building new infrastructure on a massive scale.
From this point of view as well, the task ahead is colossal, in particular because electricity currently only accounts for 20% of the energy consumed by end-users worldwide. Increasing this proportion would require an enormous amount of production capacity
This may sound counter-intuitive. But it’s important to weigh the costs against the benefits at the right scale.
Let’s take one example from Thales’s aerospace business. We have designed a new system that connects the aircraft’s flight management systems more closely with the air traffic management infrastructure. The new solution will inevitably require more energy, but our engineers believe it can reduce overall fuel consumption by at least 10% by 2023. That’s a savings of more than 100 million tonnes of CO2 by 2040, and highly beneficial for the carbon footprint of the air transport sector as a whole.
What works on a small scale will also work on a global scale. To see how useful a technology can be, you need to look at the big picture, not just the short-term effects.
Lastly, people also say that counting on technology is too risky, and that it’s a safer bet to reduce our consumption straight away by adopting radically different, more frugal lifestyles.
Here again, it is not for me to judge which policies would be best, and there is probably a lot to be said for living more frugally. But for two main reasons, I do think we need to be wary of Malthusian reactions which could lead to drastic solutions.
First, the economy cannot be treated in isolation: it is only part of the equation. If we stop growth, we erode our capacity to invest in research and development, which means we could never hope to develop low-carbon technologies.
Ending growth would be just as risky as counting solely on low-carbon technologies to save the world. Because economic prosperity is not just a question of material comfort —for millions of people in poorer countries, it’s a question of survival.
Second, the difficulty of reaching an international consensus on climate action makes radical frugality on a global scale an [even more] illusory goal. Trying to follow that path would waste precious time in the race to adopt more moderate, more realistic solutions.
When Thales started to disclose its carbon footprint just over 15 years ago, we set a precedent in our sector which has become standard practice today. At that time, environmental performance had very little to do with the company’s attractiveness and reputation.
Today, young people quite simply refuse to work for a company that doesn’t share their values, and investors are more and more attentive to the extra-financial performance of the businesses they invest in.
Thanks to the work of the IPCC and others, the facts are now established, information is widely available and ecological awareness is making real progress. Today it’s time to act.
And that means we need to be rational, inventive and above all pragmatic — three qualities that are in no short supply in the scientific and engineering community. We would be well advised to give them pride of place as we step up to the biggest challenge of the 21st century.