Blaming Technology won’t save us!
Libertas article by Margaux Carron, Oriol Marín Subirà and Pascal Buehrig
“Technology won’t save us!” – a widespread mantra among many activists and politicians in Europe since climate change has become the ultimate priority on the agenda. But beware! The legitimate concerns behind this claim might lead to awful conclusions. We need a veritable revolution to avert a climate catastrophe. And at the core of each revolution, reconciling the imaginable with the doable, stood: technology. If we want, we can build with it an economy that deserves its name.
When Greta Thunberg held her speech at COP24 in Katowice, a star and a whole new global movement were born. Especially one sentence marked the political punchline for the new climate sentiment that arrived in the spotlight: “And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.” The applause this speech has earned from much of the public showed that they are no longer turned off by the seeming incompetence of political leadership, but rather their corrupted thinking which puts “economy over environment” and “profit over people”.
“It’s NOT the economy, stupid!”
What do they mean in real terms though? Bloomberg summarized the emerging conflict between the political elite and Thunberg’s following as ideological divide with environmental advocates, who don’t put much stock in the inevitability of technological progress and would rather support fail-safe curbs on consumption now. A view they know rooted in scientists’ statements as well. “The belief that new technologies […] will ‘save’ us from climate change is counterproductive and enabling delay”, as a media outlet concluded from a recent paper by researchers at Lancaster University.
So far, so agreeable – we cannot just fine-tune our industrial system to better cars and higher efficiency, daydreaming we could spare any sacrifice. But does that really mean we must take a u-turn from a balanced market economy to a new extreme of statism? This would mean governments should command us to sacrifice wealth by reverting global trade, force ordinary people into a mobility lockdown and outright technologies that don’t fit into political agenda. The long-yearned “crisis mode”! After all, the mere possibility of extinction would justify the means of any good-hearted authoritarian, wouldn’t it?
Shaming the present or shaping the future? Let’s learn from the past!
As liberals, we (should) hear many of our most traditional ideas echo in the calls of climate activists. Before green parties came into existence, liberal programs like the ones in Germany demanded to hold business and consumers accountable through the polluter-pays principle. This is because we believed and still believe that human freedom yields the best results for society – if flanked by transparency and liability! Moreover, this is where we significantly disagree with many of their voices. Yes, sacrifice as giving up decade-old habits and paying upfront for a safer future is inevitable. But we know and we have seen that trumping collective fears about the future with shaming mankind for their reluctance does not work. Instead, we want to show people that there is legitimate hope and that radical change will hold new unimagined opportunities. To this end, new technologies are absolutely key!
In the history of humanity, the great global changes have been made through the interaction of different events and conditions that at some point in time influenced a radical switch. A radical change that would replace the way in which humans relate to each other and to the world in which they live. Historians have given those switches the name of “revolutions”, of which the four most important being the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Demographic Revolution and the Information Revolution. Initial conditions and outcomes of these revolutions differ from one to another. However, there is a common key factor of essential necessity : the presence of new technology and its application in human activities.
The application of this said ‘technological innovation’ is a key factor in the process. Indeed, the introduction of the steam engine as a new technology would have been useless if the energy it produced wouldn’t benefit the machines it helped to power. This does not only include research and the development of new products or services but our adoption of them through markets, and therefore in day-to-day society.
Looking at the bright side is not wishful thinking but a strategic choice!
To this day, these technological innovations have influenced human activities on a global scale. Activities through which individuals, cities, regions, countries and unions create and share wealth – much beyond the economic dimension! There is, however, a deep downside to it: rising pollution, emissions and, as a fairly certain consequence, climate change. We could halter, as supported by some activists, human activities. Stalling in the process the related pollution and emissions. Without even going into the state-centered and repressive policies, let alone the time that this would require to change society’s habits (if ever possible), there is an inevitable drawback to this approach: the expected increase in population of 7.7 billion to almost 10 billion people alive in 2050. Even if the activity per individual could decrease, the increase in individuals would foil the progress.
There is however, another option: attending to the technological innovations. In essence, using technology to revert climate impact and turning today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities. This revolution, as all others before, holds the prospect of a win-win scenario. Not only can we continue the generation of wealth, it can mean a new source of wealth. A more responsible and sustainable wealth produced through the manufacturing and the implementation of new technologies and the creation of new business models which use those technologies. Technology could empower us to an endless range of possible solutions if we look for them in the right mindset – and if we reflect such a mindset in the rules we set.
Take for example the carbon capture technology by which mankind can filter out CO2 from emitting industrial processes or even directly from the atmosphere. For years, the technology did not take off from the ground although the science behind made constant progress. There are several reasons for that. Business has mostly seen it as an expensive abatement tool, while politicians considered it a dishonest way to climate neutrality. As a result, we have been relying on a narrow set of acceptable ways to cut emissions or store them in nature. What if, however, we could soon utilize captured CO2 in order to replace common construction materials and even fossil fuels with synthetic replicas? Just the onset of such opportunities can guide us all in a promising direction needed for this revolutionary change. For example, if we stop hesitating in putting a price on emissions by some and design a transparent system rewarding others for reducing or undoing pollution.
Carrots taste better than sticks
As liberals, we feel committed to governments offering the “carrot” instead of the “stick”. To make the transition appealing to both producers and consumers, excitement for reward must trump fears of punishment! The Carbon Farming Act in New York is a great example of a ‘carrot’ policy. Rather than punishing farmers through emission penalties, this bill grants them tax credits for growing and preserving a higher “carbon sink” capacity on their land. This will not only encourage these practices to thrive, it will also allow people to view the change as positive. If governments turn to whipping with the “stick” though, transition will face greater aversion to change. Indeed, as witnessed through the “Gilets jaunes” movement, ‘stick’ policies can quickly backfire on the process of change. Individuals will associate the change to the negative effects it can impose, instead of shedding light on the opportunities it can bring. Hence, the first way would prove a lot more effective and ironically more sustainable.
In fact, sharing the “carrot meal” has already paid off. One decade ago, the UK was powered 40% by coal. In 2019, that number dropped to 2% giving way to a nation powered 44% by renewable energy. A key success factor was the signing of the Offshore Wind Sector Deal. This deal brought developers, suppliers and the financial sector alike together to invest in the innovative technology. Today, renewables feed into the grid before gas or coal. Last year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced that solar energy made it to the cheapest source of electricity in history.
This ecosystem can change the face of existing industries, place them into the frames of an enhanced carbon cycle or create entirely new ones. Opportunities could be endless if we decide to make the prospect of opportunities our guiding principle. Technology won’t bring us there by saving us the long and hard walk. But just as during all of the way behind us, it will turn out to be our walking staff to whatever destination we end up.
Authors from the LYMEC Working Group on Climate change and environment:
– Margaux Carron is Swiss and member of the Green’Liberal Party since 2011. After being elected as Town Counciler for the town of Nyon, she took up various roles in the party and is today International Officer to LYMEC for the Young Green’Liberals Switzerland.
– Oriol Marín i Subirà is 25 years old, he has been a member of JNC since 2014. He holds a BA in International Business and he is currently living in the Northern Coast of Barcelona. His areas of interest are climate change, minorities and the defense of the freedom of speech.
– Pascal Buehrig is a financial economist by education. As an investment consulting, he helps pension funds and endowments strengthen their bargaining position. His deep-felt concerns centers around every possibility to address social issues by reshaping markets, including economic inequality, capital market regulation, fighting climate change or providing affordable housing. Besides LYMEC, he writes as a blogger on a variety of other platforms, and participate in policy papers within the German Liberals as well as the nonpartisan think tanks.