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'Digital disruption' a game-changer for climate: Future Earth report

March 02, 2020

Youth on the streets are calling for "systems change, not climate change." And, according to a new report by Future Earth, the digital transformations unfolding today could help answer this call.

Historically, the report says, climate and digital agendas have been approached as two independent issues but increasingly are recognized as intertwined. Humans are connected to each other through and dependent on both the digital and the natural worlds.

Global systemic risks are likely to emerge from both these worlds if we fail to act urgently and continue on our current trajectory.

Yet within this link lies an opportunity to re-shape our everyday interactions with each other and the natural world, the way we conduct business, and how we govern our society, to meet the climate crisis.

The report, Digital Disruptions for Sustainability (D^2S, available post-embargo at, explores these interconnected agendas and highlights research, innovation, and actions needed to drive societal transformations in support of a more sustainable and equitable world. This report was developed over a year-long collaborative process with input from more than 250 sustainability and digital experts worldwide from academia, business, and civil society.

"Climate strategies tend to focus on targeting investments on emission reductions by sector," says Amy Luers, Executive Director of Future Earth and the project's leader.

"This sector-based work is critical, of course, but insufficient to meet our climate goals. This is because while research indicates that deep decarbonization is technically possible, we have not yet figured out how to steer society onto a deep decarbonization path. More research and innovation on this issue are urgently needed."

"This is the focus of the D^2S Agenda. It approaches climate as a social challenge. Rather than focus on the high carbon-emitting sectors, the Agenda focuses on the rules, norms, power structures, and mindsets underpinning all sectors and constraining climate actions."

It explores the opportunities and challenges of leveraging new capabilities of the digital age to break these constraints and drive rapid and unprecedented societal transformations needed to achieve the Paris Agreement climate goals.

Examples include leveraging the digital age to decentralize power from the top and empower more stakeholders, to shift social norms of consumption toward low carbon products, and to reshape society's mindset from more efficient fossil fuel use to shifting off them.

"The initial promise of the digital revolution was democratized information, more accountable governments through broader citizen participation, and the growth of a more equitable and greener economy," says Dr. Luers. "Yet many of these aspirations have not been realized, because society failed to anticipate how the digital revolution would unfold. As a result, today the digital world threatens individual rights, human dignity, social justice, the future of democracy, and environmental sustainability."

According to the D^2S Agenda, it is not too late to change course.

Artificial intelligence, coupled with a broader range of digital tools, still have the potential to change for the better our economic systems, our governance systems, and even our cognitive systems - in short, to achieve the systems change that young protesters are demanding. But it will take a conscious collective effort to make that happen.

As Dirk Messner, President of the German Environment Agency, and a collaborator on the project, comments in the report, "We will only achieve our sustainability goals if digitalization is consciously geared towards them."

The D^2S Agenda outlines a framework for this collective work.

It centers around steering the effect of four "digital disruptors" that are altering fundamentally the power, rules, and mindsets of society today.

The 4 "Digital Disruptors"

Unprecedented Transparency: Satellites and other remote sensors in cell phones and elsewhere are making transparency the norm and privacy harder to protect.

Mass Collaboration: The social web and the rapid spread of mobile devices are giving rise to new ways to collaborate around the world.

Intelligent Systems: Big data, machine learning capabilities, and cloud computing have enabled smart systems that combine human and machine intelligence.

Mixed Reality: Virtual and augmented reality are merging the physical and virtual worlds, shifting how we engage with each other and the environment.

Four digital disruptors are already driving transformations in our social and economic systems. Now, scientists, tech innovators, policy and business leaders, and citizens must collaborate consciously to steer these disruptions to drive transformations to a sustainable, climate-safe, and equitable world.

While these digital disruptors are already driving societal transformations at an unprecedented scale and pace, they are not on track to build a climate safe and equitable world. The D^2S Agenda outlines an initial set of research, innovation, and action priorities to make that shift, summarized below (high-res here).

This work will require collaboration across disciplines and sectors, including efforts from the private sector to build these partnerships.

For example, says Lucas Joppa, the Chief Environment Officer at Microsoft, and an advisor on the D^2S Agenda: "By accelerating investment and deployment of AI solutions, we have the potential not only to mitigate climate-related risk for our businesses, but to fundamentally transform how we manage Earth's natural resources for a more prosperous and climate-stable future."

