How technology can help forge a sustainable future

A new way to fight climate change, such as trapping excess carbon pollution that's already warming the Earth, and lock it away, is being tested in Japan. (Reuters/Aaron Sheldrick)
Short Url
Updated 17 December 2019

How technology can help forge a sustainable future

  • Move away from 'throw-away' society towards 'circular economy' seen as essential
  • The latest 'exponential technologies' could be harnessed to solve Africa's challenges

DUBAI: Urgent steps must be taken if the fight to curb climate change is to have any chance of success, according to growing global scientific consensus.

Climate scientists say the situation has become untenable because current global carbon emissions — estimated to be 45 percent above pre-industrial levels — exceed the amount that nature can cope with.

Earlier this month, 11,000 scientists in 153 countries declared in a letter a climate emergency and warned that “untold human suffering” was unavoidable without huge shifts in human lifestyles.

“Clearly and unequivocally the planet is facing a climate emergency,” the scientists said, adding that they have a moral obligation to “clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat” and “tell it like it is.”

The letter, which was published in the journal BioScience, focused on six main objectives: Replacing fossil fuels, cutting pollutants such as methane and soot, restoring and protecting ecosystems, eating less meat, converting the economy to one that is carbon-free, and stabilizing population growth.


  • Artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality.
  • Data science, digital biology and biotech.
  • Medicine, nanotech and digital fabrication.
  • Networks and computing systems.
  • Robotics and autonomous vehicles.

The major transformations required — how global society functions and interacts with nature — were among issues addressed by a conference on technology held recently in Dubai.

Participating in a session entitled “Technology for Impact” at the EmTech MENA conference, scholars and lawmakers said only sustainability, collaboration and innovation can help ensure a smoother transition into the future.

“To be able to survive using the current resources, we would need 1.7 planet Earths,” said Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al-Nahyan, founder and CEO of Alliances for Global Sustainability.

“If we add a growing population to that equation, we end up with an unimaginable scenario. The truth is harsh, but the situation might not be hopeless if we all contribute to halting climate change.”

Curbing the consumption patterns of our purchasing power will prove paramount in that shift, Sheikha Shamma said.

In her view, what is needed is a move away from a “throwaway society,” which is strongly influenced by consumerism, and an embrace of a “circular economy,” an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources.

 “Today, 143 million people are at risk of becoming climate migrants,” she said, appealing for greater understanding and empathy. “For them, redefining borders could be vital for their survival.”

Climate change is believed to a key driver of migration in Africa. Experts think the continent’s development challenges — running the gamut from farming and health care to water management and supporting small businesses — are almost all related to sustainability.

According to research by the European Council on Foreign Relations, Africa is highly dependent on natural resources and agriculture, which are the first assets to be undermined by climate change.

It has poor climate-resilient infrastructure, such as flood defenses. Africa countries are often characterized by weak institutions, which are less able to adapt to climate change. Finally, Africa’s high poverty rate undermines the resilience of local populations to massive changes in society.

“Our role is to think about how ‘exponential technologies’ can be harnessed to solve Africa’s issues,” said Solomon Assefa, vice president of Africa and emerging market solutions at IBM Research, referring to technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics.

“We hired a lot of scientists and engineers from around the world in African labs to think about these problems and we found that we focused on sustainability because it is a global problem today.”

Speaking at the EmTech MENA conference, Assefa said that, on the one hand, Africa is paying a high price for unsustainable development: 8 to 10 million people are dying annually from air pollution, species loss is expected to cross the 1 million mark in the next 10 years and large parts of the continent are water insecure.

On the other hand, Assefa said, artificial intelligence, blockchain, quantum computing and the “Internet of Things” could turn out to be the technologies that can help the continent address each problem.

He added that by 2050, a number of innovations is expected to emerge from Africa in areas such as agriculture, water management, new types of fertilizers and food security.

“We’re realizing when we’re solving these problems that we’re getting a lot of interesting scientific insights,” Assefa said, adding that “the scientific discoveries could have a significant impact later on.”

Incidentally, the group of scientists warning of a “climate emergency” said that despite the gloomy outlook there is room for optimism.

On the downside, they pointed out some negative trends such as rising meat consumption, more air travel, accelerating rates of deforestation and an increase in global carbon dioxide emissions. But on the bright side, they said: “We are encouraged by a recent surge of concern. Governmental bodies are making climate emergency declarations. Schoolchildren are striking.

“Ecocide lawsuits are proceeding in the courts. Grassroots citizen movements are demanding change, and many countries, states and provinces, cities and businesses are responding.”

One of the ways in which businesses are responding to the challenge of climate change is through technological innovation.

