Technologizing Our Way out – Hi Tech for Nature?

Part 1 of 2


Have you googled global warming recently? Most probably the first hit would have been the Wikipedia entry explaining global warming as ‘the rise in the average temperature of Earth’s atmosphere since the late 19th century and its projected continuation, caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities’. Ironically this Google search will have had a carbon footprint on its own of about 7g of CO2 – around as much as running a lamp for an hour – thus indirectly fueling global warming. In 2010 Google’s annual emissions amounted stunning 1.5 Million tons CO2 equivalent. If you find this fact interesting enough, why not share it with your friends on Facebook? With 285,000 tons in 2011, the company emits just as much CO2 as Laos.


Rain from the digital cloud

You see where this is going? The internet quietly speeds up global climatic change, already accounting for 1% of all the CO2 emissions released from burning fossil fuels. This is as much as an entire medium sized industrialized nation, and by 2050 it will be more than the whole airline industry emits. Especially data centers use lots of electricity, both for powering the machines they contain and – all importantly – for the air conditioning needed to keep the servers from overheating. Just how hot it can get without this vast amount of power Facebook experienced in 2011, when their air conditioning in a data center failed. Rising temperature and humidity let a cloud form in the building, raining down on the computers.

This actual cloud illustrates how the digital cloud, as a prevailing modern technology makes up the same proportion of emissions as printing and paper-based publishing, the very technology it set out to replace to begin with. Add to it  the skyrocketing need for chips, boards and plastic casings –a major new source of electronic waste, releasing toxic chemicals in both assembly and disposal. It is not without reason that the soils of Silicon Valley are among the most polluted in the US.

In a nutshell, the digital era may be no less energy-hungry or environmentally friendly than the paper-based world of 20 years ago.

Hi Tech – A Knight in Shining Armor?

This is an inconveniently timed fact, considering that we do not get a grip on greenhouse gas emissions, which are likely to increase at least until 2030, bursting the arguably safe threshold of two- degree warming. Humanity is now the major force altering the planetary environment with symptoms such as the climate disaster or the current mass extinction of species but also peak oil, the already passed highpoint of oil exploitation.

Southeast Asia knows this all too well: Climate change loads the dices for ever more frequent and severe storms, formerly wet areas become dryer by the minute, up to 90 percent of the countries’ diverse coral reefs are at peril, pristine tropical forest is in steep decline, staggering oil prices slow the economic growth.

Every so often the response to these challenges sounds like out of a science fiction strip: No matter what we do, technology will fix it – while fueling the economy. There is an increasing reliance on technology to alleviate environmental problems, and a growing expectation about it being the ultimate panacea, put forward by so called ecological modernization. Do the modernists’ arguments have legs of steel, one might ask, as environmental problems continue to persist, or spread, despite the continued use of technology.

It is time to assert whether technology is apt to do away with our problems or simply reduce or shift them; whether there are ultimate limits high tech cannot overcome; and whether technology might even cause new harms. In the author Douglas Adam’s words: ‘The idea that Bill Gates has appeared like a knight in shining armor to lead all customers out of a mire of technological chaos neatly ignores the fact that it was he who, led them into it in the first place.’

This two part article will look into different technological solutions to resource depletion, climate change, pollution and threats to biodiversity – from geo-engineering to renewable energies – in order to answer: Can we technologize our way out?

Saving the World on a Shoe String

First of all, what is technology? In a narrow sense it encompasses all kind of tools such as machines or hardware, but also techniques or know-how, which simplify a matter. Need to open a can? This seems tricky with your bare hands. To simplify it, a can opener is the technology to choose and the application of the opener the technique to use.

Not only humans use technology. An adult female gorilla in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, northern Congo, uses a branch as a walking stick to gauge the water's depth. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Not only humans use technology. An adult female gorilla in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, northern Congo, uses a branch as a walking stick to gauge the water’s depth. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Instead of smashing the can on your kitchen table for hours – with some un-called for results, such as baked beans all over the place – the can opener does the trick in seconds. What an increase in efficiency. With less input (fewer minutes spent) a better result can be achieved (beans on the plate instead of spread over the table).

