IRGC project: environmental sustainability of emerging technologies

Photo from Unsplash by Matthew Brindle.

Photo from Unsplash by Matthew Brindle.

The International Risk Governance Center (IRGC) is conducting project work to look into ways to ensure the environmental sustainability of emerging technology outcomes (ESET). The objective is to develop guidance for those who develop technologies that might indirectly have an adverse impact on the environment, and those who fund, incentivise, deploy or regulate such technologies.

There is currently significant interest in technical innovations developed to remediate environmental and climate challenges, which could play an essential role in supporting a more circular and decarbonised economy. Carbon dioxide removal and sequestration is an example. However, it is essential to ensure at an early stage of development that these technologies effectively bring more benefits than risks, and that trade-offs are identified and minimised, to guide research, investment and technology deployment towards a sustainable economy.

Unfortunately, many emerging technologies could have an indirect adverse impact on the environment. Advanced chemicals to improve the performance of chemical industry products, computing for artificial intelligence or gene editing to remedy targeted harm to health or the environment are examples. Risks to the environment may be slow and unexpected, and thus it could take a long time before they are noticed and before action is taken to control them. It may even simply be too late, as some effects on the environment could be irreversible, or vested interests could block the reversal of decisions and investments.

The project explores ways to develop life cycle assessments (LCA) that anticipate possible future applications of a new technology, with approaches to model processes that will be at an industrial scale in a future time. Environmental impacts must be assessed prospectively under different technological and socio-economic scenarios. This type of LCAs could become essential decision support for policymakers and investors. On the governance side, the project explores, for example, the role of private standards and liability regimes for incentivising ex-ante the consideration of possible risks to environmental sustainability.

In March 2022, IRGC published a report based on a workshop organised in October 2021 to discuss concerns about the environmental sustainability of various emerging technologies and the extent to which those concerns are considered by those who develop, fund or deploy these technologies.

IRGC is developing deep dives into certain emerging technologies and case studies about specific instruments and approaches to identify and address potential adverse consequences on the environment early in the design process. The list currently includes (other cases will be added later):

  • Learning from past examples: Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), biofuels, neonicotinoids (Rainer Sachs)
  • Gene drives as a promising emerging technology with uncertain impact in the open environment (Jennifer Kuzma, North Carolina University)
  • Smart nanomaterials: safety and sustainability by design (Xenia Trier and Steffen Hanssen, EEA)
  • Emerging technologies application using bio-based residues: prospective LCAs (Christian Moretti, ETH Zurich)
  • Electric batteries for energy storage and mobility: sustainable and circular business models (Andrea Vezzini and Priscilla Caliandro, BFH)
  • Space technologies (Romain Buchs, ClearSpace)
  • Cultured meat (Christian Schwab, EPFL)
  • Practical solutions for ex-ante LCA of emerging PV technologies (Stefano Cucurachi, Leiden University)
  • The role of liability regimes in managing the risks and benefits of emerging technologies (Lucas Bergkamp, Interlex)
  • Applying IRGC guidelines for the governance of emerging and systemic risks (Rainer Sachs)

Learning from these case studies will help us understand the extent to which concerns about potential risks to environmental sustainability are or could be taken into account earlier, with specific approaches or dedicated instruments. The purpose is to refine the development of possible response strategies that could guide technology developers, research funders, financial investors, grant-making organisations, policymakers, regulators and the industry.

Read the workshop report.