Our planet is in distress. With our economies, health and quality of life endangered by climate change, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and pollution caused by human activities1. Can technology help? From ever-rising CO2 emissions to growing populations that threaten our planet’s natural resources, the environmental pressures are numerous and complex, a consequence of economic growth, industrialization and a growing human population.
Human economic activity is the main environmental impactor, but the planet’s industries could also provide its salvation through technical innovations to understand, preserve, restore and enhance our natural ecosystems. We have gathered these technologies under the umbrella of engineering natural ecosystems.The current cost of the increasing climate crisis
During the period 1998–2017, direct economic losses from disasters were estimated at almost USD 3 trillion, of which climate-related disasters accounted for 77% of the total, a rise of 151% compared to the period 1978–1997, and with climate-related and geophysical disasters claiming an estimated 1.3 million lives2.
Degradation of our ecosystems hinders the delivery of essential functions such as drinking water, pollination, food, and climate regulation, as well as cultural amenities including the aesthetics of our landscapes. These services have a global economic value of USD 125 trillion per year3. A loss of ecosystem services poses serious risks from both a societal and an economic standpoint and limits the socio-economic development.
At the same time, increased action to tackle climate change is predicted to create business opportunities, with one estimate indicating financial benefits of USD 26 trillion to 20304.Future factors in technology uptake
Governance: The increasing regularity of climate catastrophes will continue to motivate society to prevent global warming and ecosystem deterioration, and to achieve sustainable development goals.
Innovation: Technology advances in new materials, processes and designs are supported by mission-oriented policies aiming to meet the SDGs, while providing a competitive advantage for eco-savvy firms. Investor appetite for sustainable solutions is also growing.
Flow of information: Digital technologies support transparency on environmental impact data, drive corporate accountability, and enable responsible consumption.
Cultural and regulatory hurdles: Social ignorance and regulatory barriers are hampering the introduction of technologies to engineer natural ecosystems. These include a lack of valuation of the tangible benefits provided by a healthy environment and a lack of political will to implement sufficient incentives, such as robust carbon pricing. Consequently, business as usual continues.Impact on society
New business opportunities will arise thanks to technical developments within engineering ecosystems, and the uptake of these technologies can benefit both people and the planet. Engineering ecosystem technologies can be more effective and less costly than business-as-usual-technologies, and have important co-benefits for biodiversity and human health.
On the down side, engineering natural ecosystems can have unpredictable and fatal consequences in the absence of stringent risk assessments, inclusion of diverse stakeholder perspectives, and the precautionary principle. A focus on engineering solutions to environmental issues can also divert our attention away from solving the root-cause of the problem.
- IPBES (2019) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
- UN ECOSOC (2019) Sustainable Development Goals Report. Op.cit.
- WWF (2018) Living Planet Report 2018: Aiming higher. World Wildlife Fund.
- Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (2018) The New Climate Economy.