While the private sector is a critical part of the solution, the D^2S Agenda highlights that success depends on involving all sectors of society, including the most marginalized, in digital transformations to achieve climate solutions.

As Leena Srivastava, Deputy Director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and a co-chair of Future Earth Advisory Committee, writes, "Sustainability calls for digital empowerment of the poor; not digital empowerment for the poor."

As a result tackling the climate crisis and working towards a just and equitable digital future are inherently interconnected agendas.

The D^2S Agenda is part of a new initiative - Sustainability in the Digital Age - which seeks to support and strengthen the growing diversity of actors engaging with the interconnected digital and sustainability agendas, a critical step in driving changes we need and to build a more sustainable and equitable world.

The framework of the D^2S Agenda is sketched out in an animated video here:

Advisors / collaborators reflect on the D^2S Agenda

"Data is not the new oil - it's the new plutonium. Amazingly powerful, dangerous when it spreads, difficult to clean up and with serious consequences when improperly used. Data governance is therefore more urgent as a policy challenge than climate change because abuse of data compromises the very democratic processes on which we rely to intelligently and effectively address challenges like climate change. The Digital Disruptions for Sustainability Agenda provides a helpful framework for understanding the powerful connection between the data governance and the climate agendas, and highlights important work needed to move forward on both."

Jim Balsilie
Canadian Council of Innovators; member, Future Earth Advisory Committee

"Climate change is humanity's biggest crisis. A critical obstacle to addressing this crisis is that, despite the growing intensity of extreme weather events, to many people climate impacts still often seem distant and abstract. Machine Learning and interactive technologies could help make climate risks more concrete and more personal. Our hope is that these technologies will enable the scaling of more targeted and personalized public engagement strategies that could ultimately strengthen collective action."

Yoshua Bengio
A.M. Turing Award Winner, 2018; MILA; University of Montreal

"Many are optimistic about the role of unprecedented levels of transparency in securing more accountable and effective global sustainability governance. Yet, research suggests that transparency may not be all that it promises to be. For example, transparency is often assumed to be essential to trust, however, the opposite might well hold: there might need to be trust first, in order to have meaningful transparency. And thus it is critical to research not only the design of transparency systems, but also the normative and political contexts within which such systems are deployed, as these shape whether and under what conditions transparency may realize its transformative potential in global sustainability governance."

Aarti Gupta
Professor, Wageningen University

"Digital technologies are enabling unprecedented transparency of lifecycle impact data of raw materials, products, and supply chains and present new platforms to channel consumer behavior into market signals to activate demand for sustainable products. In order to steer towards this opportunity, it is imperative to advance dialogues around the role of government and other actors in the digital economy."

Tom Hassenboehler
Partner, The Coefficient Group; Executive Director and Founder, EC-MAP

"As we work to implement decarbonization strategies, we are proactively working with partners to leverage the power of data and artificial intelligence to be part of the broader solution of building a climate-safe world."

Ravi Jain
VP Search Science and AI, Amazon

"At ClimateWorks, we've been exploring how alternative futures might impact climate strategies. One critical disruptive force is the digital revolution, which is creating new challenges but may also offer huge opportunities to drive systems change and accelerate climate action. The D^2S Agenda sets out a valuable framework for leveraging the digital revolution to achieve positive change."

Charlotte Pera
President and CEO, ClimateWorks Foundation

"We need to focus on harnessing the potential of the digital sector for global public benefit. This will require public-private partnerships to both support the development of public benefit data and services, and to build the institutional and regulatory context needed to steer the digital transformations underway to both empower business and support the wellbeing of people and the planet."

Asun Lera St. Clair
Senior Principal Scientist, DNV GL; member, Future Earth Advisory Committee
Future Earth

Future Earth is an international research organization, collaborating with science and society on solutions to global sustainability challenges. It encompasses nearly 30 research-to-action networks, groups of scientists and practitioners around the world, studying the environmental and human aspects of global change. We help incorporate the latest scientific knowledge into decision-making, with a mission to accelerate transformations to sustainability through research and innovation.

Future Earth is governed by the International Science Council (ISC), the Belmont Forum of funding agencies, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations University (UNU), the World Meteorological Organization, and the Science and Technology in Society (STS) forum.

Future Earth

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