Carbon capture and storage — the process of capturing wasteful carbon dioxide from its source and depositing it where it will not enter the atmosphere — has been described as a promising solution, with the latest technologies able to capture up to 30 percent of carbon dioxide and 75 percent of hydrogen sulfide.

There has also been a commitment by the global aviation industry — which is believed to produce up to 2 percent of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions — to halving its 2005 emission levels by 2050.

Pledges have also been made by numerous companies to reduce their carbon footprint through such steps as purchasing new electric vehicles, investing in reforestation projects, and setting a target of 100 percent renewable energy use.

As Sheikha Shamma told the EmTech MENA conference, “the changes we need to make are often viewed in terms of cost, burden, blame and disaster rather than opportunity, intervention, partnership and collaboration.

“Dealing with climate change will affect all of us, forcing us to think beyond our borders because nature has no borders.”

Sanders attacked for past praise of communist regimes

Updated 7 min 57 sec ago

Sanders attacked for past praise of communist regimes

  • Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg all seized on visits Sanders made to the USSR, the Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1980s
  • Joe Biden: He (Sanders) seems to have found more inspiration in the Soviets, Sandinistas, Chavistas, and Castro than in America

WASHINGTON: Bernie Sanders’ past praise of communist regimes like Cuba and the Soviet Union has come back to haunt him, his rivals for the Democratic White House nomination seeking to paint the frontrunner as a friend of left-wing dictators.
Fellow Democratic hopefuls Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg all seized on visits Sanders made to the USSR, the Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1980s as evidence he is a threat to the US democratic and capitalist system.
Sanders, who describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” was pressed on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program on Sunday about positive comments he made three decades ago about communist states, particularly his statement that Castro had vastly improved education and health care in Cuba.
“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” the 78-year-old politician said.
“When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?“
Biden, who Sanders has edged out as the 2020 Democratic frontrunner, fired back:
“Make no mistake: Bernie Sanders’ comments on Fidel Castro are a part of a larger pattern throughout his life to embrace autocratic leaders and governments across the globe,” the centrist former vice president said in a statement.
“He seems to have found more inspiration in the Soviets, Sandinistas, Chavistas, and Castro than in America.”
Buttigieg compared Sanders to President Donald Trump who he said has “cozied up to dictators,” adding the country needs a leader “who will be extremely clear in standing against regimes that violate human rights abroad.”
With Sanders in pole position heading into South Carolina’s primary this weekend, the controversy offers his rivals a precious chance to halt his momentum when they clash on the debate stage later on Tuesday.
Sanders’ alignment with the far left in US politics has always left him vulnerable to attack; Trump and other Republicans have branded him a “communist.”
But his Cuba comments have come to the forefront in the fight for voter support in Florida, home to a large Cuban-American population strongly opposed to Castro’s regime and holding substantial political sway in the southern state.
Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, targeted that electorate as he tweeted that Castro “left a dark legacy of forced labor camps, religious repression, widespread poverty, firing squads, and the murder of thousands of his own people.”
“But sure, Bernie, let’s talk about his literacy program,” Bloomberg said.
Sanders’ denies any support for dictators. Critics say his record suggests otherwise.
As mayor of the small city of Burlington, Vermont, he visited Nicaragua in 1985 and afterward hailed Daniel Ortega’s revolution against the Central American country’s landowner elite.
That was a view commonly held among the American left, especially as the administration of Ronald Reagan supported the right-wing Nicaraguan Contra fighters accused of numerous terror-like atrocities.
In 1988 Sanders visited Russia seeking to establish a sister-city pact with Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow.
It was hardly unique: there were several dozen US-USSR sister city relationships at the time, according to Sister Cities International.
Upon his return, Sanders applauded Russian gains in health care, while adding they were 10 years behind the United States.
He said his hosts were friendly and spoke honestly about problems, especially in housing and struggling industries.
He offered no praise of the government and communist system, and noted Russians very much liked Reagan, who had just days earlier held a summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which Sanders called “a major step forward for humanity.”
Likewise after visiting Cuba in 1989, Sanders praised its achievements in education and health care, calling Castro’s revolution “profound,” but also noting the lack of political freedoms.
“The question is how you bring both economic and political freedom together in one society,” he said at the time, according to the Rutland Daily Herald.
Sanders’ position echoes that of president Barack Obama, who reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, with Biden as his vice president.
Obama said on a landmark 2016 Havana visit that the government “should be congratulated” for its achievements in education and health care — while criticizing its human rights violations and communist-rooted economy which he said was “not working.”
Sanders told “60 Minutes” that his support for certain achievements in communist countries did not make him a friend of repressive leaders.
“I don’t trade love letters with a murdering dictator,” he said, referring to Trump’s friendship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Whether that carries with Cuban voters in Florida remains an open question.