By the same token, as the reasoning of ecological modernists goes, technology increases resource efficiency. This means a frugal use of our scarce resources, such as goods and services from biodiverse ecosystems, less pollution, less climate change, while maintaining economic growth. Economic growth, our current civilization is all too dependent on.

Such efficiency would of course not come for free, but 1-2% of the global GDP invested in ‘Green Technology’ would be enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60%by 2050. That’s saving the world on a shoe string! A carbon tax of, say 100 $ per ton of CO2 emitted, would set the right incentive. Done! Just ask China. According to the World Bank, the Chinese economy’s carbon intensity has dropped by almost 70% over 30 years. Whether it is really just as easy as the Middle Kingdom might suggest, we shall see after drilling down on some green technology options at hand.

Sunscreen for the Planet

The first option assumes that now there appears to be little chance of avoiding at least 2°C of warming over pre-industrial levels. It is generally acknowledged that failing the two degree aim, the planet could become hostile to important ecosystems like the coral reefs, so crucial especially to the livelihoods and well-being of millions of Southeast Asians. Moreover, beyond two degrees the warming might get out of control, due to positive feedback loops. For instance melting snow and ice ceases to reflect sunlight, resulting in further warming. At some point we may have to try to engineer our way out of trouble.

Such engineering of Earth and its climate is known as geo-engineering. Geo-engineers can either apply sunscreen or tip some iron into the sea. Sounds odd? Let’s have a closer glance:

The problem at hand is the fabulous fusion reactor in the sky, also known as sun, sending us its rays which penetrate the Earth’s surface and escape back to space. Luckily there is a warming blanket around the planet, also known as greenhouse gases, reflecting some of the escaping rays back to the otherwise frosty planet. But now humans started to render this blanket ever more cosy and thick by adding more greenhouse gases, like CO2.

Geo-engineers can now either apply some sun-screen around the Earth to prevent sun’s warming rays from reaching Earth in the first place, or take away some of the blanket’s layers. The former sounds awfully science fiction like and includes millions of little mirrors in space or adding sun-blocking, and very poisonous, sulphuric substances to the atmosphere. The latter appears more inviting: The excessively warming CO2-layers in the atmosphere can be easily removed. How?

Away with the Warming Blanket

One example of CO2 removal is indeed tipping iron in the sea: Tiny floating algae called phytoplankton pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. When they die, the plankton sinks to the seabed, taking the carbon with them. Over thousands of years, this strips CO2 from the air, lowering temperatures. But many ocean regions are short of iron, which plankton needs to grow, so the process does not occur. Adding iron should stimulate plankton growth in these areas. Sounds too good to be true? It probably is. At best it might soak up a tenth of emissions, and the effects of doing it on a large scale are not known. What a conundrum: The deployment of geo-engineering techniques, if feasible and effective, could reduce the magnitude of climate change and its impacts on biodiversity. At the same time, most geo-engineering techniques are likely to have unintended impacts on marine biodiversity, particularly when deployed at a climatically-significant scale, together with significant risks and uncertainties. Uncertainties include trans-boundary effects, and resulting geopolitical tensions about risks and benefits. The atmosphere simply does not stop at countries’ borders, making a prior international agreement indispensable.

Even if such agreement can be reached, the sun-screen option seems more hazardous, since it leaves the root problem of climate change unsolved and would be hard to stop once started. On the other hand, CO2 sinks to thin the warming blanket deserve a chance, especially ecosystem-based approaches. Mimicking Mother Nature’s climate change mitigation practices might be most apt. This does not even need to involve complicated and potentially dangerous iron-fertilization and the like – it can be as simple as planting a tree. Or rather some million trees – or even better, not cutting them in the first place.

Cutting trees brings us to a further green technology, which will be explored in next weekend’s Biodiversity Sunday. Also find out, who can eat 365 times more grain than the average person, how the ASEAN can become the energy heart of Asia, and whether we can really technologize our way out.

Read more in part 2

First Published  BusinessMirror 2013-09-07