Even if it hadn’t coincided with the commercial end of the World Cup, the United Nations Conference of the Parties on Biodiversity (aka COP15) would still have passed all but the most interested observers. But if the meeting in Montreal did not make the headlines like that of Qatar, its importance should not be underestimated.
COP15 resulted in the agreement that 30% of the planet’s surface should be placed under protection by 2030. Rich countries also agreed to spend more money on nature conservation, and subsidies harmful to the environment – totaling around half a trillion dollars – will be reformed. .
Just look at the evidence compiled by Our world in data know that biodiversity is in crisis. Countless species are threatened in many ways, the habitats they inhabit are often deteriorating in quality and dwindling in quantity.
At the same time, I am convinced that this sad state of affairs can be reversed. Having witnessed this from the start, I know that international summits are an important tool in the toolbox for solving global public goods issues. By cajoling and examining each other on the world stage, governments can and will achieve what would be impossible in isolation.
But, as I have already written on these pagespeaks can only take us so far. Rhetoric and regulation are a necessary but not sufficient condition in the fight against so many problems, including the conservation of biodiversity. An essential complement to government action will be the power of innovation – enabling us to leave a softer imprint on the natural world.
Here we can highlight a number of promising developments. Animal agriculture is a major driver of habitat destruction – including irreplaceable ancient rainforests. Vast swaths of the Amazon are being cut down to make room for livestock and to grow crops to feed them. Successfully Developing Tasty, Competitively Priced Cultured Meat – because many UK contractors are working on – will make much of “conventional” agriculture superfluous.
Again, as I have already explained on these pages, the eco-friendly food revolution is not limited to animal products. Gene editing could allow us to increase yields of all kinds of crops, leaving more room for nature and minimizing our impact on the earth by reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides. (A bill to regulate gene editing is currently pending in Parliament. Ensuring that it passes in a form that enables, rather than stifles, this miraculous technology should be paramount importance.)
Access to energy is an issue that has gained prominence this year and has an intimate impact on the environment. Of course, when we produce energy by burning fossil fuels, it causes climate change – an ever-present threat to all habitats. But there is also the question of where these fossil fuels come from. Surface coal mining, for example, scars the land on which it takes place and can pollute waterways. as the metals leached residues.
Fortunately, we are on the right track towards a cleaner energy system, but there are still many opportunities for innovation to accelerate us on this path. If advances in nuclear power – from small modular reactors to fusion-powered ones – can be commercialized, we could generate all our energy needs and more at a fraction of the footprint that today’s energy system leaves on Earth.
However, innovation is not always about making pioneering breakthroughs that disrupt industries. At a more fundamental level, innovation may simply be about becoming more resource efficient. Making products lighter, requiring fewer material inputs or making them recyclable can help. Or we could move from consuming things as goods to things as services. In my lifetime alone, I’ve gone from listening to cassettes to CD-ROMs and using Spotify. Not only has it made my music consumption much more convenient and cheaper, but it has also avoided all of the packaging involved in the physical production of that music – packaging made from materials that these days no longer have need to be extracted from the Earth.
In effect, as identified by Chris Goodall more than ten years ago, developed economies were regularly “dematerializing”. Data suggests that although our economic output has almost doubled since the turn of the millennium, we are using fewer inputs of all kinds of basic materials – from paper and water to cement and primary energy – and, in some cases, for some time. ‘Peak stuff’ is long behind us. It is this continued refinement of production processes – “more with less”, as Andrew McAfee puts it in his book of the same name – that will ensure that prosperity does not necessarily come at the expense of the planet.
Innovation alone cannot solve the biodiversity crisis that nature has been facing for decades. Strong governance will also be essential, and individual decision-making will also matter. But technological progress imagined and produced by entrepreneursshould be seen as the workhorse that provides the solutions for humanity to coexist more harmoniously with all creatures, large and small.
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