Can green technology defeat climate change?

Sustainability researcher Maja Göpel: We have to measure economic growth differently

Modern technology, from solar systems to electric cars, play a key role in defeating climate change. At the same time, digitalization continues to increase our hunger for energy and resources, as the rapidly growing power hunger of data centers makes clear. Are technical progress and digitization a miracle cure for climate change or do they even help to accelerate the catastrophe?

Maja Göpel provides answers to this question about the future. The economist is the Secretary General of the German Advisory Council on Global Change and co-founder of the Scientists for Future initiative. At our “That’s Internet Policy!” Conference on September 13th in Berlin, she will speak on the subject of “Game over? Why we have to think about sustainability and digitization together ”. As a foretaste, we conducted an interview with the sustainability researcher. You last said in an interview with t3n magazine that CO₂ emissions are closely linked to economic growth. One could say that the more economic growth, the worse it is for the climate. At the same time, the switch to environmentally friendly technologies, such as electricity generation through renewable energies, again requires major investments and incentives.

From your point of view, is there a contradiction between the goal of converting quickly to renewable energies and at the same time not increasing global warming in the medium term? In short: can we outgrow climate change? Or should we accept economic slowdowns in order to meet climate targets?

Göpel: It is very important in this question that we take the definition of growth seriously. What can no longer grow, or must decline, is the extent of environmental consumption and pollution caused by the type of economy. This includes excessive CO₂ emissions, which in this case can be viewed as overexploitation of the atmosphere, but also the preservation of fertile soils, biodiversity and intact water cycles.

When it comes to sustainable management, we are talking about a far-reaching structural change for which there should be sensible goals and indicators. In public discourse, when it comes to growth, everyone always thinks of the gross domestic product. First of all, this only shows that more money has gone over the table than in the previous year.

This indicator does not care whether this is due to positive developments or clean-up work after a natural disaster. It is therefore time to grasp and measure the fundamentals of human well-being more explicitly and to set framework conditions, incentives and investments in such a way that solutions with significantly lower environmental consumption can be invented and disseminated. Whether the GDP then continues to grow or shrink should not be the goal, but the empirical result of this future-oriented budgeting. Ever since the ban on conventional light bulbs ten years ago, the idea has spread that replacing dirty technologies with clean ones is a means of reducing emissions. In the current election campaign in Austria, the FPÖ is now proposing that owners of old, polluting cars should financially support the purchase of cleaner vehicles.

In your opinion, how sensible is it to promote the switch to electromobility through public investments?

Göpel: The idea is much older and is discussed under the term decoupling: Make more with less, i.e. build and heat more from the same number of steel or coal - and thus reduce the relative pollution per service unit or product.

This efficiency strategy is very useful, but not sufficient. Because the production of many new vehicles also requires a lot of new energy and new materials - in the case of electric cars, some rare earths too.

In science, we therefore do life cycle analyzes that show when it is worthwhile in the overall balance to replace a car, refrigerator or other device with new one. Because the old ones don't magically disappear from the ground and the recycling rates are still far below potential.

Driving less, sharing cars, rethinking mobility beyond motorized individual transport - all of this has to be included in the equation. Otherwise it looks more like a green-painted sales subsidy for a weakening industry. In Silicon Valley there is a mentality of making possible, technology should solve problems and make the flight to Mars just as tangible as high-speed transport through underground car tunnels or even immortality. But the big technology companies like Google or Amazon have so far contributed little to solutions for climate change, wrote a columnist for the Financial Times recently.

While they fund a lot of experimental projects, little money from the tech giants goes into developing clean technology. What can the big tech companies do to fight climate change? Or are we at the right address with them?

Göpel: The big tech companies could do a lot to help. We have just written a report on this. But they don't do it as long as the markets remain blind, so to speak, without sufficient pricing of environmental consumption.

Innovations are thus primarily driven by short-term financial gains and high purchasing power. In terms of profits, however, payments for environmental consumption or social security for all employees usually have a negative effect. And more convenience and automation for wealthy, but time-poor people creates more energy consumption. And so the machine of producing and consuming is turning faster and faster. Political framework conditions have to be changed, markets and corporations alone cannot do that. But these framework conditions do not fall from the sky. Corporate Political Responsibility would be the catchphrase here.

The complete program of our conference can be found here.

Tickets are still available in advance.

About the author

Alexander Fanta

As the Brussels correspondent of, Alexander reports on the digital policy of the European Union. He writes about new laws and does investigative research on large technology companies and their lobbying. He is co-author of the study "Medienmäzen Google" on the group's journalism funding. In 2017 Alexander was a fellow at the Reuters Institute for Journalism Research at Oxford University, where he researched automation in journalism. Before that he was a foreign policy journalist for the Austrian news agency APA. E-mail:[email protected] (PGP). Twitter:@FantaAlexx. WhatsApp / Threema: +32483248596.
Published 09/03/2019 at 11:55 am